Construction and sustainability have not always gone hand-in-hand, but times are changing. In 2021, Autodesk reported that 82 percent of architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) companies now have a dedicated sustainability team in place, and 74 percent of AEC firms are directly investing in technology to improve sustainability.
Additionally, sustainable construction has become a requirement for project proposals, as 87 percent of construction firms report customer retention as a driving force for their sustainability focus. Sustainable thinking and planning have been shown to improve productivity and reduce consumption. Three in four construction firms report sustainability initiatives led to a better use of resources.
While the benefits of sustainable construction are immense, implementation can be challenging. AEC companies are looking to technology to set them on a path toward sustainability. Below are several examples of how technology has enabled successful sustainable construction and operations.
1. Energy Analysis Plug-Ins Achieve Net Zero Energy Design
After a battle to retain funding, the design for the Benjamin Banneker Academic High School in Washington, DC could not fall short. The Perkins Eastman team, led by architect Omar Calderón Santiago, took a holistic design approach, considering environmental, technological, economic, and social factors every step of the way. Sustainability goals explicitly focused on the intersection between energy and well-being.
The team used a combination of 3D modeling in SketchUp and energy and daylight analysis in SketchUp's Sefaira plug-in and Climate Studio to achieve a net zero energy status for the educational facility. These tools helped the team deliver occupant comfort through a careful investigation of daylight, thermal comfort, acoustics, and air quality without compromising on thoughtful design. Historically, Perkins Eastman relied on external consultants for energy analysis, but now with SketchUp's Sefaira, the team can keep their entire design within one program and focus on optimizing performance.
- Achieved net zero energy status by striving for a pEUI of 19.9KBTU/SF/yr—a 72% improvement from baseline without photovoltaics (PVs) and 100% improvement with PVs
- Designed well-lit spaces with a spatial daylight autonomy (sDA) of 66.4% for all regularly occupied areas and only 3.4% Annual Sunlight Exposure (ASE)
- Earned LEED Platinum Certification
2. Detailed BIM Modeling Reduces Material Waste
Concrete contractors Wayne Brothers is no stranger to the capabilities of BIM (building information modeling). The company began using Tekla Structures in 2012 to model its industrial and commercial projects in an effort to increase work quality and decrease design time. Using detailed BIM modeling on Sierra Nevada’s East Coast Multi-Structure Brewery project enabled the team to significantly reduce rebar material waste.
The fermentation tank structure, a 12,000 square-foot concrete structure with hundreds of embeds and block outs, required careful planning to avoid errors and subsequent rework and waste. Tekla was used to detail the rebar and coordinate work activities—there was no second guessing. Not only did using the 3D model shave a week off the three-month schedule, but it also resulted in no rebar discrepancies due to detailing or fabrication errors. For this type of project, one would expect 10 to 15 percent rebar waste; however, this was reduced to less than 1% or just two tons out of 300 tons of steel.
- Reduced project rebar waste to less than 1% rather than the typical 10–15%
- Earned LEED Platinum Certification
3. Machine Control Technology Reduces Emissions and Resource Consumption
When Aldridge Electric was tasked with designing, fabricating, and installing millions of feet of cable, conduit, and manholes for the new Dekalb Data Center project in Dekalb, Illinois, they knew it would require extensive planning and resources. So the project team used BIM models for design reviews, clash detection, and prefabrication opportunities in the office and looked to machine control devices in the field.
Trimble Earthworks systems on excavators and dozers fit seamlessly into the company’s connected workflow—3D models are transferred to Trimble Business Center and then to the machines. With the machine control devices, site work is completed to a high degree of accuracy. Crews installed objects to within a half-inch tolerance. This ultimately made excavator operators more efficient and reduced rework, all while reducing emissions and fuel. Installing work correctly the first time using machine control limits resources and time spent on the task.
- Machine control devices increased installation accuracy, reducing emissions and fuel consumption
- The completed data center will be one of the most efficiently-operated data centers in all of the United States, running on 100% renewable energy and using 80% less water than the average data center
- Designed to achieve LEED Gold Certification
4. Offsite Fabrication Reduces Emissions and Increases Efficiency
A 2021 study by Hanyang University in Korea found that industrialized construction reduces carbon emissions by 40 percent compared to traditional methods. Cooper Electrical Construction Company realized this advantage and many more when expanding their prefabrication efforts to meet fast-paced project schedules and beat out the marketplace competition.
The industry-leading electrical and instrumentation & controls contractor chose Trimble SysQue detailing software. Compared to Autodesk Revit, SysQue created more detailed design models using real components. The models offered enough detail to build confidently build offsite and scale production. Using SysQue has allowed the company to move 60 percent of field labor associated with conduit and cable tray fabrication from the job site to their off-site fabrication facility. In addition to the reduced emissions offsite fabrication heeds, Cooper Electrical has seen immense productivity, safety, and quality improvements.
