The Engineer: Revolution 2.0
June 13, 2023 By Claudio Sacilotto
Building design is about to go through a revolution. Construction methods and materials are being looked at differently than in the past. Improvements in operational efficiencies have been performed for many years but now their strategies will go beyond efficiency and take a more holistic approach to climate-friendly construction.
As a society, we’ve acknowledged the issue of climate change and have done much on improving energy efficiency in our daily lives with the intention that there will be less carbon dioxide emissions. Our building codes require us to design ever-more insulating envelopes. But is this enough? Have we reached a plateau where the law of diminishing returns reveals that we’ve done the most that we can? Perhaps we need to rethink everything and get back to understanding what the real issue is. We need to prevent accelerated global warming due to the accumulation of various greenhouse gases (most notably carbon dioxide) in our atmosphere. So the real issue is carbon release, wherever it comes from, not necessarily just from energy production.
Processes or materials that do not use fossil fuels do not significantly add to the carbon dioxide content in the atmosphere. This means that energy production through hydroelectric generation, solar power, wind power or even nuclear power does not add carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. Note, we’re not talking here about whether the energy source is overall “green,” but strictly about its carbon emissions. To beat this thing, the ultimate goal is to become carbon
Structures are now being built with a “net-zero” approach in mind. However, as we’ve made buildings and their components more energy-efficient, what is becoming more concerning is the carbon footprint of the materials being used to construct those buildings, which can include concrete, steel, glass, and insulation. The carbon footprint associated with the mining, processing and transportation of raw materials; the manufacturing of the product; the transfer to the jobsite; and the construction process, all combined, is commonly known as embodied carbon. All these materials and processes are ringing up a large carbon footprint even before the building has completed its construction. It has been calculated that, worldwide, embodied carbon accounts for 11 percent of the world’s carbon emissions. Until we address embodied carbon in a significant way, we really cannot “net-zero energy” our way out of the climate crisis. What does that mean for the construction industry?
Architects and designers are now considering embodied carbon in their designs. There is increased scrutiny of the source of materials used. For example, off-shore aluminum is calculated to have a higher carbon footprint than Canadian-produced aluminum, where smelters use hydroelectric power to make aluminum billets. Environmental product declarations for project materials are increasingly being requested from suppliers to account for carbon footprints for environmental certifications. Additionally, traditional building materials are being supplanted in favour of more climate-friendly alternative materials. For example, there is accelerated growth in mass timber construction in North America and Europe, much of it being used to replace concrete and steel for structure construction. Even construction techniques are evolving, as many construction projects are monitoring the carbon footprint of the construction process. Specific measures can include reducing the amount of transportation that is needed to get materials to the project site, using green fuels and taking steps to improve the fuel efficiency of equipment on the site.
It feels like these changes are being rushed, but to fix this climate issue before it’s too late desperate changes are needed. The revolution is here.
Claudio Sacilotto is director of engineering at Novatech Patio Doors in Woodbridge, Ont.
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