Construction in Space vs. Green Building: Is It a Contest?

October 7, 2020 Trimble Buildings

It’s certainly a fascinating time to look to the future of the construction industry. Who could have guessed just a few generations ago that builders and architects would be contemplating the very future of humanity? 

Specifically, the conversation revolves around two breeds of construction: outer space construction and sustainable, green construction.

Both are seeing unprecedented growth in recent years. As a case in point, the green buildings materials market is forecast to be worth nearly $574 billion by 2027, showing a compound annual growth rate of 11.3%. And, NASA alone has mapped out how they’re going to spend nearly $150 billion over the next eight years pursuing missions to the Moon and Mars, both of which require significant investment in space construction. Companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin may invest even more. 

In a notoriously risky, labor-strapped industry, are these two schools in conflict? Can we pursue both? And more importantly, should we?

The case for space construction

Building in space is not a brand new concept, but the technology is only recently being pursued in earnest. There are a few reasons for this surge in interest:

Jeff Bezos shows off Blue Origin's Blue Moon lunar lander in Washington, D.C. (Blue Origin Photo)

All three of these motivations share a common problem: they can’t be achieved by building and launching spacecraft from the earth as we’ve done in the past. The restrictions imposed by gravity limit the size of the rockets we can send into orbit. As a result, anything we want to build for use in space needs to fit neatly inside an existing rocket and be able to survive the rough ride required to get into orbit, or it needs to be sent up in modules and fit together using rudimentary means like spacewalking astronauts with hand tools. 

Neither option is optimal, especially for some of the intricately designed, large scale projects we’d like to see. For example, early in 2020, NASA announced a contract with Maxar Technologies to launch the SPIDER — a 16-foot-long robotic arm designed to construct modular machinery in space — into orbit. The arm’s first task will be to assemble a huge antenna array more than twice the size of what can be launched by conventional means. This will be a huge boon for satellite communications, GPS signal, and satellite broadband capabilities going forward. 

Other examples of projects that would require new and improved space building technologies include habitats for colonists living on the Moon or Mars, and larger, more adaptable space stations or spacecraft designed for longer stays in space or even interstellar travel. China is already working on its own orbital space station, which is being built in orbit over the course of 10 missions in two years

All of these possibilities have quickly moved from science fiction to plausible opportunities over just the last few decades, and construction professionals the world over are taking notice.

What the naysayers think about outer space construction

Of course, there are a number of challenges that go along with building in space:

  • Extreme conditions (temperature variance and micrometeor collision, among other things) will require new building materials, some of which are experimental and others of which haven’t even been invented yet.

  • Nearly all our current construction tools and methods require extreme modification to work in the weightless vacuum of space. Some would need to be reinvented altogether.

  • There’s already a shortage of skilled labor in the construction industry. Just imagine adding astronaut training to the list of requirements on applications. 

But, perhaps the most concerning argument against this surge in interest in space construction comes from the fact that many people believe it’s robbing vital time, effort, and resources from a much more important pursuit for construction technology.

If you want to eventually save humanity, they say, you should be focusing on sustainable construction

The case for green building

Green construction and sustainable building is probably far more familiar to you, and it may already be something you’re working toward in some way. While adoption is occurring at various speeds and levels globally, the overall trend is definitely accelerating, as exemplified by the growth noted earlier. 

This is due to the expanding importance of compliance and certifications in commercial construction, especially in developed lands. There are clear societal and legal pressures on companies to back up their claims of ecological stewardship, and many large corporations are doing an impressive job of leading the way. 

For example, Amazon’s commitment to sustainability across its massive real estate holdings — they operate more than 150 million square feet of commercial space worldwide, spread over nearly 200 facilities — is very impressive. One of the keys to their program involves minimizing the “embodied carbon” of their buildings, which is a relatively new measure of sustainability involving the carbon footprint required to produce and transport the materials the building is actually made of. In addition, they are actively pursuing numerous initiatives around solar energy, recovery, and reuse of waste heat from data centers, and tapping into geothermal energy where feasible. 

On a smaller, but equally impressive scale, Salesforce maintains a strong commitment to green building practices as well. According to their most recent sustainability report, 74% of their facilities are either already certified by LEED, BREEAM, Green Mark, and Fitwel, or are actively pursuing those certifications. As with Amazon, Salesforce is paying special attention to the building materials themselves in addition to the location, impact on the local environment, and more. 

Salesforce's San Francisco office tower raised the bar for sustainability standards, including placement of air ducts underneath the floor for superior energy savings and accessibility. (Photo: Salesforce)

With this kind of growth in the green building industry, it is clear that forward-thinking construction companies should be considering how their current skill sets, supplier relationships, and processes measure up to an accelerating push for sustainable building. 

What the opposition says about green construction

Just as with space construction, there are naysayers in the green building movement as well. For the most part, their arguments revolve around the idea that the environmental damage that’s already been done to the Earth is irreversible, despite our best efforts. And, that trying to force people to change how they build and live — especially when it costs more in the short term — is a losing battle with no real upside. 

Scientifically, this reasoning is debatable.

But, more importantly for our discussion, does that mean space construction is the only reasonable option? 

There’s really no contest

When you really look at both sides of this seeming debate, it quickly becomes clear that there’s really no contest at all between space construction and sustainable building. 

The fact is, we don’t know what the future actually holds. There’s no doubt that reducing our negative impact on the environment is a positive step. Many scientists feel the effects of global warming can still be mitigated with sufficient effort on a global scale. So, pursuing green building efforts is a win. 

At the same time, whether humans eventually leave Earth and spread out into space or not, exploration has its own benefits. We will never stop learning, growing, and pushing our boundaries as a species. After all, that’s how we’ve gotten this far, isn’t it? So, are we going to need to know how to build effectively in space? Eventually, for certain. So, that’s a win too. 

The only real question left is, which future will YOU be leading? 

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