Since the creation of tools, humans have been building and over time the structures have become more and more complex. As the growth and development of our buildings have progressed, so have our societies and cultures. Many cultures around the world even link construction with their religious beliefs and stories. The Judeo-Christian faith has the the Tower of Babel story where humans try to gain access to the heavens by means of the construction of a gargantuan tower and not through their god.
Their god punishes them all for believing they could reach the heavens without him by confusing their language so that they cannot complete tower. The ancient Egyptians also had construction tied to their religious beliefs. The Egyptians built the great pyramids which they believed would help fallen pharaohs ascend into the afterlife.
Both of the cultures believed that their massive buildings had a connection to the heavens and more meaning than just the materials they were made of and the structures themselves. This is probably why building large building and construction seems as natural to America as a society today as it does. It has been rooted deep in our human psychology and always will be.
Construction and Sustainability
The cities where most of the world’s population lives only covers a miniscule 2% of the world’s land mass, but mankind is still responsible for 75% of the earths consumed resources. The amounts of both energy and materials waste in the construction industry is one of the largest areas for possible improvement in terms of sustainability practices in America. Close to half of the non-renewable energy used per year by industry is used by construction, and 80% of the land loss per year is lost due to construction.
These statistics show the absurd amount of waste that is due to construction and why it is so important that we address the construction industry and the cost it has on the environment. There are groups in America today trying to address this issue through multiple different strategies. Some of these are effective and others still need much more improvement. Throughout the rest of this blog I will explain all the areas where there is waste in construction and the solutions that can be implemented in America to fix these issues.
The Cost Of Traditional Construction
The environment and sustainability are topics that have been getting a lot more attention over the past few years, and so, more and more research is done every day on how we as a species effect the environment. Humans make up a very small percent of the biomass on earth, however we consume astronomically more than our fair share. 60% of the natural recourses removed from the environment are for construction. Most of these materials are removed from the lithosphere, the outermost rocky layer of the earth, and of that 60%, 40% of that is used for building. If you do the math, that is 24% of what humans remove in a year is for building purposes alone. This means over half of the raw materials extracted from the lithosphere per year is used for construction of some form and almost a quarter is used for building specifically
This being said the effects and benefits of construction are short lived. Buildings are demolished and new structures rebuilt on the same lots almost as often as new land being cleared for construction, but when this happens energy lost during the construction is not reclaimed and demolished resources are rarely reused. Rather more energy and resources are used in the construction of the new building.
When these new buildings are built, just as with any construction project, there are many types of cost that go into making up the total cost. There is the upfront financial cost for the labor and materials, the environmental effect that extracting and producing those materials will have, and also the residual cost. I call the residual cost the “hidden cost” because it is not included in the upfront cost of the building. These are costs like the energy efficiency of the house and the effects on the environment after the construction is complete. These three cost come together to create the total cost of the building.
Even in today’s economy Construction is still one of the largest industries in the U.S.. In the month May of 2012 there was $830.0 billion dollars spent on construction alone. Does any American that can afford it ever plan on living off the streets? No, so people will always need homes to live in and building to work in, and America’s population has been historically increasing and doesn’t show any signs of stopping; therefore there will always be some new construction going on.
With almost every American living in some form of home, the housing market is often a focus of economist. The idea of the monetary cost of construction is fairly straight forward. If simplify the cost of a construction project to an equation where the monetary cost is equal to the cost of the materials plus the cost of labor then we can more easily understand how some decisions effect the price and relate to sustainability.
Monetary Cost = Materials + Labor
It is fair to assume that the cost of labor is a constant value. That is to say that the cost of labor to design and build a certain building will cost the same for each construction company. For example, Plumbing. Anyone who has ever paid a plumber to fix something in their home knows it isn’t cheap. But it isn’t cheap for anyone! It’s not like plumbers charge each house a different rate. There is a charge for a service and that charge is consistent for everyone. It works similarly on a large scale when constructing a home or large building. And this is what is meant when I say that the cost of labor is consistent. The cost may fluctuate with the market and economy but it will fluctuate equally for each company. If we assume the cost of labor is a fixed value then we can drop it from the equation and we are left with the monetary cost of the project is directly proportional to the cost of the materials.
Monetary Cost = Materials
More expensive materials or more of the same materials means the price goes up. Since so many resources are used for construction, for example 90% of hardwoods harvested per year go to construction, finding more sustainable methods that reduced the amounts of materials used would not only greatly decrease environmental impact but also the fiscal cost.
The environmental cost of construction is something that’s often over looked. Often times on a job site a board will be sawed to a certain length, or a piece of metal cut into a certain shape and the “scraps” that are left over are thrown into a job site dumpster.
