With the construction sector experiencing a resurgence in growth, especially since the start of 2015, it’s bound to have a detrimental impact on the environment.

According to the UK Green Building Council, the construction sector uses more than 400 million tons of material a year, and many of these materials have an adverse impact on the environment.

Additional research by Construction Products says the products used during a particular construction job can also have an impact on the surrounding environment, due to the “extraction of raw materials.”

Similarly, in the US, a number of tools and resources regularly used by contract workers and construction firms, such as chemicals on site and even the diesel used by diggers and trucks, can significantly “harm public health and the environment,” according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Furthermore, the US construction industry accounts for 160 million tons, or 25 per cent, of non-industrial waste generation a year, according to the agency.

With this in mind, let’s take a look at the impact in more detail, and investigate the possible solutions.

The stats

According to new research by construction blog Bimhow, the construction sector contributes to 23 per cent of air pollution, 50 per cent of the climatic change, 40 per cent of drinking water pollution, and 50 per cent of landfill waste. In separate research by the US Green Building Council (USGBC), the construction industry accounts for 40 per cent of worldwide energy usage, with estimations that by 2030, emissions from commercial buildings will grow by 1.8 per cent.

Furthermore, according to the EPA, construction activity can “significantly change the surface of a land” due in large part to “clearing of vegetation and excavating” which is common on many construction projects. According to the agency, the result means surrounding environments can be heavily polluted, particularly surrounding water pools, which have experienced an increase in pollution as a result of various construction projects in recent years.

Additionally, research by Kleiwerks says that building materials, such as concrete, aluminium, and steel, are directly responsible for “large quantities of CO2 emissions” due to high contents of “embodied energy content”, with 9.8 million tons of CO2 generated from the production of “76 million tons of finished concrete in the US.”

The research also says that the construction sector’s current practices at reducing pollutants, or emissions, are massively ineffective and may even “generate high levels of greenhouse gas pollution.” Worryingly enough, construction activities consume “half of all the resources” extracted from nature, and account for one-sixth of global freshwater consumption, one-quarter of wood consumption, and one-quarter of global waste,” according to Kleiwerks.

In the UK, these numbers have not gone unnoticed, with the publication of the Green Guide, the work of Oxford Brookes and the UK construction industry, that lays out how construction firms can use materials in order to help the environment. Following the publication of the guide, 230,000 construction projects have improved their environmental standing, with over a million construction firms awaiting certification worldwide, according to the agency. In the US, the EPA oversees the protection of the environment  and have a number of rules and regulations in place to ensure the construction industry can reduce its negative impact on the climate.

How construction can protect the environment

The EPA’s rules are clear; they say the protection of the environment should come first at the outset of any construction project. This means you have a duty to inform all of your contract workers that these rules should be followed and that your firm takes the protection of the environment seriously. These rules, or snapshots of these rules, can be incorporated into your contractor orientation process, which we will discuss in a moment. But first, read the Code of Regulations. Many of the regulations set out can be quite intricate but helpful, so ensure you adapt them into your daily talks, meetings, and overall training processes.

Erosion and sediment controls

According to the regulations, construction firms should “design, install and maintain” erosion controls to “minimize the discharge of pollutants.” These controls should include mechanisms to curtail stormwater controls and by minimizing the “amount of soil exposed during construction activity.”

Soil stabilization

This is an important component of the construction process and it must be initiated immediately whenever you are carrying out excavating work on a site. The rules indicate that the stabilization process must be completed within a time period applicable to local construction rules and regulations. However, the process may not be required depending on the structure of your construction project.

Pollution prevention measures

There are many chemicals used during the construction process, many of which can be quite harmful to both your contract workers and the surrounding environment if not handled correctly. Therefore, the EPA recommends that you design “install, implement and maintain effective pollution prevention measures” during the course of a project, to ensure pollutants are discharged correctly and safely with limited impact on the environment.

The rules maintain that you must ensure you minimize the “discharge of pollutants” from any equipment you use on site. This includes site vehicles, wheel wash water, and associated chemicals. The rules also say that you should limit the “exposure of building materials, products, construction wastes” and any other related materials to both “precipitation and to stormwater.” The EPA rules stipulate, however, that this requirement is unnecessary in cases where there isn’t a risk of pollutants infecting surrounding waters or the atmosphere surrounding your construction site.

Prohibited discharges

According to the EPA rules, there are certain discharges that are prohibited. This is primarily to protect both your contract workers and the surrounding environment. They include the following rules:

  • Wastewater from washout of concrete, unless “managed by an appropriate control”
  • Wastewater discharges as a result of painting, release of oils, curing compounds and “other construction materials”
  • The discharge of fuels, oils and “other pollutants used in vehicle and equipment operation and maintenance”

Many of these rules will certainly help to limit your impact on the environment. However, in recent years many construction firms have opted to incorporate green building into their design and building process.

The importance of building green

The green building process uses environmentally friendly materials that can save 250 metric tons of CO2 emissions annually, according to environmental group LEED.

Furthermore, according to a new report by Dodge Data and Analytics, green building continues to double every three years, with 60 per cent of construction projects expected to be green by 2018 and roughly 70 per cent of the survey’s respondents citing lower operating costs as the “greatest benefit” of building green. The research also says that increasingly construction firms are being asked to build projects that are both sustainable and energy efficient.

This pivot toward green building projects has led the EPA to conduct significant research into this area by collaborating with the National Institute of Building Sciences in the creation of a Green Building Construction Guide, which details how construction firms can approach green building while incorporating the various federal rules and regulations.