How the Construction Industry can Contribute to the Sustainability of Life on Earth

Introduction

Sustainability has become a popular and crucial public agenda over the last few decades. Efforts made by international pressure groups, governmental and Non-Governmental organisations such as the U.N. have compelled business organisations to make sustainability one of the core agenda of doing business. Different industries across the world have varying views on sustainability. In the construction industry, the sustainability agenda gained some attention after the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio. The construction industry has developed sustainability strategies to promote economic, social, and ecological sustainability (Myers, 2005, p.237).

Although some large companies in the construction industry have acknowledged sustainability and put effort towards achieving sustainability, there is still a large gap in sustainability in the construction sector. Most construction companies are still inherently concerned with economic outcomes and assume other sustainability paradigms (Nill & Kemp, 2009, P.670). This is depicted by the industry annual reporting style that overly concentrates on financial outcomes.  As a result, the construction industry continues to have adverse social and environmental effects that impede the achievement of the U.N. sustainability goals. The global construction industry contributes to 40% Green House Gases emission and more than 36% of the available energy on earth. Little minimal effort has been put in place to adopt renewable energy sources in the industry, thus increasing the negative ecological impacts. The manufacture of concrete, one of the primary raw materials in the construction industry, contributes heavily to CO2 emission. Also, the transport of construction materials contributes heavily to environmental pollution. Moreover, cases of accidents and injuries in construction sites are also apparent. Overall, this indicates that the construction industry has a long way towards achieving sustainability in the three dimensions.

The construction industry plays a significant role in society because it determines the appearance and functions of communities. The construction sector is responsible for infrastructure development that is necessary for the economic development of nations.  The industry also determines how communities relate with each other, both in urban and rural areas (Mapes & Wolch, 2011, p.105).  As a result, the construction sector is imperative in achieving some of the U.N. sustainability goals. However, financial challenges impede the full realisation of sustainability. This paper will discuss strategies that can be put in place for the construction industry to contribute positively towards economic, social, and ecological sustainability.  The author argues that key stakeholders (companies, government, and environmental agencies) have a significant role in developing sustainability strategies. The paper will argue that Life Cycle Assessment procedures, efficient resource utilisation and communication, and collaboration among stakeholders are ways through which the construction industry can contribute to sustainable development (Sev, 2009, p.23).

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Application of Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) Procedures

As aforementioned, the building and construction sector is responsible for more than 40% of harmful CO2 in the atmosphere. CO2 is emitted during different building and construction stages, from raw materials to the final product. Cement and steel are the primary raw materials in the sector, and their manufacture involves process relies on natural resources such as water, energy, and other minerals.  These processes contribute to environmental degradation and threaten economic sustainability due to over utilisation of natural resources. These adverse effects are still prevalent during transportation and construction, and the negative contribution continues many years after the final product (Road, building, and etcetera) is completed. Since the pollution does not occur in one isolated process, the construction industry can enhance sustainability by applying life cycle assessment (LCA). Life cycle assessment (LCA) evaluates the environmental impacts of process and product life cycles. In other words, LCA involves evaluation of the ecological effects of particular products from their manufacturing stage to the finished products.  Using the LCA strategy in the construction industry can significantly improve construction companies’ commitment to environmental sustainability. Following the International standards, ISO 14040 can help improve building life cycle assessment and subsequent reporting, which consequently contributes to the formation of ecological sustainability solutions (Ortiz et al., 2009, p.31). LCA involves four stages that aim to improve its effectiveness. In the first stage, the company defines its goals. The second stage consists of collecting necessary data regarding inputs and outputs. The third stage evaluates the possible environmental impacts of a building system. The fourth stage interprets the entire process and offers recommendations to improve environmental outcomes. Although there are different LCA levels, the best LCA is the ‘whole building assessment framework or system’ that deals with the entire construction process.

Using the above strategy will improve openness concerning environmental sustainability issues. Construction companies will have a direct mandate to ensure the entire building lifecycle adheres to processes that promote environmental sustainability. For instance, LCA can help develop environmental safety strategies during the building materials and components (BMCC) phase. For example, recycling raw materials such as water or sludge during cement manufacturing and using renewable energy sources can help reduce environmental pollution, thus promoting sustainable development goals 12, 13, and 15. The government should make it mandatory for construction companies to adopt various LCA tools to encourage environmental sustainability. Also, pressure groups and environmental agencies (Governmental and non-governmental) should make a remarkable effort to support LCA’s voluntary adoption.