The scraps are thrown out to go sit and fill up a landfill somewhere when chances are most of the excess material could be used somewhere else on the job site at some point or another. There is an expression in construction that says “measure twice, cut once” which puts the emphasis on doing things right the first time and precision. However this mindset of precision and being careful to ensure you are doing things right on the work site does not extend to sustainability.
I can personally say from working on some construction projects that it is easier to simply grab more materials and start cutting from a new board than to look through the scraps to find one that works. I have worked on projects where materials are limited and ones where they are abundant. When the materials were scarce, like when constructing homes in Guatemala, we made the most of every material on the job site.
It took more time and focus but it saved money and materials. On the opposite end of this was building stages and decks for a party. There was no set budget for the project and so whenever more materials were needed they were purchased and the price just tacked onto the bill. The nature of the project was also time based, and so with the rush and unlimited supplies sustainability was the last thing on everyone’s mind. It was just simply what was the fastest and easiest way to get things built.
Building decks for the party is more similar to most job sites in America today then working in Guatemala was. The construction companies do not have unlimited resources, but the workers and management do have sufficient funds and are more focused on time and date of completion than they are sustainability. So whenever they need a new plank of a certain length they simply grab a standard one and cut it down to size. This, just as in the project I was a part of, creates an incredible amount of waste.
Another reason construction creates so much waste is demolition. Often times in order for a new building to be built an old one is leveled. This is a positive thing since it saves more natural wilderness from being destroyed. However the way buildings are demolished is extremely wasteful. Almost no materials are saved and most of the old buildings remains will end up in a landfill. Again, I have seen this first hand by being part of clearing a construction site. The potential for all that material to be reused is great, but instead it is ignored and scrapped.
As before if we chose to look at the cost as an equation, we can say that the environmental cost is equal to the type of material used times the amount of that material used.
Environmental Cost = Type of Material X Amount
This is not to say the cost monetary wise, but rather the environmental effect of a project. The environmental cost is not measured in a dollar value but rather in the amount of damage done to the environment. It’s like each material has its own environmental effect value that is dependent on the sustainability of that material. And then that value is multiplied by the amount of the material used to give you the overall environmental impact. This multiplication effect is why, when haste and disregard is taken in the construction process that it has an extremely powerful impact on the amount of environmental damage as a result of the project. Just as with the material cost, implementing simple sustainable practices that used the same materials would cut down on the environmental cost tremendously.
One of the largest and probably the biggest cost of traditional construction are the all the hidden costs. These are the cost of upkeep and running of the house or building. That being said, very few Americans stop to consider the construction of their house when it comes to power usage. Many of the techniques used in traditional construction are not effective in terms of saving power. They set up the houses ventilation in such a way that it actually causes more energy to be used when heating and cooling a house. Likewise, the pipes are set up inefficiently so that the water heater must use more power to do the same job.
Often these ineffective set ups require less time and materials on the front end which is why construction companies use them. Rather they choose to make more profit and pass on the expenses to the buyer. In the average American home the largest usage of electricity is appliances coming in at 33%. After that is the power used for the heating and cooling system with 31% of the total electricity used, and after that it is the water heater at 9%. All the appliances in the American home like televisions, microwaves, light bulbs, etc. added together is just slightly more than the cooling system? That’s insane! But yet what is more ridiculous is that there are plenty of green appliances advertised today designed to cut back on power usage and environmental impact of your appliances, but very little is known or advertised about what you can do to make your house more efficient in terms of actual airflow and water flow.
This is mostly because once the house is built most of the potential to make these systems more effective is gone. But the reason it’s not installed in the homes to begin with is the money and time it take the construction company. The average American home owner is not a major part of the design process of their home, if at all, and so not near as much information is advertised about green construction as there is about other green products such as appliances and cars. Most Americans simply look on the market at what’s for sale and buy homes that are already built. And because the American home owner is not educated about how these engineering changes can effect environmental and fiscal impact they do not weigh them into their decision making process when buying a house. This as a result causes the builder not to take building more green into consideration when it comes to constructing the homes. If the client is not concerned with it then the builders are not going to take the time to do it. Air and water flow are both areas where more consideration and minor tweaks along with good engineering could lower power usage and overall all environmental impact significantly.
If we take the monetary cost, the environmental cost, and the hidden cost and examine them together we see how they all work together to form the incredible waste problem in construction today. The wasteful use of material leads to more fiscal cost because of the price of the material. But it has an even greater effect on the environment. As more materials are used for building, more materials have to be produced, which damages the planet and consumes more non-renewable energy. Combine these things with the fact that all of the materials and recourses are often built in a non-efficient way so that the hidden cost continue to rack up long after the project is complete and you are left with the awful disaster that America is in right now with the construction industry.
