Better construction practices can help solve major global issues. Here’s how we get there.
The construction industry is often under scrutiny from the public eye due to the impact of building activity on our environment. However, these criticisms can be overly harsh and simplistic at times. While it might be easy to quickly blame the industry for waste and urbanization, at the same time, populations that require more housing, workspace and other infrastructure keep growing.
What’s often overlooked is that construction can be a powerful agent for positive change in this world. While it’s true that construction has a big impact, and those of us in the industry need to bring a higher level of environmental and sociopolitical consciousness to projects of all types, the industry also has the unique opportunity to be part of the solution to build a better world.
So while not all heroes wear capes, we do believe plenty of them wear hardhats. Let’s take a look at six real world problems that need solving and how construction is helping us do just that.
1. The Construction Industry Can Help to Improve the Environment
One of the most significant real world problems that need solving is reducing the environmental impact of humans. At the same time, one of the biggest charges leveled against construction is that it takes a toll on the said environment. For instance, “The global cement industry contributes approximately 5% of global carbon dioxide emissions,” says eSUB, adding that “Applications of fuel and electricity are also major contributors–fossil fuels are used to extract and transport minerals, to process materials, and even to power tools on construction sites.”
More worryingly, according to widely quoted EPA estimates, the construction industry uses a full half of the world’s raw natural resources.
But while such statistics paint construction in a pretty dire light, it also can make a meaningful impact. For one thing, given its status as a resource hog, the building industry has an equivalently massive ability to inspire change in the world. When it comes to real world problems that need solving, few fields are as well-suited to innovate in the direction of environmental change.
In other words, there are ways that better construction processes could help to improve our environment–rather than take from it. There’s currently a lot that construction can do to build more with less, as waste is a severe issue in construction. These better strategies include the following, among others:
Lean construction is a practice in which waste reduction is a primary focus. Lead strategies typically incorporate prefabrication, so projects only use what they need. When companies order parts to meet specific needs, rather than bulk orders that they might or might not use, the environmental consequences are greatly reduced.
A reduction in rework in the construction industry which would mean far fewer resources used and then immediately discarded during or after the building process. (Plus, it would waste less of the efforts of our valuable skilled labor as well.) According to research, almost half of rework is due to poor communication among project stakeholders, and poor project information. If stakeholders and workers can reduce rework through smarter building strategies and better communication, the environment will undoubtedly benefit. Certain construction software that provides more transparency to the latest project changes is vital in lessening rework significantly.
Better Standards for Buildings
Most of us are familiar with Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), the “primary certification used to measure and designate green buildings,” but it’s not the only green approach, and certainly not the most rigorous. Others are raising the bar on standards for what it means to build green–such as the Living Building Challenge, which is the most rigorous green building standard ever. According to their website, buildings that fit the standard must be “regenerative spaces that connect occupants to light, air, food, nature, and community,” and “Self-sufficient and remain within the resource limits of their site. Living Buildings produce more energy than they use and collect and treat all water on site.” In other words, it’s construction that has the potential to give back, rather than completely deplete.
In addition to new standards redefining what sustainability means in construction, innovative building materials are gaining buzz for their potential to give back. Think pollutant absorbing bricks and building-integrated bioreactors, two tools for not only reducing the impact of a building but for purifying the environment around it once it’s finished.
2. Construction Alleviates Overworked Infrastructure
Also at the top of the list of real world problems that need solving? Overworked infrastructure, which faces some serious challenges today. As 2018 Economist article reports, “But the sudden collapse of the Morandi bridge in Genoa this week, with a tragic loss of life, adds to the concern of civil engineers that many bridges around the world which use reinforced concrete are deteriorating faster than was expected.”
This isn’t just in Genoa. Around the world, roads and bridges are aging and crumbling. The fact that the population is only growing–and that we, therefore, need more infrastructure for transportation of both people and critical services–only adds to the problem. Not only is the current population underserved, but it is overusing the infrastructure that already exists. Luckily, heavy civil construction teams are at the forefront of solving these challenges, with some very bright companies involved in some awe-inspiring projects.
For instance, the US Department of Transportation recently proposed an innovative game plan to address critical infrastructure needs of the future. This includes creating more standards and processes for bringing the right technology on board to build future projects and provide maintenance later.
Other states are taking even more specific steps. For instance, the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT) mandated the use of a construction technology platform, PlanGrid, for all contractors and designers working with the agency. This will create better data and more transparency on infrastructure projects, helping to build them faster and maintain them effectively for longer–and potentially contribute to avoiding serious disasters from happening in the future.
In addition to bringing better technology to improve our infrastructure, building teams can also help by thinking differently about how we can design our cities today. Even city planners can play a considerable role in infrastructure just by planning for less. For instance, when complete, Chengdu–dubbed a prototype “Great City” by China–will “be less car-dependent than most metropolises in China” in addition to producing 60% less carbon dioxide. This inspired and ambitious plan represents the kind of megaprojects that construction is now taking on, in the interest of solving both social and environmental problems.