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Efficient resources utilisation

After adopting necessary LCA tools and strategies, the construction industry can further contribute to sustainability through efficient resource utilisation and management (Misopoulos et al., 2019, p.111). The agenda of efficient resource utilisation is to maintain a natural balance between developing and maintaining a healthy ecosystem (Uher & Lawson 2000, p.5). Primarily this is achieved by ensuring that the rate of resource formation is higher than the rate of resources utilisation for the case of natural resources such as water and energy.  For the human-made resources, innovative strategies can be improvised to promote proper utilisation of such resources to safeguard the natural resources. Lazonick and O’Sullivan (1998, p.34) argue that innovative resource allocation utilisation leads to economic sustainability in the short and long run. The construction industry and more cement manufacturing companies should implement integrated innovation in the production process, leading to cost savings, thus spreading production costs throughout the construction industry. Low-cost cement will contribute to increased economies of scale, thus making construction business more affordable for the consumers of construction products. Companies in the construction industry will also accrue more benefits from the industry, such as increased profits to decreased production costs.  

Some of the essential raw materials used in the construction industry, such as steel and cement, are manufactured using natural resources. Therefore, the efficient utilisation of such resources should be an issue of concern for the construction industry.

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Most of the resources utilised in the construction industry are material resources that are scarce and have economic value. For this paper, the author employs the definition put forward by UNEP (2011).

Material resources are natural assets deliberately extracted and modified by human activity for their utility to create economic value. They can be measured both in physical units (such as tons, joules, or area) and in monetary terms expressing their economic value. (UNEP, 2011, P.2). 

Some material resources include fossil fuels, construction minerals (materials), land, water, and other energy resources applicable in the construction industry. Careful utilisation and management of these material resources directly contribute to the sustainability of life on earth. Each resource can be managed and utilised using varied strategies depending on its economic value and the ecological impacts correlated with the resource. In the case of fossil fuels, the construction industry should consider replacing fossil fuels with other viable energy sources.  Most heavy machinery used in the construction industry, either in the manufacture of raw materials or at construction sites, heavily depend on diesel and other fossil fuels. This increases CO2 emission and thus increasing the greenhouse effect and exacerbate global warming. The construction industry can replace or integrate the use of Hydroelectric power similar to other industries. Hydroelectric power may be comparable with fossil energy in economic terms, but HEP is much environmentally friendly than fossil fuels. Although it might be impossible to effect this change over-night, the construction sector can start replacing carbon fuels in some of the processes.  For example, the machinery used at construction sites can be improved to use electric engines powered by either wind or water energy. This will help reduce Green emissions, thus safeguarding present and future generations’ health and wellbeing. Greenhouse gases are responsible for catastrophes globally, such as bush fires, climate change, diseases such as skin cancer, etcetera.

Also, the cement manufacturers should consider alternative fuels in an effort to support sustainability. According to Zieri & Ismail (2018, pp.4-7), coal can be substituted with other fuel alternatives such as residue oil solvents, tire and rubber wastes, plastic wastes, sewage sludge, or municipal solid waste. Waste management is one of the most problematic issues when it comes to the achievement of environmental sustainability. With the growing global population, consumption is on the rise, which causes an increase in domestic and industrial waste. Putting the waste in constructive use contributes to sustainability in all three dimensions.  Firstly, the construction industry will have a low-cost source of energy and thus reducing production cost. Secondly, the waste landfill will be diminished, thus contributing directly to environmental sustainability. Thirdly, waste as alternative fuels leads to better waste management, reducing waste’s hazardous effects (Mustapa et al., 2020, p.4). Moreover, this will help to safeguard the scarce fossil fuel and retain it for other processes that heavily rely on this resource.