- Construction prefabrication reduces carbon emissions by 40 percent compared to traditional methods, according to a 2021 study by Hanyang University
5. Mixed Reality Eliminates Carbon Footprint with Onsite Training
The British multinational energy and services company Centrica understands the call for digital transformation within the energy sector. In conjunction with the Net Zero Technology Centre, mixed reality specialist VISR Dynamics, and Microsoft, the team has explored mixed reality and its ability to drive process optimization, safety, productivity, and efficiency, and to support the transition to net zero.
Centrica has adopted the use of mixed reality to connect frontline workers at the energy plants with digital and over-the-shoulder support from energy engineers. Centrica engineers are able to create and add process and maintenance instructions based on spatial anchor points around a physical location. To ensure the device would be suitable for use in an ATEX level 2 environment, the VISR team chose to work with Trimble Field Technologies to deliver the mixed reality capabilities in a hardhat form factor.
The mixed reality technology is also used for training and offshore recertification. Previously, engineers would have to fly out to offshore locations, with each trip costing over £10,000 and producing unnecessary emissions. Now, engineers record their work via mixed reality devices, which are then reviewed remotely by the appropriate certifier.
- Onsite training using mixed reality eliminates the carbon footprint of travel to offshore locations and saves thousands of dollars
6. Unique Leak Detection Program Minimizes Water Loss
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that 16 percent of the total water used across the United States is lost, up to 30 percent on the high end. In other words, this collected and treated water never makes it to the end user, ultimately wasting resources. Central Arkansas Water’s GIS Division has developed a unique way to minimize water loss, and it involves a black lab mix rescue dog named Vessel.
Vessel is able to sniff any surfacing water throughout the Central Arkansas Water District to determine if it contains chlorine. In contrast, a human leak detection crew must test the water to determine if it is rainwater or a leak from the utility’s system. Once a chlorine-containing water leak is located, the system can be repaired and water loss eliminated. In addition to Vessel’s efforts, the utility needed digital tracking and looked to Cityworks, the asset management platform they already use. The GIS division created a custom field category in Cityworks to track and report the efficiency and accuracy of the Canine Leak Protection Program.
- Expected to reduce non-revenue water averages, i.e., water loss, from 10 percent to 5 percent with Canine Leak Protection Program
7. Detailed BIM Modeling and Offsite Construction Achieve Zero Waste Fabrication
Sigmat, a U.K. leader in light-gauge steel framing, knows the impact 3D modeling has on offsite construction. With the right tools, capable of clash detection, enhanced detail, and realistic visualization, the team essentially constructs their projects twice: once in the digital environment and once onsite. Sigmat uses Tekla software to model accurately and efficiently, taking the stance that if it works in the model, it will work onsite.
Sigmat has gone so far as to embed Sig-Dek, their own decking profile product, into the Tekla BIM library. Having access to this product-specific content further enhances levels of accuracy. Achieving this level of accuracy in virtual design and construction (VDC) processes allows Sigmat to achieve zero waste with offsite construction. Additionally, the correct material quantities are always ordered thanks to automatic quantity take-offs, and no rework is required due to detailing or fabrication errors.
- Accurate BIM modeling leads to accurate construction installation—no rework is required, and no waste is produced
8. Linear Scheduling Software Prompts On-Time Project Delivery and Subsequent Emissions Reduction
A high-speed rail project with 1,600 king posts, 3,000 pylons, and 300 kilometers of aluminum cable, overhead lines, and fiber optic cables finishing on time is almost unheard of. But that’s exactly what happened with the Cologne-Rhine/Main line construction project in Germany. THOST Projektmanagement knew that a project of this scale and complexity would require extensive scheduling and deadline control.
To manage the large number of activities and numerous interfaces between different trades, the team used Trimble Tilos, a scheduling system specially developed for linear construction sites. Tilos stores extensive algorithms containing information on the duration of the processes, equipment, personnel, relevant costs, etc. Information such as quantities and resources with the corresponding performance values can be correlated with each process and stored in libraries.
The open-data linear scheduling software allowed teams to share information and make real-time updates. The software was critical to delivering the project on time. The on-time delivery meant fewer resources were necessary to finish the project, and the high-speed rail could open sooner, replacing road traffic and reducing carbon emissions.
- The large-scale Cologne-Rhine Main line railway project finished on time, ultimately using fewer resources, replacing road traffic, and reducing carbon emissions during operation
The potential of technology to improve sustainable construction has just broken ground. There are many more opportunities to responsibly use resources and reduce carbon emissions within the construction industry through the aid of innovative technologies. The Ultimate Guide to Sustainable Construction Technology dives further into how technology can redefine a new scope of sustainability. Check it out here.