There are plenty of other areas that need and can be improved, but the construction industry as a whole is the area with the greatest potential for improvement. Different environmental and construction agencies have realized this and are trying to correct the problem. If these groups can be effective in getting large construction companies willing to change to new techniques then it is possible to greatly reduce the environmental impact of the entire industry.
The good news is that there are groups attempting to create change in the industry and that these groups are making some substantial ground in getting large construction companies to go green. However there are some things that either needed to be done differently or changed about their plan of attack if the problem is going to ever be completely resolved. So far I have explained the problem and why it is important to fix it. Through the rest of the blog I will now explain my proposed solution, using examples from programs that are already in place as well as what needs to be done in addition to those programs.
One of the groups that is leading the transition in the construction industry is the United States Green Building Council (U.S.G.B.C.). Many groups in America have come out with programs and systems to help promote greener construction, for example the EPA developed Energy Star. In 1998 the U.S.G.B.C. came out with a new voluntary construction certification program called LEED Construction, which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. This program was a point rating system that gives credit to buildings and projects for being green through certifying them. The biggest thing LEED is changing is it helps to give standards to what a “green” or environmentally friendly building really is. Up until the creation of LEED and a few other ranking systems of its kind, the idea of a green building was simply in the eyes of the buyer and seller with no measurable way of defining how environmentally friendly the building actually was. Over time the LEED program has been revised three times and has grown and adapted to the construction market of today. Today U.S.G.B.C. defines LEED as “a voluntary, consensus-based, market-driven program that provides third-party verification of green buildings. From individual buildings and homes, to entire neighborhoods and communities”.
How LEED Works
The LEED construction certification program has many different parts and functions that make it extremely flexible so that it is possible to be applied to any type of construction or project. Because you cannot fairly compare the energy usage of a larger office building to that of a private residence, LEED has different types of certifications for Schools, Office buildings, Homes, Neighborhoods, etc.. This makes it so that any type of construction company on any type of project can get involved with the program. LEED even offers certification for projects that are simply building shells or doing renovations to previously existing building. All of this works together to allow builders of any type of project with a measurable standard of what is a green building and guidelines as to how to receive a certification saying that their project or building was constructed in an environmentally friendly.
The way LEED does this is by using a 110 point system. LEED recognizes that every construction site and project is different and so they allow for multiple different ways to receive certification. The way the point system works is simple in a big picture kind of way. A site or job earns points for different sustainable actions or qualities of their building. These points are totaled and then score determines if the building is certified and on what level. Within each type of construction project, a project can earn four levels of LEED certification: Certified is 40–49 points, Silver is 50–59 points, Gold is 60–79 points, and the highest level Platinum is 80 points. These different levels allow sites to get certified while still allowing certified projects to separate themselves and be further recognized for their efforts to be sustainable.
Although how the point system works is simple, looking at in on a large scale, the complexities and requirements for getting points and qualifying for different levels of certification can be harder to understand. It is a lot like laws and courts in the United States. Understanding how a code of law works in theory can be simple but when it comes to applying it and actually using it a case or in court a lawyer is normally required. In the same way getting a building to be LEED certified can very difficult if you don’t have people working on the project that understand the complexities of LEED.
LEED has addressed this issue by setting up an educational program that allows someone like an employee of a construction company, an engineer, or architect to become LEED accredited. This accreditation requires learning about how LEED operates and then proving this knowledge on a series of test, and because LEED is always changing and adapting, continuing education credits are required each year in order to maintain accreditation. These accreditations do not give the employee the ability to certify the building. That is still handled by the U.S.G.B.C. They simply prove to the employer and the U.S.G.B.C. that people educated on sustainable practices and LEED are working on the project. The senior engineer I interviewed said that the LEED accreditation although requiring work to learn and obtain, is not out of reach for most employees and that the system they have created is effective and easy to use.
This means that LEED has effectively taken a complex system and made it so that an employee can, while still preforming their day to day work responsibilities, master the intricacies of the LEED’s point system. This educational system is a key to LEEDs success and is why they can afford to have an effective complex system, but due to the educational system they have set up, building companies can still use the system effectively. Without this system the companies and workers would feel as if they are jumping through invisible hoops they didn’t understand in order to receive certification, and therefore less would choose to participate.
In summary, LEED is a point system set up by the U.S.G.B.C that sets up guidelines for what a sustainable construction project is and how to go about building one. Their point system has many different categories and different ways to be applied so that all projects can participate. They also offer an educational system that simplifies their system for builders and teaches them about sustainable practices. This setup allows all companies to understand and participate in the program.
