A girl's quest to live on the greener side.

How Does Construction Affect the Environment?

construction affect the environment

By: Ariana Palmieri

Recently, my local mall has undergone a few pretty big renovations. They just added a parking garage to it that has two floors. They're also going to be adding a whole new wing to my local mall with new, more up-scale stores. The work for that is still in progress, still incomplete. While the whole idea sounds nice, it got me thinking: How does construction affect the environment? I'd imagine it's not the greenest, most eco-friendly job, but to what extent? Well, I decided to a little digging. Suffice it to say, construction definitely has a big impact on the environment, in more ways than one. Here's what I learned and what you need to know.


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Construction Materials

First off, we should spend some time analyzing actual construction materials. What are construction materials made out of? The answer: Raw materials. Raw materials are materials or substances used in the primary production or manufacturing of goods. Here are some examples of raw materials needed to create construction materials:

(Basic) Raw materials needed for construction materials:
  • Wood
  • Stone
  • Metal

Here's a more in-depth list of raw materials used for construction

Now that you know the raw materials needed, how exactly do they get the raw materials? And once they get them, what do they do with them? Well, after some research, I've figured out the basic process of how raw materials get turned into construction materials. Lets break it down together.

Construction material process:
  • Raw materials used in construction products are extracted: This is done through un-sustainable means such as logging (for wood), mining (for metals) or quarrying (for stone).
  • Raw materials are turned into construction materials (the final product): This wastes even more energy and is often done in polluting factories producing CO2 emissions.
  • Construction materials are shipped out: Most construction  materials are often shipped from across the country, or overseas, which means it sits in transit longer, thus producing more carbon emissions. 

So, it's pretty clear to me that the process of extracting, making and shipping construction materials is pretty un-sustainable. Wouldn't you agree? To make matters worse, according to the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC)40 percent of the world's raw materials are used in the construction of buildings. Think about that. That's a lot of raw material being used up, wouldn't you agree? 

Worse yet, to actually extract the raw materials, such as wood, metal or stone, natural habitats must be tampered with. For example, to get stone for construction work, quarrying must occur: Quarrying is the process of removing rock, sand, gravel or other minerals from the ground in order to use them to produce materials for construction (or other uses). That said, quarrying is far from eco-friendly: It leads to eroded hills, air pollution, noise pollution, damage to biodiversity and quarry waste. And this is only one form of raw material extraction. The extraction process of raw materials clearly harms the environment, and more often than not raw materials are over harvested. For example, when trees are cut down for wood to build, they are usually not replaced. In fact, at the rate trees are being logged (aka deforestation), the world's rain forests could completely disappear in 100 years. 

Plus, there's the actual production of those materials into their final form, which only wastes more energy and resources. Not to mention the factories that make the materials produce polluting CO2 emissions (I mean, have you ever seen the plumes of smoke factories spew?). Also, most construction materials are often shipped from across the country, or overseas. The longer an item stays in transit, the more carbon emissions it produces, which impacts air quality as well. 

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Waste from Building Construction and Demolition

Have you ever stopped to think about all the waste produced from construction and demolition sites? As a zero waster, waste is constantly on my mind (and ways to avoid it), so when I learned how wasteful construction companies can be, it sickened me. 

The destruction, renovation, and creation of buildings result in tons of waste.  This waste is known as construction and demolition (C&D) materials. C&D materials are often bulky, heavy materials such as concrete, wood, metals, bricks, glass, plastic, trees (from clearing sites) and more. C&D materials are generated when a new building and civil-engineering structures are built and when existing buildings and civil-engineering structures are renovated or demolished (including deconstruction activities). This takes into account all the asphalt, concrete sidewalks, trees, stumps, bushes, and earth that have to be uprooted and removed from a site before construction, renovation or demolition can begin too.

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in 2014, 534 million tons of C&D debris were generated in the United States. That's more than twice the amount of generated municipal solid waste. Isn't that repulsive? And worse yet, can you guess where all of this waste goes? It's often disposed of in either landfills or incinerators. This not only pollutes the land and air, but the transportation required to remove all that waste has a major impact on the environment as well.

I don't want to let construction work off the hook, but demolition represents more than 90 percent of total C&D debris generation, while construction represents less than 10 percent. In other words, demolition mainly causes all the waste and debris, not so much construction. That said, demolition is part of what construction companies do, so it still goes to show how much waste construction companies produce. 

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Building Energy + Water Use

Okay, but how about once the building is actually built and constructed? Obviously at that point there's no going back: Raw materials have been extracted, used and wasted. What environmental footprint does a functioning building have all on its own? The answer isn't exactly a happy one. 

Energy use: 

Just because construction has ended, does not mean the waste stops there. According to the USGBC, buildings account for an average of 41 percent of the world's energy use. Buildings even out-consume the industrial (30 percent) and transportation (29 percent) sectors in terms of energy. This is because buildings produce a huge amount of electricity every day. Think about it: Your desktop computer, home phone, television and radio all need electricity to work, right? Well that takes up power, and even if an item is off, it can still take up energy if it's plugged into a socket. But that's far from the only source of energy consumption in a building: A buildings lighting system and heating/cooling system can contribute as well.

Water use:

Not only are buildings notorious energy suckers, they're also big on water use. Buildings are not only responsible for a large percentage of the world's water use, but also a large percentage of wasted water as well. Sadly,  according to the USGBC, buildings use about 14 percent of all potable water (15 trillion gallons per year). That's not too surprising, considering the average person takes an 8 minute long shower which uses 62 litres of hot water. 

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Conclusion:
(Conventional) Construction is bad for the environment

In the long and short of it, construction hurts the environment in more ways than one. Through the extraction of raw materials to the demolition of buildings which create tons of waste, construction is just not eco-friendly. We are using too many precious resources and decimating our earth in the process. Not to mention the finished result (aka buildings) use up so much energy and water on their own.  

That said, there is hope for the future, as more and more people become aware of this problem. Have you ever heard of green building? It's starting to catch on more and more and is even encouraged by the government nowadays. The USGBC designed a rating system called The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) to evaluate the environmental performance of a building and encourage sustainable design. A building that is LEED-certified has 34 percent lower CO2 emissions, consumes 25 percent less energy and 11 percent less water, and has diverted more than 80 million tons of waste from landfills. That's pretty impressive if you ask me. 

Hopefully, in the future, all buildings will be LEED-certified, or better. If you're thinking about getting construction work done on your own home, or for a business you own, I seriously hope you take everything I said into consideration. Look into green building and see what it takes to get LEED-certified.

For the rest of us, lets vow to look into ways to reduce our building's energy consumption, water usage, and overall building's waste. And if you see construction happening in your neighborhood, question it. Look into it. Heck, even try talking to some of the construction workers to see what they say. Ask them about green building and if what they're building will be LEED-certified. It can't hurt to ask, and who knows, maybe you'll peek their interest in the topic of green building.

What's your opinion on construction work? Share in the comments below!

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