With the rise in concern on the issue of climate change, there is increasing pressure on industries, such as construction to minimise its environmental impacts for a more sustainable future.
As the world progresses and more structures are erected, the construction industry is one of the largest consumers of natural resources, and also a large producer of carbon dioxide.
One civil engineer, Andrew Chin Lee in his Master’s thesis for the University of the West Indies (UWI), focused on how sustainable construction practices can affect the overall profitability of the industry.
He stated, “the practice of sustainability is the prevention of natural resources and depletion to preserve ecological equilibrium.”
While construction practices have evolved from medieval times, which is necessary to keep up with globalisation, there are some setbacks.
“Construction practices and methodologies have progressed from the first builders to modern constructors today. Technological advancements, as well as its practices, have facilitated this within the industry. However, there are a plethora of issues that accompany these breakthroughs – increased pollution and overconsumption.”
According to him, implementing leadership in energy and environmental design (LEED) principles when constructing, is beneficial on multiple levels.
“LEED-certified buildings reduce costs, increase productivity, reduce carbon emissions, and make urban areas healthier for occupants. This system is essential to confront the climate problem, improve living conditions and climate resilience, and create more equal communities, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) (Azarov 2018),” said Chin Lee.
One such way his thesis explores is through the practice of green roofing systems. The study stated that, “Green roofing techniques encourage energy cost reductions and improve the local ecology. These measurements encourage a sustainable approach to infrastructure and the built environment (Naranjo 2020).”
The study added that through the use of this method, a building’s environmental impact can be reduced since, “overlaying a roof or any external part of a building with vegetation can reduce heat flux and reflectivity of solar rays, which contribute to cooling via evaporation, thereby increasing a better rate of thermal performance (Hewage 2013).”
These sustainable systems are not necessarily limited to roofing since vegetation systems can also be done in the form of green walls. With the developments within the industry, Chin Lee added that there are options for everyone.
“There are various options available in today’s market that are tailored to the specific needs of the consumer as well as comply with the infrastructure’s structural requirements (Hewage 2013). Living roof systems such as green roofing and living walls possess differing layered structures: drainage, root barrier, filtered layer, land layers for growing, water retention, and vegetation (Hewage 2013).”
The study also delved into the numerous positives of the system such as the improvement in air quality, reduction of heat in densely populated areas, reduction of associated costs for energy with regards to cooling and heating, as well as lessening noise pollution.
Despite its many benefits, however, Chin Lee stated that there was some scepticism about implementing the method.
“While these practices are certainly beneficial to the environment, there has been some concern that they may come at a cost that many construction companies simply cannot afford.”
He went on to note that through his research, he has found that sustainable construction does come with a higher initial cost. However, it should not deter the construction market and their clients since, “over the lifespan of a building, the cost savings associated with sustainable practices more than make up for this initial investment.”
In a survey conducted by Chin Lee among 80 professionals within the construction field, 13.3 per cent of the respondents thought that the return on investment (ROI) was unfavourable. Another 13.3 per cent found that it was not worth the initial investment and upfront capital.
Thirty per cent of the remaining thought that the cost was simply too high to be met.
Chin Lee referenced the availability of subsidies as a contributing factor to the reticence to change to greener alternatives.
He said, “Government subsidies for gas, electricity, and water services in T&T act against efforts to construct green buildings. These subsidies have several advantages, including making electricity and gasoline more affordable for consumers, lowering the cost of fuel for public transportation, and encouraging consumers to switch from traditional fuel to compressed natural gas (CNG), which is more environmentally friendly and lowers carbon emissions.”
However, as seen in T&T’s 2022/2023 Budget, these subsidies may not be around for much longer.
This prompted Chin Lee to add, “The amount of subsidies provided by the government has changed over time since it appears to be cutting back on them annually. T&T’s budget towards fuel prices has exponentially grown throughout the decades, whereby all prices have seen a linear increase as subsidies are slowly reduced year to year. This is a prime example of why there will be a need for green practices in infrastructure and energy.”
He stated by making this change, developers will not be able to see a difference immediately, but in the long run, it will pay off.
“The financial advantage of a green building is a lower life cycle cost, as operational costs are lower due to less utilisation and wastage of services, which means the owner will eventually see a return on their investment.”
He also suggested that similar to incentivising citizens who make the switch to environmentally friendly cars, those who choose a greener building should also benefit.
“Owners of green buildings should receive benefits like lower housing taxes to encourage people to create green structures, which would ultimately improve the climate on a global scale.”
While cost may be one deterrence to consider, the remaining 43.3 per cent who participated in the survey stated that the lack of knowledge on sustainability methods presented another hindrance.
To combat this issue however, and shed more light on the situation Chin Lee said, “the T&T Green Building Council (TTGBC) has been offering a course that leads to the LEED Green Associate test since 2012, making it simple for someone to become a LEED accredited professional (LEED-AP). Thus, it is feasible to learn about green technology and solutions in Trinidad and Tobago and put such skills to use by incorporating green solutions into construction projects.”
Despite the lack of government involvement in the realm of sustainability, Chin Lee made several recommendations. These included the education of, “all stakeholders from professionals to developers of the benefits of sustainable infrastructure” as well as the creation of governing bodies by Small Island Developing States (SIDS), which “works hand in hand with global entities that promote sustainable infrastructural development in our region.”
Chin Lee added that “sustainable construction can help construction companies to attract new clients who are interested in environmentally friendly practices and to stand out in an increasingly competitive industry.”