What is Working and What Need to be Fixed
Because it is so applicable to different projects and its multiple layers of certification the system LEED has set up has been gaining momentum and participation in the industry since its creation. This is important because LEED and other programs like it, although still not perfected, are a big part of the solution. A senior engineer in the construction industrysaid that he could see LEED becoming extremely common across the board if they kept growing and adapted some changes. He also talked about how LEED has made the construction company he works for more sustainable. He talked about how they were recycling more, buying local materials, and building in a way that was more energy efficient. He described how the reduced use of materials, by making sure they recycled and got the most from their materials, not only cut down of environmental impact but also financial cost as well. LEED realizes the relationships of the equations discussed earlier and tries to help show companies how to save money while being sustainable.
Although programs like LEED help projects save money one of the negatives is that he some of the points in LEED are basically bought. Many other programs, like LEED, have the same problem where to earn a certification the company basically just throws money at certain things to get points. This is an issue that needs to be addressed.
It is flaws like this in the point system that leads to some projects choosing not to participate in getting certified. Some companies are ok with spending more money to be sustainable, but not ok with spending lots of money on things with very little impact to the building or sustainability just for the sake of earning points. The problem is that in order to get the minimum points needed companies often have to do at least a little of point buying. He said that his company is leaning towards a policy where every building they build needs to at least meet minimum LEED certification, but it isn’t cost effective for each project. If LEED were to remove some of these types of points and adjust the system so that certification could be earned by any project without buying any points and just building more sustainably then LEED would be even more successful.
The person I interviewed is currently LEED certified and spoke highly of the education system. He said that the program, especially the continuing education part, did an excellent job of teaching about the LEED program, but more importantly, sustainability in construction in general. He said that the program teaches workers about sustainability in general and that it extremely effective at raising awareness about issues. This is important to do since the builders are the ones doing the actual construction and have direct control over how things are designed and built, but it is not far enough.
Programs such as LEED need to realize why not everyone is jumping on board with building sustainably. The fact of the matter is that most of the construction companies choose to build sustainably because being green is viewed positively in today’s society. They therefore work to seem green in hopes that this will give them a competitive edge. In fact this is one of the major driving forces behind programs like LEED. They provide recognition to companies that build sustainably. The companies could just as easily build the project the exact same way and never apply to get certified, but instead they choose to spend money to get certified for the public recognition. Regardless of the motives for participating in LEED though it does get companies building in a more environmentally friendly. Unfortunately the sad reality is though that they are a business and mostly concerned with profits and so the certification is a majority of the reason they choose to adjust their building methods.
LEED needs to take advantage of this fact and attack the problem at the source. The construction industry is mostly concerned with money. So what is the best way to get them focused on the environments, or at least building more environmentally friendly regardless of the motives? Get their clients, the American public, more concerned with the environment and how it relates to construction! There are all types of environmental groups raising awareness about environmental issues ranging from clean energy to the rain forest, but you rarely see commercials or literature about green construction.
LEED already has a large and effective educational system for the people who get LEED certified. They need to use this powerful tool and expand it to expand the American public. They need to get a campaign started to educate the actual buyers of homes and buildings about the importance of buying green homes. If they did this and were effective than soon, as it is with purchasing other types of green products, buying a green home would be something that was in high demand.
If this were the case then construction companies would all desire to build more sustainably and choose to participate in programs such as LEED. If this transition could be facilitated in the American public’s view than a similar transition would occur through the entire construction industry. If this were to happen and having some type of certification saying you had built sustainably became common practice than all of a sudden the groups running these programs like the U.S.G.B.C. would gain a large influence on how construction companies built their buildings.
If the market got to the point where they expected every building to be certified then over time the certification systems would be able to make their policies stricter without losing participation and builders would simply have to adjust to the newer more sustainable policies. Right now they have to be careful not to be too strict because than there would be reduced participation. However if done correctly and gradually, these adjustments to the systems could reach the point in the future where the idea of building a green building today would just be the industry standard.
Overview of LEED
LEED is a point system that helps provide standards for green building while also providing a certification for proof that a building was built in a sustainable manner. According to people who have work first hand with LEED, it is growing and gaining momentum. It has a positive effect on project already by actually reducing the amount of materials bought and therefore reducing the financial cost. The program also demands more sustainable practices and building methods to get certified. This reduces the environmental impact and the hidden cost directly by the use of recycled materials and the use of more energy efficient building methods. Unfortunately LEED, and programs like it, still have some flaws they need to work out. However if they can address their issues and use their already powerful educational system to educate the public than they could solve the construction crisis in America.
The construction industry has many costs from financial to environmental. Over time construction habits that lead to enormous amounts of waste have developed. The key to solving these problems is to get the construction industry adhering to some form of standards. This can be done best by participating in certification programs such as the LEED certification program. These programs if perfected would cut down on all of the cost of construction as well as providing standards. These programs also need to educate the American public and create a demand for green housing in the market place. If this can be achieved than the companies trying to provide standards will have more influence and over time America’s construction industry can be completely shifted to a way of green construction.
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