Home > Industry News

Sustainability, Profitability and the Legacy We Leave

Sustainability, Profitability and the Legacy We Leave

By Dietmar Grimm

We as an industry are at a critical point in history — and the stakes are higher than ever. It is not enough to just do our jobs; we must pay attention to how we impact our planet, manage every resource, and consider our legacy for future generations. 

We’ve all seen the statistics. The construction ecosystem is directly or indirectly responsible for almost 40 percent of global CO2 emissions from fuel combustion and 25 percent of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions overall, many hundreds of million tons of waste, and 14.5 percent of particulate matter in big cities, according to the McKinsey report Call for Action: Seizing the Decarbonization Opportunity in Construction. Further, buildings themselves contribute about 37 percent of global carbon emissions. 

The world is watching how industries work and demanding we find a better, more sustainable way. For some, the term sustainable may seem like a catchword for all things environmental, but it’s so much more. EPA provides the simplest definition of the term: Sustainability isn’t part of our work – it’s a guiding influence for all of our work. 

In the engineering and construction space, sustainability must be a purposeful investment in process improvement for the betterment of communities, the planet, and operational success. In many cases, sustainability will directly influence future profitability given the emerging policy and programmatic shifts. 

Reducing emissions, minimizing waste and building systems that support a ‘cleaner’ ecosystem must be part of our mission statements moving forward. We can no longer depend on processes that were built for yesterday’s challenges. There is too much “work” in the way we work — and not enough collaboration, precision and speed. The good news is that we have the tools, the technology and the pioneering spirit to facilitate our industry’s sustainability journey. 

The Carbon Countdown

Considering construction’s substantial contribution to carbon emissions, it’s no surprise that many equate sustainability with carbon reduction, which is also highly incentivized by current and emerging federal and state regulations and funding for buildings and infrastructure.

As one example, in November 2022, the Biden Administration proposed the Federal Supplier Climate Risks and Resilience Proposed Rule, which requires major federal contractors to publicly disclose their greenhouse gas emissions and climate-related financial risks, as well as set science-based emissions reduction targets. As well, Executive Order 14057 states that all new construction and major modernization projects larger than 25,000 square feet entering the planning stage will be designed, constructed, and operated to be net-zero emissions by 2030, and where feasible, net-zero water and waste. Further, it states that major federal contractors will publicly report their annual corporate-level GHG emissions and set targets to reduce them and disclose climate risks and vulnerabilities that may affect their future economic stability or their ability to deliver goods and services that are critical to federal agency missions. 

The federal government believes that these requirements will improve the resilience of federal supply chains to increasing climate risks, strengthen the competitive position of American companies, and help to reduce contract costs through increased efficiency. And remember, where the federal government leads, private enterprises are likely to follow, implementing similar requirements.

Foundational solutions such as 3D modeling software, common data environments, and project management systems form the necessary digital construct for effective data connections. The next level centralized data solutions such as building information modeling, extended reality technology, machine control systems, fleet and equipment management systems and building performance analysis and environmental modeling software then provide additional data and the analytics to drive better decisions. And like any process improvement, measuring improvement is essential to advancement. 

For instance, consider machine control. Logic says that automation improves productivity, which should reduce carbon emissions. But by how much? Calculating emissions from heavy equipment has largely been interpolative, using data including operation time, fuel burned, heat content, and CO2 emission intensity to measure environmental impact. The common assumption is that less time equates to less fuel, with no accounting for startup, idle time, and engine speed during operation. 

GHG accountability is one reason Trimble initiated a field study to scientifically document the carbon reduction benefits that can be realized using automated solutions, such as horizontal steering control. The two-month study quantified the impact of horizontal steering control on compaction overlap and its relationship to overall CO2 emissions. Two randomly selected compactor operators performed a manual and assisted steering operation 20 times, using the same machine and area to perform the compaction for both manual and assisted steering to insure statistical relevance. The results reflected an average time reduction of 29.4 percent, an average reduction of fuel consumption of 26.46 percent and a potential carbon savings up to 35.38 percent when using horizontal steering control. 

