The month of November kicked off the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference (also known as COP26) in Glasglow — a global meeting for public and private sector leaders to discuss the strategy for combating our current climate crisis. On top of a full day dedicated to the built environment, I was pleased to attend sessions and see commitments from companies around the world, including a few of Autodesk’s own.
Two weeks later, another major event took place here in the U.S. — the signing of the more than $1 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) to rebuild and modernize roads and bridges, rail, transit, ports, water systems and more. I see COP26 and the IIJA being interlinked. The magnitude of the IIJA investment provides our industry and country with a massive opportunity to not only bolster and make our infrastructure more resilient, but also implement new, more sustainable approaches — something the Biden administration has specifically called out as a key implementation goal for construction. Creating a more sustainable world is paramount to the survival of our planet and our people.
Construction demand today is incredibly high – to meet demand over the coming years, the industry will need to build 13,000 buildings per day by 2050. But this challenge is a Catch-22 for the health of our planet – we desperately need to increase building volume, but there is also a massive need for construction to be more sustainable. Buildings alone account for almost 40% of industrial greenhouse emissions, with 10-15% of materials wasted on every build.
In order to meet the moment, construction teams must now do more with less. Undoubtedly, increasing our building efficiency — both during construction and creating more energy efficient assets — and creating less waste are key. But if efficiency is the vehicle to which we can address both climate change and our need for construction, technology is the key that will start the engine.
Efficiency in Building: Good for Business – and the Environment
Throughout history, efficiency in construction has been the ultimate goal and has led to amazing progress — from building assembly lines for monuments like the Pyramids of Giza to more modern methods such as lean construction, industrialized construction and design-build delivery. These methods not only reduce delivery time, increase accuracy and reduce risk, but also greatly reduce waste generated in the field.
The more efficient and accurate we are, the less materials and rework are required, bringing down the total waste generated on a project.
One of the fastest, most effective ways to bake efficiency (and thus sustainability) directly into our workflows is through technology. Sure, the right technology can break down data silos, increase collaboration and even automate manual processes using machine learning and artificial intelligence — but it can go a step further to do things like directly trace the carbon footprint of construction.
Bringing Our Carbon Data to the Forefront
One of the primary goals of COP26 was to commit to cut carbon emissions across the globe. This hits particularly close to home in our industry, with construction accounting for 38% of all energy-related carbon emissions. Through the right technology, owners and designers can not only make sustainable design decisions by keeping a close eye on and calculating the carbon dioxide emissions of their projects before they even break ground, they can reduce embodied carbon through low-carbon material procurement. By collaborating in the cloud, selecting the appropriate materials and optimizing for low-carbon options, companies can dramatically decrease the carbon dioxide emitted during planning and preconstruction, during construction and throughout the project’s lifetime. And this isn’t some far-off future capability — tools like the Embodied Carbon Calculator (EC3) can calculate total embodied carbon dioxide emissions on projects, turning “embodied carbon” into a unit of measurement.
States such as California have enacted Buy Clean Legislation that leverages public procurement to drive sustainability in building materials, and other states are beginning to follow suit. Buy Clean policies promote spending taxpayer dollars on infrastructure supplies for materials that are manufactured in a cleaner, more efficient, climate friendly manner — helping to close the carbon loophole and reward owners for their commitments to impacting our climate crisis. At the federal level, the IIJA also includes a new program to accelerate adoption of digital construction technologies on highway projects with the goal of reducing cost, enhancing safety and mitigating negative environmental impacts.
Utilizing BIM and Digital Twins for Circular Construction
Another way technology is helping push the fast-forward button on the industry’s sustainability efforts is through approaches that foster the reuse part of reduce, reuse, recycle. Circularity in construction, a zero-waste mindset that focuses on the use and reuse of resources, has been a growing trend poised to enable the industry to rethink the materials used on projects. The concept of planned material reuse is not a new one, but is made more possible with technologies such as Building Information Modeling (BIM) and digital twins. And with functionalities like risk and efficiency simulation, BIM also helps serve our great needs around resiliency to help us not only plan for the worst — but plan around actions teams can take to avoid the worst.
BIM is an intelligent process for documenting every fine detail in a structure and surrounding area; a way of tracking every material used on a project. It is now possible to trace all materials used — sometimes known as a “materials passport” — and evaluate those same materials for reuse later in the building’s life cycle. Those same buildings then become “material banks,” a store of valuable materials that can be repurposed and reused. Digital twins are another example of an incredibly accurate way to implement reuse strategies, acting as living logs where teams can document the entire lifecycle of materials used on a given project — where they’re created, where they’ve been shipped and installed, how and where they’ve been used and ultimately when, where and how they’re decommissioned.
Joint Efforts Between Governments, Businesses and Citizens
While all of these approaches are powered by technology, just like any other vehicle, they’ll need the proper maintenance — technology is not a silver bullet. We need a culture of commitment across the construction industry in order to drive more sustainability and impact the climate crisis; we need a unified, joint effort. To fully create and adopt a thriving circular economy, we need to be accountable and build sturdy cross-industry partnerships. Sustainability measures in construction are already being prioritized by governments, businesses and project teams alike, so building on that momentum and continuously prioritizing sustainability will enable us to make a real dent in our climate goals.
With the clock steadily ticking, it is imperative that we make these changes for the future of construction, the future of our planet and the future of humanity.
Jim Lynch is senior vice president and general manager of Autodesk Construction Solutions and has held a variety of leadership roles at his more-than-20-year tenure at the company