3. Innovative Construction Is the Only Solution to the Housing Crisis
The housing crisis is one of the most apparent of the real world problems that need solving. These days, it seems like everyone knows someone whose rented got too expensive to live in any longer, whose rental property suffered from the constant bickering between owners and renters, or who lost housing entirely–often with families in tow. Add to that the overcrowding of shelters and the death toll during heat waves and cold fronts, and we have a real crisis on our hands–and that’s in the developed world. Developing countries have it far worse.
The numbers make it pretty clear where the problem is coming from: According to the World Economic Forum, “the population of the world’s urban areas is increasing by 200,000 people per day, all of whom need affordable housing as well as social, transportation and utility infrastructure.”
We can’t just ignore these real world problems that need solving, though. As our world population grows, we will need to address the housing crisis more innovatively. The good news? Construction can help with that.
For example, 3D printed and prefabricated houses have been touted for years now as real solutions for affordable and fast housing. Such homes serve a dual purpose; they simultaneously provide fast housing for people in need and reduce the amount of waste produced in operations that don’t use prefab techniques.
As another technique, many cities, recognizing their inability to effectively increase valuable square footage on the ground, are looking up to build. According to a report by Continental Bank, there exists the potential to build more than 40,000 new homes on the more than 20,000 buildings suitable for development today.
Reducing the costs of housing overall helps to naturally alleviate the impact of the housing crisis. Since the project timeline is the most expensive cost of housing–in other words, the longer it takes, the more expensive it becomes–we can drastically cut costs on housing merely by streamlining the building methods through greater labor productivity and standardized processes, all of which can be achieved through the intelligent application of construction software.
4. Construction Can Measurably Improve Worldwide Health
Worldwide, especially in developing nations, poor infrastructure can cause significant world health concerns ranging from lack of clean water to disease. This too is among the most significant real world problems that need solving. While there are many contributing factors to improving conditions for developing nations, and we tend to think of vaccines and food as the most pressing issues, countries around the world often need access to such little-considered items as better plumbing.
Given that an estimated 4.5 billion people around the world don’t have access to safe sanitation, the need is even more pressing. While it’s true that there’s been a good deal of private investment to encourage safe sanitation around the world (such as investment and donations from the Bill Gates Foundation), the efforts need to move from the private to the public sector. Governments who work with construction companies to improve infrastructure projects through innovation will improve global sanitation dramatically.
However, there is hope and change is happening. For instance, in 2013, the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), an innovative foreign aid agency in the U.S., entered into a $324 million compact with the Zambian government to make improvements to water, sanitation and drainage infrastructure. The results were a decrease in water-related diseases and an improvement to financial stability and community wellbeing, creating a model we can (and should) happily follow.
5. Modern Structures Provide Resilience Against Disaster
Extreme weather patterns and disasters are more and more a common occurrence in the world today, making infrastructure damage and loss of life during weather events one of the most towering real world problems that need solving today. As global climate change intensifies, construction teams will need to work diligently to fortify future facilities and protect our current ones from harm.
That’s where resilient design comes in. According to the Resilient Design Institute, it is “the intentional design of buildings, landscapes, communities, and regions in response to vulnerabilities to disaster and disruption of normal life.” Its role is to ensure that buildings can withstand weather events such as hurricanes, tornadoes, blizzards and heat waves, and protect their occupants while doing it.
“Meanwhile,” says Building Design + Construction, “communities in drought-affected regions need to create building ecosystems that minimize water consumption and develop nimble ways to cultivate water.”
Building with resilience pays off. According to a new study, “For every dollar the government spends to make existing buildings more resistant to wildfires, earthquakes, floods and hurricanes, $6 is saved in property losses, business interruption and health problems.”
6. Healthier and Better-Built Hospitals Equal Healthier People
Patient safety is another of the biggest real world problems that need solving, and a critical concern in today’s healthcare facilities. We’re not talking safety during procedures and operations, or when in the ICU (though that too). No, we mean the safety of basic needs such as air and water. Because of this, while healthcare systems and personnel have a big weight to carry in protecting patient safety, construction can also play a role.
For instance, better construction designs for healthcare facilities can improve patient outcomes and staff efficiency. Furthermore, access to more construction and facility data can allow operations and maintenance teams to meet health and safety concerns faster if they arise. If you’re interested in learning more about the connection between patient safety and health, you can do so here.
Construction’s Role in Real World Problems That Need Solving
Construction, in other words, is taking a hard look at real world problems that need solving. While we’re not there yet–not even close–there are many thoughtful, compassionate and forward-thinking companies doing their best to catalog those environmental and social issues that plague the world and to create actionable checklists for addressing them. If you want to be a part of the movement for change, we’d love to have your company.