Although phase one of the Trimble study is focused on quantifying productivity and sustainability of horizontal steering control for soil compaction, future labs are planned to validate similar sustainability benefits for machine control for excavators, dozers, and motor graders. 

Tracking GHG, using environmentally friendlier materials (e.g., lower carbon concrete) and creating higher-performing assets are one slice of the sustainability pie, but there’s so much more. Construction processes themselves need to be more efficient to cut down on unnecessary waste and emissions throughout the asset’s lifecycle. We firmly believe that maximizing technology for sustainability starts with connected construction. 

The Breakfast Analogy

Lower carbon materials, thoughtful design, and more efficient operations are essential elements to more sustainable built assets—larger improvements will come by rethinking the entire design-to-construction process. Because so much construction waste and inefficiency is caused by poor collaboration, being “good” at construction sustainability requires breaking down walls between traditionally siloed teams. 

Patrick Thibaudeau, Principal Sustainability Officer, JLG Architects put it perfectly from a design perspective. He said “Instead of designing a building like a stack of pancakes and then pouring sustainability syrup on after the fact, we’re mixing sustainability into the design ‘batter’ from the beginning on every project.” 

To make the required improvements for a more sustainable workflow, stakeholders must commit to addressing the inefficiencies, rework, and waste, beginning with design, the build phase, and continuing through operations and maintenance.

Maximizing technology for sustainability and operational efficiency starts with connected construction. It requires a shift in mindset, where sustainability is integrated into day-to-day workflows as well as broader initiatives aimed at achieving long-term goals. The right technology can help facilitate that change. 

For instance, Clark Pacific relied on constructible modeling workflows to improve precast workflows on a 13-story, 310,000-square-foot mixed-use building. The technology enabled solution provided operational efficiency and sustainability through the more efficient use of materials and prefabrication techniques. Trimble Constructible Modeling (Tekla Structures) software enabled teams to produce machine-ready designs with lower material requirements. More detail with less material (~10 percent less concrete) equaled lower cost production, easier transportation and less onsite support for approximately 38 percent less carbon production. 

Achieving the most ambitious sustainability goals requires the construction industry to push traditional boundaries and incorporate out-of-the-box solutions that likely include digital twins, robots, IoT sensors, and generative design and autonomous (not just automated) equipment.

Advanced technologies allow construction professionals to completely transform antiquated processes and unlock new capabilities. Today’s solutions enable industry professionals to improve operating margins while enhancing sustainability. It’s not an either or scenario. These tools can be used to support larger objectives that help construction teams and the industry as a whole set benchmarks, analyze solutions, and track progress – if they work together. 

A connected construction approach offers a means of designing, building, and even operating more sustainable assets. Our expanding relationships with transportation agencies such as the California Department of Transportation (DOT) and the Minnesota DOT are working to resolve disconnects across asset ownership, not just in the design and construction phases. By providing the technology and interconnectivity, connected construction gives the right people the right data at the right time. When everyone involved in the project has access to the information they need to detect problems earlier and make better and faster decisions, waste and rework are minimized.

Collaboration is essential to using technology to improve construction sustainability. With better collaboration, projects are executed more efficiently, and construction stakeholders can work together to identify sustainable solutions and monitor their effectiveness. That’s why connected construction is so important to the future of construction and protecting our planet. 

Connected construction may seem like a lofty goal. But it’s best thought of as an ongoing practice rather than a final state. By gaining a more holistic understanding of sustainability and the technologies you can use to address age-old construction problems, you’re already ahead of the game. Start where you are, with the tools that set you up to break down silos between teams, and continue to build from there.

Dietmar Grimm is Vice President, Corporate Strategy & Sustainability Solutions at Trimble. His responsibilities include leading global systems change strategies in commercializing sustainability and carbon through the efficiency and productivity gains delivered by Trimble products across natural resources, construction, transportation and logistics, and related sectors.