In the case of water resources, the concrete and cement industries can adopt several measures to uphold proper water management (Sealey et al., 2001, p.322). The construction industry depends heavily on water resources throughout the building life cycle and in the manufacture of raw materials. Several water management strategies can be implemented at different stages of the construction life cycle.  For example, in the cement manufacturing plants, the companies should consider phasing out the wet-process kilns to reduce water usage. The companies should also consider water recycling and avoid the release of untreated water effluents into the environment. Companies should ensure water treatment and to prevent contaminating surrounding water bodies and soils.  This aligns with sustainable development goal (SDG) 5.

In the case of land, the construction sector must implement robust measures for efficient land management. Responsible land management is one of the key contributors towards sustainability resource utilisation (Allacker et al., 2014, p.1800). The construction sector affects land use in various ways. Firstly, the land is occupied for the extraction of building materials and other raw materials. Secondly, land use during transportation of the raw materials and other building materials and lastly the land occupied by the end product. Consequently, the industry must have robust measures to ensure the guaranteed management of this finite resource. In the past few decades, urbanisation has become a key trend across the world. More people are moving to urban areas in search of employment opportunities.

 As a result, demand for residential buildings as well as commercial buildings has increased, thus leaving less land for other important activities such as farming as the urban areas expand more and more. This presents a sustainability challenge concerning sustainable land use. Since land use involves many stakeholders, such as the landowners and the government, construction companies should make an effort and involve the stakeholders in the effort to promote rural construction (Wang et al., 2019, p.2). This will help to offset the pressure in the urban areas and promote sustainable development. Rural construction can promote equality and reduce poverty, which is usually common in rural areas, thus contributing to SGD 1 and SDG 11. Offsetting excess population in urban areas will reduce the socio-economic challenges in the cities. For instance, overpopulation in the cities often leads to housing problems. It contributes to informal settlements that lead to other social problems such as diseases due to poor hygiene and increased crime rates (Zhang, 2016, P.245). Responsible land use will help counter these challenges, particularly in developing countries and prevent such problems in the developed economies.

Lastly, the construction sector can implement robust strategies to ensure responsible utilisation of construction minerals. Typical construction minerals include sand, natural stones, clay bricks, among others. The construction minerals are used together with other building materials such as steel, timber, mortar, and etcetera. Efficient use of construction materials and minerals leads to social, economic, and ecological sustainability. The industry can achieve responsible building materials utilisation (minerals and human-made materials) by first implementing proper material management systems (Paulo et al., 2014, p.339). Use of material management systems on construction sites will help to optimise production efficiencies (Sacks et al., 2010, p.18). Use of the management systems ensures zero wastage of building materials and helps to reduce construction costs. The management systems also help maintain the quality of building materials, thus guaranteeing high-quality end products. Also, the industry can optimise material usage through innovation. Innovations can improve material use efficiencies and reduce overhead costs significantly (Pitt et al., 2009, p.17). For example use of admixture in making concrete can significantly reduce the amount of cement needed without compromising the end product’s quality (Nehdi et al., 2003, p.1204). New building materials were also manufactured using eco-friendly processes such as bio-plastics to increase economic and environmental efficiencies.

Moreover, proper management of the human resource in the construction sites can contribute to social and economic sustainability.  The construction firms should ensure that workers are provided with a safe working environment and have risk reduction measures. The construction industry should also have proper reward systems for the employees to support the employees’ wellbeing. Also, the industry should help equal employment opportunities for both genders.  More importantly, the industry should have incentives to encourage women, people living with disabilities, and people from minority communities to have a career in the construction industry. Consequently,  the sector can contribute to SDG 5 and SDG 10.

