Alan Landau, Head of Technology Innovation and Thanit Thanadirek, Assistant Structural Engineer Manager, Ananda Development PCL
The construction and real estate industries are some of the oldest in the world. Around 10,000 BCE, shortly after transitioning from nomadic lifestyles to hunter/gather societies, the importance of housing became evident. Included with the likes of clean food, water, and air, housing is essential - as seen by its place on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. However, while shelter is vital, our modern methods of construction directly and negatively impact other life sustaining resources.
Would you accept a medical treatment that had been pioneered and not iterated on since the age of the pharaohs? Barbaric and disastrously ill-informed practices such as mummia, leaching, or lobotomization come to mind. There is a reason we don’t do things the same way as 100 or 1000 years ago – the progress of change. This progress can be measured many ways such as improved revenues, quality of living, global connectivity, etc. This progress can be slow over millennia, like it was with transportation - from manual (feet/horses/wagons), to combustion (trains/ cars/planes), to electric (scooters/drones/tesla) vehicles. But sometimes it comes on fast and furious such as in medicine where one finding causes a domino effect in a few decades - germ theory to antibiotics to vaccines to genetic treatments and beyond.
While the scale of production has changed, unfortunately not much progress has happened within our industry – the recipe and creation of concrete is much the same as it was as 3000 years ago. As asserted by the (1) 2016 Mckinsey & Company case study - the construction industry is the 2nd least digitized sector overall. The issue is that we are building at a scale now that was unimaginable in the past and will be unsustainable in the near future. The true impact of this issue comes into focus when we start to realize all the unintended consequences of our growth. Be it the agricultural, industrial, or technological revolution – as we change, we change the world around us.
Recently (2) Bill Gates published an article surrounding these issues – “In order to meet the population demand the world will add 2 trillion square feet of buildings by 2060— the equivalent of putting up another New York City every month for the next 40 years.” This brings us to the most pressing problem statement facing humans today – how do we build the world, without destroying it?
The environmental impact of the construction and real estate industries cannot be understated or ignored. >40% of CO2 emissions were produced by the real estate and construction industries in 2018.
The environmental impact of the construction and real estate industries cannot be understated or ignored.
This equates to 15 Gigatons of CO2 annually and puts this industry as the single largest contributor of CO2 globally. When looking at specific materials ~9% of CO2 emissions were from concrete alone (3.4 Gigatons of CO2 annually) making concrete a larger CO2 contributor than the country of India. We are a $20+ Trillion business annually that can literally shape the world, but because of this scale, global corporate partnerships and alignment are needed to effectively solve this via innovation and collaboration. Huge Problems = Huge Opportunities, but only if we act.
Part of this process will require a reframing of prioritization. (3) Ron Garan, an American astronaut explains we do not live on a globe, we live on a planet; there are no physical border lines seen from space. The issue humans have is a matter of framing responsibility. Even when we try to take a ‘Big Picture’ view, we fall short of a true ‘Orbital Perspective’ – where the realization that sustainability is an Earthlings problem; all our problem.
The pathway to sustainable progress for our industry, as Ron suggests, is to invert our priorities from where revenue is the singular focus to one that takes planet, society, and economy into the equation. While there is no doubt that for many people to be incentivized to act, an economic element must be in play, “one”(or) “an element” that should come last. If we can reframe our mindset to see planetary-scale problems as opportunities that can have a positive societal impact, the economics will follow. As (4) Singularity University promotes “The best way to earn one billion dollars is to help one billion people” - this problem impacts nearly 10 billion.
Looking into the potential solutions to this looming issue, we first begin by segmenting the existing process. By splitting into this granularity a few key opportunity zones arise. Materials, design, manufacturing, and assembly all could benefit from change yielding in an overall improved process and product. One way of putting this is “Vernacular Architecture”, another is “Regional Standards” such as LEED, BREEAM, TREES. Manufacturing and assembly align to provide a route to execution of the project once it is already on paper. Design and materials work together to redefine what is possible in a project; this is what we will focus on today.
The design phase is the most impactful area to the overall carbon footprint of a project. It is the stage where, without consideration, carbon can build up seemingly limitlessly or can be reduced/made negative through proper management and planning. There are many ways in which a project may exemplify the “green” concept in its usage of design. Even neglecting the building and only looking into the design process, there are several ways to reduce the total carbon footprint of the project such as materials, digital design, scenario planning, and optimization engineering.
Material selection is a key step that will influence the design and construction of a building. These pivotal choices can make a huge impact on the overall “green” performance of the project. A variety of these materials are unfamiliar tools for designers/contractors/developers, but once they are exposed their benefits are clear. For example, by utilizing CLT (Cross Laminated Timber) one also leverages the benefits of prefabricated construction which yields greater productivity, less waste and a negative carbon footprint. Another example, Hempcrete weighs 1/7th what standard concrete does and in markets where ecological taxes are imposed (such as a sinking fee), a change in materials could result in a net positive economic and environmental benefit for the developer. There are a wide variety of green and alternative materials that provide different benefits (e.g. weight, fire proofing, etc.) than standard materials. By leveraging on these characteristics, designers can change and redefine the existing limitations of building design.
Digital design (BIM) can be used to enhance the standardization but also agility of a project. For example, standard building components can be converted into a “family library” which can be re-applied across projects. BIM also yields the potential for information inside the digital design to provide relevant data (quantity, cost, carbon footprint, etc.) for design analysis and construction planning. With this data in hand, BIM allows one to develop and analyze various scenarios to experiment with alternative designs, reduce risk of construction problems, and enhance predictability of project returns. A new change is quickly approaching as well - much in the same way that cranes enabled a single person to do the work of hundreds, AI technologies are becoming helpful tools to provide designers digital superpowers. One system that utilizes many of these concepts, (5) “ALICE Technologies combines your team’s construction knowledge and ALICE’s powerful artificial intelligence platform to run millions of building simulations and see their impact on your cost and schedule” in the time it would normally take for one to be built. Other tools utilize similar datasets to provide generative design or optimization engineering. Available computing technology allows designers to generate, validate, and provide much more optimal designs based on given criteria – including environmental impact.
As you can see, there is a high potential to reduce the carbon footprint by changing materials and design which promotes positively impactful construction. One of the main remaining barriers to the widespread adoption of these concepts is the lack of a turnkey solution. We believe an AEC-a-a-P (Architectural, Engineering, and Construction as a platform) solution where materials, design, and construction solutions are integrated/bundled is the future of project development. Our hope is that soon a platform will provide a one-stop-shop for green buildings and as a result, developers will be more eager to engage with these projects. This vision seeks to benefit all involved parties in the construction value chain (designers, suppliers, contractors, developers), the customers/society, and the PLANET.