Sustainable Building Innovations Are Setting the Stage For a Greener, More Equitable Future
There is no doubt that our world is rife with issues to be urgently addressed. From this long list, the one that arguably poses the most severe threat to society at large is climate change. By inadvertently changing the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere, we have dug ourselves into a deep hole from which escaping will be a daunting task. If we desire to promote the wellbeing of humanity as well as maintain and expand on the utopia that the modern world is for some , we must take immediate strides to halt and reverse climate change.
The notion of our modern ‘utopia,’ that I posit while typing on my expensive laptop in one of the safest countries in the world, points to another highly troubling aspect of our current society. For some people in Canada, life has never been better. Famine is unimaginable, the only conflicts to be seen are on the news, and diseases can be prevented and treated. However, for the majority of people in the world, this idea of utopia does not mesh with their reality. Famine and conflict are rampant (increasingly so due to climate change) and treatable diseases cause countless deaths.
To tackle the intertwined issues of climate change and social inequity, we need visionary solutions in every economic sector. One such sector is the construction industry. This industry is responsible for 39 per cent of global energy-related CO2 emissions,1 which, in conjunction with the deforestation that clears the way for our buildings, makes construction a leading driver of climate change. In terms of social inequity, the sector is similarly culpable. High building costs severely limit who has access to suitable housing – a key determinant for individuals’ health and thus success in society.2 Additionally, resource extraction in lower-income nations for construction abroad robs these communities of their natural resources, and seasonal worker arrangements in the industry (where workers are brought from low- to high-income nations as a source of cheap labour) go after their human resources as well.1 And unfortunately, these socio-ecological issues are likely to become more pronounced as developing countries continue to urbanize.
Seemingly just in the nick of time, revolutionary innovations are sweeping through the industry, poised to significantly reduce construction emissions and increase housing availability. These sustainable building innovations have the potential to make cities and communities sustainable (Sustainable Development Goal 11) and reduce inequalities within and between nations (Sustainable Development Goal 10), among other positive side-effects.
For the past century, there have not been significant changes in the fundamental ways humanity builds. The materials used — primarily wood, steel, and concrete — as well as the time-consuming, wasteful methods we employ have persisted despite the massive technological leaps that humankind has taken. This is largely because construction companies’ small profit margins and risk intolerance make them unwilling to gamble on novel techniques and technologies.1 In the past decade-or-so, however, calls for more sustainable, affordable building coupled with worker shortages and rapidly advancing technology have put pressure on companies to innovate. As is the case with many other industries today, these innovations are centered around a new-found ability to automate processes.
The first innovation in the construction industry surrounding automation is prefabrication. In this novel approach, companies build the components of a building in highly automated factories and send them to the job site for assembly. The main advantages of ‘prefab’ construction are that it reduces waste to practically zero and is much less time-consuming than on-site construction due to the high speed and low downtime that automation delivers.3 A Canadian startup that is running with the prefab model, Nexii, was able to construct a Starbucks in just six days this past summer. With their patented, low emission ‘concrete’ in tandem with a prefab model, Nexii is taking significant strides to make construction more sustainable and affordable.4
Another innovation with potential to shake-up the sector that is just begging to be implemented is 3D printed building. Being able to 3D print buildings has long been a dream of developers due to its potential to massively reduce waste, speed up construction time, and create complex and unique structures. Some companies are integrating 3D printing into their prefab factories while others are taking the technology on-site. Regardless of the specific implementation, this innovation is poised to drastically improve the sustainability and cost-effectiveness of building through reduced waste, shorter time-horizons, and decreased need for human workers.5 In fact, one study has shown that on-site 3D printing can reduce the length of a project by 67 times and costs by 80 per cent compared to traditional methods.1
The sustainable building innovations briefly explored in this article have the potential to change the world for the better. Firstly, they will allow us to lessen our impact on the environment, helping to put the brakes on climate change. Secondly, by cutting costs and construction time dramatically, they will work against the social inequities that current building practices propagate by making affordable housing feasible. In sum, the socio-ecological impact of these innovations is hard to overstate.
Of course, as with any high-tech innovation, prefab and 3D printed buildings are taking off in developed countries that can invest in them, but are struggling to pick up steam in the lower-income countries which most urgently need them. Governments everywhere, but particularly in those countries with less available capital, must step in to incentivize sustainable building methods so people investing into the sector can be confident that they will receive a solid return on their investment. A couple of ways governments can achieve this are by setting stringent environmental standards for the public-works projects they procure and updating building codes to remove barriers for innovative technologies such as 3D printing.1
If we want our civilization to thrive well into the future, we must look after both our world and each other. Embracing sustainable building is one of the most important ways we can do this.
- Adaloudis, M., & Bonnin Roca, J. (2021). Sustainability tradeoffs in the adoption of 3D concrete printing in the construction industry. Journal of Cleaner Production, 307. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2021.127201
- Rolfe, S., Garnham, L., Godwin, J., Anderson, I., Seaman, P., & Donaldson, C. (2020). Housing as a social determinant of health and wellbeing: Developing an empirically-informed realist theoretical framework. BMC Public Health, 20(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-020-09224-0
- Mighty Buildings . (2021, March 10). World’s First 3D Printed Zero Net Energy Homes Community in America! Youtube. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wCzS2FZoB-I
- Sustainable Building & Green Construction: High-performance building envelopes. Nexii Building Solutions. (2022, January 19). Retrieved February 16, 2022, from https://www.nexii.com/
- Tirth, V., & Ghori, S. W. (2021). Cost–benefit analysis and Environmental Impact Assessment of 3D printing applications in building construction in Oman. Fourth Industrial Revolution and Business Dynamics, 89–107. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-16-3250-1_5
This blog post series is an ongoing partnership between the SDG Cities program at Pillar Nonprofit Network and the Environmental Stewardship course in the Governance, Leadership, and Ethics program at Huron University. As part of their assignments, students are required to write about real-world challenges using the UN Sustainable Developments Goals (SDGs) as a holistic framework to analyse the problem and propose solutions that could lead to systemic change and a better future for all. The series presents an opportunity for students to address practical and meaningful challenges that their communities are facing currently, and an opportunity for SDG Cities to enrich their program by including youth perspectives.
All opinions expressed by the guest authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the SDG Cities program, 10C Shared Space or Pillar Nonprofit Network.