Communication and collaboration among stakeholders

 Despite increasing pressure from various stakeholders to shift towards sustainable building and construction, most firms in the sector are reluctant to shift because of green construction’s perceived high financial costs (Robichaud & Anantatmula, 2011, p.50). According to Strand &Toman (2010, p.4), green construction/ building may be costly in the short run and cost-effective in the long run. Revell & Blackburn (2007, p.410) affirm this claim and argue that sustainable constructions require less maintenance and operational costs. Maintenance cost often lowers the financial sustainability of constructions.  Unfortunately, most developers concentrate only on the short term economic viability, and high initial cost discourages green construction implementation. Fortunately, there are viable measures that can be implemented to lower initial construction costs of sustainable construction. According to Robichaud & Anantatmula (2011, p.50), effective communication can help contain green buildings’ initial costs. Poor communication and lack of consensus among internal stakeholders such as architects, engineers, designers, and builders often result in communication breakdown that causes cost volatility.  Sub-contractors often concern themselves with their line of duty, thus creating minimal collaboration opportunities because of the high temporal nature of contracts in the construction industry (Eccles, 1981, p.345). Improving collaboration and communication among the experts will help identify financial loopholes that may be causing an increase the initial cost of construction. Communication among these experts can be enhanced through accredited training programmes that unite different construction domains. In the United States, such a programme has been initiated and improves communication and collaboration among the construction experts. Programmes such as the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) in the USA have helped unites construction professionals (Dall’O et al., 2013, p.5998). Such collaboration enhances cost reductions because the project is developed with an objective approach. The stakeholders arrive at a consensus on efficient water management, energy efficiency, materials optimisation/selection, and green site development (Robichaud & Anantatmula, 2011, p.51). As a result, the construction is developed in a well outlined plan that involves the stakeholders’ communication. Stakeholders exchange ideas that lead to the development of a SMART project plan.  This helps to optimise initial, operational, and maintenance costs, thus supporting economic sustainability in modern sustainable constructions. Sustainability will be achieved by achieving short-term goals that will cumulatively lead to long-term sustainability, as shown in the table below.

Short Term GoalContribution to long term sustainability
Lower cost of productionMake construction products more affordable, thus promoting SDG 11 sustainable cities and communities.
Increase awareness about sustainable construction among stakeholders.Promote green development, thus contributing to social, economic, and ecological sustainability.
Create collaboration between the construction industry and other external stakeholders such as the government and environmental agencies.Aligns the industry needs with the community needs, thus contributing to overall sustainability.
Embrace innovation to adopt the use of sources of energy.Reduce the percentage of CO2 in the atmosphere, thus contributing positively to environmental sustainability.

Table 1. The link between short term goals and the interlink to long-term sustainability

Also, the project owner must set sustainability goals before the commencement of design and construction. This helps to avoid costly design modifications in later construction phases, thus help to maintain cost efficiencies.  This helps lower the overall cost of construction and promote the shareholder interests and promotion of economic sustainability (Lazonick, & O’sullivan, 2000, p.14). Since most construction companies and developers are reluctant to develop sustainable construction due to the high initial costs, countering, these costs will encourage the entire construction industry’s full shift towards sustainability.  In return, society as the whole will accrue social as well as environmental benefits.

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Conclusion

Activities of the construction industry cut across many other sectors of the economy.  As a result, the industry is essential in economic, social as well as ecological sustainability. The author has argued three ways through which the construction industry can contribute to environmental sustainability.

Firstly, the industry should implement robust life cycle assessment procedures to promote environmental reporting at all the building cycle level. In particular, the government, environmental agencies, and pressure groups should advocate for mandatory or voluntary whole building assessment framework or system. As a result, the industry will be more concerned about how their process affects the environment. Hence contribution to sustainability.

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Secondly, the construction industry should ensure efficient resource utilisation. The industry should consider other energy sources to reduce overreliance on fossil fuels. Specifically, the cement industry should consider substituting coal with other alternative fuels. The author has suggested using waste-based fuels such as municipal solid waste, domestic waste, plastic waste, rubber, and tyre waste. This will help to achieve sustainability in all three dimensions. Substituting coal with waste fuels will lead to economic sustainability for both the company and the economy at large. The cost of waste management will reduce, and the cost of acquiring waste is lower than coal (Yeheyis et al., 2013, p.83). Reducing waste will help reduce waste in landfills, thus contributing to environmental sustainability. The health hazards associated with the accumulation of waste in the environment will decrease, contributing to social sustainability. Lastly, the construction industry should implement strategies to enhance communication and collaboration among stakeholders. More importantly, the industry should develop a framework to promote communication among the professionals.  The author has argued that exchanging ideas will help counter the high cost of green construction practices. The professionals will develop strategies to reduce initial expenses related to sustainable construction. Consequently, more companies in the sector will be willing to adopt sustainable construction, which will help achieve the sustainability of life on earth.

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