The world is running out of raw materials and fresh water and is being overburdened with waste and the global construction industry is a major contributor being the largest consumer of resources and raw materials of any sector, responsible for about 33 per cent of emissions, 40 per cent of material consumption and 40 per cent of waste.
In seeking to deal with this by advocating carbon neutral cities and a “sustainable” built environment, David Ness says that all the talk is about increasing efficiency of operational energy (heating, cooling, lighting) and reducing associated greenhouse gas emissions.There is a failure to account for resource consumption and “embodied carbon” in our buildings and we need to take this problem seriously. We need to find better ways to “reduce, reuse and recycle” in the construction industry. For anyone in doubt about the seriousness of this situation, look up the Guardian’s Concrete Week, five consecutive articles about the dangers of concrete as a construction material and major landfill component.
How can we curtail this excessive resource consumption and waste production and protect our quality of life?
Our Guide to Action
And make no mistake, the size of this problem and the extent of the misery that we will experience if we do not solve it, means that we must all take action – as consumers and producers, as users of buildings and infrastructure and as those who write the policies that allow continued abuse or generate potential improvements.
In ‘The Impact of Overbuilding on People and the Planet’ (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2019) David A. Ness provides a guide to action, following the recommendations of the World Summit on Sustainable Development, Johannesburg, 2002, ‘which affirmed that all countries should promote sustainable consumption and production patterns by establishing a “sound material-cycle society”, in which the consumption of natural resources is reduced and environmental impacts are minimised. In both developed and developing countries, the key to achieving this was seen to be the promotion of the 3Rs (i.e. reduction, reuse and recycling of waste) in addition to ensuring the sound disposal of waste.’
David’s ideas are backed by years of research in Australia, Asia and especially China – and they are new, innovative, but also practical! “If we can make use of and adapt existing building and infrastructure stock, we save new carbon and resources,”
“We also need to design any new structures for ease of disassembly, adaptation and reuse, as part of a ‘circular’ built environment.” And to put this into practice he has been working with Arup. .
In 2017, the UniSA research team, of which David is a lead player, was awarded the Arup Global Research Challenge to further pursue his ideas. Part of the New Royal Adelaide Hospital was selected as a test case, with radio frequency identification tags attached to potentially reusable building components such as partitions, ceilings, doors and facade panels, and information such as location, size, type, and age of those components uploaded to a database. This successful ‘proof of concept’ opens the way to the next step – some commercially viable applications. It shows there’s an opportunity here to re-use systems that were previously sent to landfill or at best recycled for their raw materials,
The project has allowed the team to take advantage of relatively new technologies like BIM (Building Information Management) systems and cloud-based database storage systems to help track, categorise and organise building elements in a way that was never before possible.
What can you do?
There are many ideas in this book that you can combine with the latest technology if you are research inclined. But for me, the major impact of the book is on global mindsets. What we have for long taken as natural, normal, and indeed beneficial – that is, ever more building and construction – ‘more cranes in the skyline’ – are not natural, and we need to consider carefully whether the benefits they provide are worth the damage that they inevitably cause. This is not to say we should not build more, just that we need to do more to establish whether any particular proposal is of NET benefit.
For all who have a social and environmental conscience and concern, read
The Impact of Overbuilding on People and the Planet’ by David A Ness.
Thank you Penny for highlighting message of book so well. Most important of all, as you said, is to do more to establish whether a particular proposal is of NET benefit. The UK Green Building Council’s Framework on ‘Net Zero Carbon Buildings’ offers a glimmer of hope. In addition to being among the first to recognise the carbon ’embodied’ in the buildings and goods we consume, it emphasises that the greatest opportunities to reduce this are at earliest stages of a project – such as by considering the “build nothing”‘ option – “challenging the root cause of the need, explore alternative approaches to achieve the desired outcome”, or ‘build less’.
If the aim of the game is to build, building less is not an option. But what we might be able to do is to change public opinion on what we build. What would it take to think ‘capital investment’ – and invest in social capital?