Construction industry emissions could be cut in half via the adoption of optimised design which reduces the wasteful usage of materials.

A new study conducted by the University of Cambridge has concluded that carbon emissions by the construction sector could be reduced by as much as 50 per cent via the optimised design of new buildings, which remain immensely wasteful in their utilisation of concrete and steel.

The study, published in the 4th issue of the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society A and funded by the UK’s Engineering and Physical Science Research Council (EPSRC), found that new buildings in Britain use as much as double the amount of steel and concrete mandated by current safety codes.

The study examined over 10,000 structural steel beams in 23 buildings from around the UK and discovered that on average the beams bore only half the load for which they designed.

The study further found that building designs surpass Eurocode Safety Standards by as much as a factor of two, in order to ensure that requirements are fully met via the cheapest means available.

Dr Julian Allwood from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Engineering headed the research. He said the construction industry sees economic benefits in spending more on materials in order to cut down on design spending.

“As materials are cheap and structural design time is expensive, it is currently cheaper to complete a design by using safe by considerably over-specified materials,” said Allwood. “Structural engineers do not usually design optimised structures because it would take too much time; instead they use repetition to decrease the cost of construction.”

Dr. Julian M Allwood

Dr. Julian M Allwood

According to the study, if greater pains were taken to design for minimum materials usage as opposed to maximum cost reduction, steel and concrete consumption could be dramatically reduced, as could attendant greenhouse gas emissions.

If over-design and early replacement were avoided, the UK could produce the same amount of built space with a mere fifth of the materials currently used, translating into a corresponding reduction in carbon emissions.

“We need to see a more sensible use of materials in the construction sector if we are to meet carbon reduction targets, regardless of the energy mix used in manufacturing the materials,” Allwood said.

Britain could also shore up its sustainability chops by reducing the rate of building replacement. Many structures are designed to last a century, yet the average replacement time for these buildings is a mere 40 years.