By Nancy Novak

Heatwaves, power outages, extreme cold, and drought – you need to look no further than the day’s headlines to realize our climate is changing and there is an urgent need to do better by the environment. The construction industry has a huge role to play.

Buildings and construction, as an industry sector, reached an all-time high for emissions in 2019, due in large part to operations versus construction. Nevertheless, the sector accounted for 38 percent of CO2 emissions in 2019, according to a report from the United Nations Environment Program. 

More specific to construction, the EPA has studied and quantified the scope of the construction waste problem. In its most recent report, the EPA found 600 million tons of construction and demolition (C&D) debris were generated in the United States in 2018. That’s more than twice the volume of municipal waste generated by homes and businesses.  

Not surprisingly, the vast majority of that waste comes from demolition. Just over 455 million tons of C&D debris – mostly aggregate – were directed to next use. That’s the good news. But around 145 million tons were sent to landfills.

Practices that support sustainability

The construction industry is making moves in the right direction with the following trends. These practices minimize waste, production of virgin content, and consumption of energy.

Adaptive reuse: Retrofits, or adaptive reuse, is gaining popularity. For some, the driver is purely aesthetic. Developers are putting interesting buildings back in service. From a sustainably perspective, adaptive reuse minimizes the manufacturing of new materials. In addition to saving on the cost of materials, local governments often incentivize re-use and repurposing of old buildings, and adaptive reuse can qualify for grants and other special funds so there are strong incentives for businesses that can make use of old buildings. Finally, old buildings are often constructed with higher-quality materials such as stone and masonry that is highly climate responsive. New buildings can cost much more to achieve similar efficiency. 

The data center industry has supported reuse of buildings, adapting otherwise unusable, expansive, abandoned land and structures like malls, prisons, and power plants. Data centers are in high demand and have increasingly large footprints in an era where land in reasonable proximity to business districts isn’t easy to come by. There are some very practical benefits to adapting existing structures, and an important opportunity to keep huge volumes of building materials out of landfills.

Modularity: The expansion of modular methods of construction creates efficiency and minimizes waste. Prefabrication offsite and advanced work packaging onsite means parts are built in an assembly-line fashion, to exact specifications, with virtually no waste. The predictability and replicability of building parts in a manufacturing-type facility leads to specialized tools, parts, processes, and people to oversee it all who know exactly how best to create their particular pieces of the puzzle efficiently. Quality assurance and controls are stringently applied in the manufacturing setting which are precursors to continuous improvement so quality is on an ever-upward trajectory and waste is virtually eliminated. 

Streamlined scheduling: An industrialized approach to scheduling means fewer crews working fewer shifts, driving trucks, and operating heavy machinery. A carefully crafted and proven delivery sequence allows for precise planning and organized subcomponents to be installed, resulting in schedule certainty and minimal construction waste. This practice was put into play on Compass Datacenter projects this year and, in addition to meeting the initial and primary goal of efficiency, has delivered immeasurable safety benefits. 

Onsite recycling: Compass requires its contractors to use separate dumpsters for recycling and waste. We strive for minimum waste to landfills; no more than 10 percent. This applies to both green and brownfield sites. We also process fill materials onsite, using demo debris and rock from over-excavation. 

Long-game approach to zero waste

Going forward, architects and engineers should design buildings with adaptation in mind. Planning for disassembly and reuse to reduce waste and keep the building and the component parts in service, minimizes energy consumption and waste down the line. This practice stands to virtually minimize, if not eliminate, the need for building removal. It also allows materials to be easily and cost-effectively taken apart and directed to a future application.  

The EPA offers the following strategies for designing for adaptability, disassembly and reuse, including:

  • Developing an adaptation or disassembly plan with complete information including built drawings, materials, component mapping, structural properties, repair access, and contact information.
  • Using simple open-span structural systems and standard size, modular building components and assemblies.
  • Using durable materials that are worth recovering for reuse and/or recycling.
  • Minimizing the use of different types of materials and making connections visible and accessible.
  • Using mechanical fasteners such as bolts, screws, and nails instead of sealants and adhesives.
  • Planning for the movement and safety of workers to allow for safe building adaptation, repair and disassembly.

The shift toward a circular economy – promoting the elimination of waste and the continual, safe use of resources – is critical to forging a more sustainable future. Adapting old structures for current needs, leaning into efficiency gains from modular components and streamlined schedules, and recycling are important steps in the right direction that our industry can continue to embrace and expand. Being mindful of circularity and building for the long-term is our big opportunity to be forward looking and lead as an industry toward a more sustainable future. 

Nancy Novak brings extensive expertise in oversight and responsibility for Profit and Loss. In her current role as Chief Innovation Officer for Compass Datacenters, her focus is cutting edge technology, lean practices, and innovative culture through diversity of thought to add value, improve return on investment, and disrupt the construction industry. She is heavily involved in organizations that lead the way for technological advancement in the construction industry, and she is an advocate for women’s leadership. Nancy currently serves as the Board of Director Vice Chair on the National Institute of Building Sciences BIM Council, as well as Executive Sponsor for the Digital Divide on the iMasons Advisory Board. She is also the host of the “Breaking Glass” podcast, which features Nancy’s dynamic conversations with prominent women in the technology industry – a forum where these accomplished women offer insights, advice and inspiration that listeners can apply to their own professional lives.