Doing Good

Sustainability in Civil Engineering

September 16, 2020

Designing with sustainability in mind catapulted in the early 90s, aided by the creation of the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System in 1993, a product of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). Since then, over 80,000 projects in more than 169 countries have been LEED-certified by 10,000+ membership organizations, with these numbers growing at a consistent rate. Besides the tangible benefits these buildings offer in the environmental and economic spheres, intangible benefits abound in social issues. Improved health and comfort for residents, cleaner air quality, and reduced dependence on critical infrastructure result in enhanced quality of life overall - a key objective within civil engineering.

In fact, in 2018, the American Society of Civil Engineers’ (ASCE) created an official sustainable development policy. Their two accompanying principles, “do the right project” and “do the project right,” detail the need to consider both structural and non-structural answers to community needs. Conversations between stakeholders and the public are encouraged to create a holistic solution. In short, it’s no longer enough to add “green” features to a project; it must be sustainably designed from the start. To achieve these goals, the ASCE laid out four steps; perform lifecycle assessment from planning to reuse, use resources wisely, plan for resiliency, and validate the application of principles.

A literal "green" building in Milan, Italy.

Perform Lifecycle Assessments

To quantify the economic, environmental, and social impact of projects, the ASCE recommends developing multi-step lifecycle methodologies to evaluate success. According to the Green Built Alliance, in the United States, buildings account for 39% of total energy use and 68% of total electricity consumption. This can put tremendous strain on a city and exemplify why working with the community concerned with determining their needs is paramount when designing a “green” building. Qualifying factors will vary depending on the area being built, so creating evaluation materials will be contingent upon these conversations. Regularly checking in with the governing municipality throughout the construction lifecycle will ensure that the project is done right.

Building restoration taking place in Moscow, Russia.
Restoration uses less energy and fewer resources than demolishing and rebuilding.

Use Resources Wisely

Figuring out how to use depleted resources and minimizing the use of nonrenewables is essential to building sustainably. With 38% of carbon dioxide emissions and 12% of total water consumption in the United States due to building use, reducing these percentages is of the utmost importance. The challenge for civil engineers is maintaining the same level of services with fewer materials.

One way to do so is by utilizing BIM technology in conjunction with an organization’s VDC department to design, optimize, and ultimately visualize site plans before building. This automatically reduces energy and materials consumed, further cutting waste. By streamlining operations with intelligent technology, projects are also completed faster, eliminating excess time, money, and supplies. As the rising digital transformation of the construction industry gains popularity, this trend will only intensify.

Restoration can often be the first step in progressively reducing resources. If an organization doesn’t have the resources to invest in new technology or green practices, they can choose to restore what isn’t completely damaged instead of performing a total renovation.

Cleaner air and water quality and minimal waste from buildings protect the surrounding ecosystem and conserves natural resources. Undoubtedly, when reaching environmental goals, everybody benefits.

Modular construction is a new building technique gaining traction.
Photo credit: Real Projectives

Plan for Resiliency

Civil engineers already plan with disasters in mind, but how do fluctuating environmental factors affect building plans? More hurricanes, tornadoes, snowstorms, heatwaves, wildfires, and other natural disasters can be expected because of global warming. Specialized equipment built to withstand rising temperatures and unpredictable weather patterns may be necessary. An organization’s response to these factors can make the difference in extending the lifespan of a building.

New construction techniques are also emerging as a result of climate change. Designing for disassembly (one of these techniques) allows buildings to come apart far easier than traditional methods. Modular construction and pre-building off-site are also on the rise. Logically, these reduce the total energy needed to decommission a site – a benefit to future engineers and construction workers.

Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Certification.
LEED is widely recognized as the standard for measuring building sustainability and environtmental impact.

Validate Application of Principles

A civil engineer or project manager must guide site development to confirm the appropriate application of these guidelines. LEED, Envision, Greengauge, and the like are excellent tools and consultants for measuring sustainable infrastructure. However, without clear guidelines from a 3rd-party verification system, civil engineers can still measure success based on economic impact or quantified carbon emissions. Reduced operating costs, increased profits, and optimized workspaces are telling in and of themselves.

Sustainability within engineering is so important that new subsectors of the industry are emerging – geotechnical, water resource, and municipal engineering, to name a few. By 2030, PwC estimates that the volume of construction output worldwide will increase by 85%, with many of these projects including sustainable designs by these engineers. Overall, the techniques mentioned above actually increase construction productivity – proving that despite the initial investment, these methods pay off in the long run. The good news? The vast majority of architects, engineers, contractors, and consultants agree. In a 2012 survey of 718 Turner Construction workers, 90% expressed commitment to “green” practices in some form. While we don’t know when these practices will become standard in the field, we can take comfort in knowing that more and more organizations are doing their part to offset carbon emissions.

If you’re interested in learning more about innovative technology in civil engineering, read our article on building infrastructure with drone insights, or download our eBook on extending the value of BIM throughout the construction lifecycle.

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