Sustainability will be the biggest trend of the construction industry in 2020

Ammar Kaka, Vice Principal, Heriot-Watt University Dubai on how construction make urbanization sustainable

According to a study titled World Urbanization Prospects and published by the United Nations (UN) 4.1 billion people or 55% of the world population were living in urban areas in 2017. Across high-income countries such as those in the Middle East, more than 80% of the population live in urban areas. And by 2050, close to 7 billion people worldwide are projected to live in urban areas.

This naturally means enormous pressure on our resources. If quality of life is to be maintained in the backdrop of rapid urbanization, the goal must be to develop resource-efficient cities. In fact, one of the targets for global development as stated in the UN’s 11th Sustainable Development Goal (SDG), is to “make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”.

A large part of this onus lies on the construction industry. Sustainable construction plays a huge role in providing the necessary spaces and landscapes for human harmony and balance.

Ammar Kaka, Provost and Vice Principal of Heriot-Watt University Dubai shares some ways by which construction can be made sustainable in order to cope with the urbanization demands of 2020.

Use of low-impact construction materials
Almost all forms of human habitation damage nature to some extent. Similarly, the process of manufacturing construction materials also requires a lot of energy which result in CO2 emissions. According to the Global Status Report 2017 (published by UN Environment and the International Energy Agency), buildings and construction together account for 36% of global final energy use and 39% of energy-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions.

The use of low-impact construction materials can go a long way towards minimizing this damage. Such materials can also be recycled or re-purposed, which in turn minimize the ecological footprint. As a general guideline, materials that do not need to be manufactured in a factory or transported over large distances will have the lowest environmental impact. Such materials are found to occur naturally and are biodegradable. Some examples are timber, clay, lime, rammed earth, cob, straw, hemp and stone. While materials such as bricks, cement, metal, plastic and concrete are extremely easy to use and profitable, they have a high environmental impact (unless they are reclaimed).

Use of renewable energy sources
From the production of materials to the building process itself, the construction industry is responsible for a large part of energy consumption. In the area of commercial construction, roughly 90 percent of all energy used during the lifespan of a building goes to its operation and utilities.

If the construction sector increases the use of renewable energy sources such as wind energy, hydro energy and solar energy and shifting to energy-efficient equipment and machinery, this will optimise energy savings as well as reduce fuel footprint. Some ways by which this can be done is by building structures that use natural light, usage of smart windows that block UV rays and ultra-energy-efficient HVAC systems and water heaters which run using rooftop solar panels.

Focusing on space efficiency
Efficient use of space produces considerable environmental and economic benefits, and nowhere is this more important than in the case of urbanization. The construction sector can achieve space efficiency in several ways such as: maximising the use of daylight in the interiors, incorporating requirements for space efficiency into project briefs and design, systematically collecting and updating space and cost information as well as setting targets that are monitored, incorporating space efficiency concepts into the estate strategy and minimizing surface area by excluding conservatories, extensions, and porches in the design. Space efficiency can ensure the size of the structure stays small, reduces the need for construction materials and allows a greater number of people to live in the same space together harmoniously.

Technology to improve quality of living
A decline in the quality of life is usually the first challenge of urbanization. Yet this is not stopping the movement of people to the cities. The need of the hour is construction that fulfils the twin demands of comfort and convenience. Therefore, one of the biggest challenges that the construction sector today is grappling with is how to use existing spaces and resources to deliver a high standard of living.

Here is where technology comes in. The significant and rapid developments taking place in the digital sector cannot be ignored. Artificial intelligence, robotics, the internet of things (IoT), 3D printing, blockchain and big data are all too impactful to be ignored and will transform how buildings are constructed and operated to address the new requirements fuelled by urbanization. Smart construction comprises two main themes: smart buildings and infrastructure; and the way in which these are designed, procured and built.

On the smart building front, the majority of developments are focused on making buildings more environmentally sustainable. They learn occupants’ energy needs, respond to changing weather conditions and automatically adjust themselves to maximise efficiency. The potential for smart buildings therefore is massive. In fact, studies by the McKinsey Global Institute estimate that IoT has a total potential economic impact of $3.9 trillion to $11.1 trillion a year by 2025, and that includes in the area of urbanization.

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