The construction industry is four times more polluting than air travel. So, making it more sustainable will be key if we want to protect both our health and our planet. Many people don’t think about how that new condo building around the corner affects the climate or how these mega buildings that cities are constantly building are affecting our climate. People seldom take into consideration that this industry is more than just throwing up a building and moving on.
Raw materials need to be mined and smelted, and then there’s the waste from demolished structures. HuffPost reports that this produces 11% of global greenhouse gas emissions, which is ~4 times higher than emissions from the entire airline sector. Another problem is concrete. Concrete causes a large portion of the construction industry’s carbon footprint. It’s the most widely used substance on earth after water. Think about that for a moment. The hot roads, parking lots, and sidewalks everywhere you look had to come from somewhere. This strong and resilient material accounts for around 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
While cement production is projected to increase over 5 billion tons over the next 30 years, there is a bit of hope for this industry. There are solutions that are sustainable. “In my future world, we don’t burn limestone to make cement, and we don’t melt sand to make glass,” says Will Srubar, an assistant professor of architectural engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder. He runs the Living Materials Laboratory where he and his colleagues are actively trying to find creative ways to use living bacteria to create self-growing building materials.
Srubar grew up outside of Houston, TX, on a cotton farm and cattle ranch and sees construction from a different perspective. In his home, where things were alive, buildings stood in stark contrast — “so static and nonliving,” he said to HuffPost. He shares that the Houston skyline inspired him to become a structural engineer but he wanted to bring building materials to life.
Another idea explored in the article is to stop using really super dirty fuels to heat kilns. Also, replacing old tires and other low-quality fuel with conventional oil would reduce greenhouse gas emissions of concrete by 9% and possibly could reduce health issues associated with air pollution by 14%. Also, salvaging glass from waste streams and grinding it into fine powder could be a great way to replace cement in some projects. The article points out that the main thing blocking these ideas is the construction industry is hesitant to try new things. However, influential designers and engineers could help them create buildings to use less concrete, not to mention regulations.
Reading that article was an eyeopener for me. We often take for granted the buildings around us. As a cherry on top, the author of the article wrote, “Chances are, if you’re reading this in a multi-story building, you’re encased in concrete right now — or at least sitting atop a concrete foundation.” I happen to be the odd one who isn’t. I live in South Louisiana and I don’t have a foundation in my 100-year old shotgun. Our homes are raised a few feet off the ground and my base is all wood. Though, I have lived in concrete apartment buildings as most of us have at some point and have slept openly on the streets before — well, sidewalks, which are made of concrete. The point is that I never even thought about where sidewalks come from or just how much of an impact on our environment the creation of concrete has. It’s an eyeopener.
Photo by Kyle Field