The construction industry – part of chapter 2 of research study

This sub-section focuses on information that shows the construction industry to be one that not only uses immense amounts of energy and resources to construct buildings, but also one that produces buildings that themselves are dependent on the ongoing use of large amounts of energy. The energy source for construction is almost unanimously fossil fuel, and the resources are almost exclusively cement and concrete, wood, metals, plastics and various insulating materials such as synthetic foam largely from industrial sources; accompanying such energy- and resource-use are the release of greenhouse gases, the loss of biodiversity, the pollution of environments, deforestation, the creation of large amounts of landfill waste, and loss of topsoil, to name a few, all discussed in part one of chapter one.

The United Nations Environmental Programme’s Sustainable Buildings and Climate Initiative stated1 in 2009 that buildings “are responsible for more than 40 percent of global energy use and one third of global greenhouse gas emissions, both in developed and developing countries.” The Environmental Protection Agency listed2 the same percentage for energy-use by the building sector in the US: buildings “accounted for 38.9 percent of total U.S. energy consumption in 2005”. This figure is again corroborated by Domone and Illston (2010: 536) in Construction materials: their nature and behaviour; the authors say that over “their entire lifespan, structures are responsible for

  • 40% of the world’s energy
  • 40% of the world’s solid waste generation
  • 40% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions
  • 33% of resource use
  • 12% of water use”.

These numbers by the UNEP, the EPA, and Domone and Illston substantiate the affirmation that the construction and building industry uses vast amounts of energy and resources; as has been shown in the first half of chapter one, total global energy- and resource-use has had a devastating impact on the ecology of the planet; the construction industry is therefore responsible for significant ecological degradation due to its heavy use of energy and resources alone. The Wilmott Dixon construction group, one of the United Kingdom’s biggest private construction groups3 (operational since 1852), takes heed of such information and points out the following4:

“Around half of all non-renewable resources mankind consumes are used in construction, making it one of the least sustainable industries in the world. […] Contemporary human civilisation depends on buildings and what they contain for its continued existence, and yet our planet cannot support the current level of resource consumption associated with them.”

Danny Harvey (2010: 115) corroborates the alarmingly high levels of energy-use in buildings in Energy and the new reality: energy efficiency and the demand for energy services when he writes that “energy use in buildings account for 53 per cent of total electricity use and 38 per cent of total primary energy in OECD countries’; he adds information that is quite specific when he points out that energy “is used in buildings for heating, cooling and ventilation, for producing hot water, for lighting, and as electricity to power appliances and/or consumer goods and/or office equipment.” Harvey provides further details with the following: “In the US, the European Union, and in China, “space and hot water heating together account for two thirds to four fifths of total residential energy use.” The same nations have commercial sectors where space “heating accounts for a third to half of total commercial energy use… Lighting accounts for 15 to 30 per cent of total on site energy use and 30 to 60 per cent of electricity use.” One consequence, as The IPCC5 points out, is that

“residential and commercial buildings accounted for 19% and 10%, respectively, of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from the use of fossil fuels in 1990. More recent estimates increase this percentage to 21% for residential buildings and 10.5% for commercial buildings, both for 1990 and 1995 […] Globally, space heating is the dominant energy end-use in both residential and commercial buildings. Developed countries account for the vast majority of buildings-related CO2 emissions, but the bulk of growth in these emissions over the past two decades was seen in developing countries.”

In having so far established that the construction and building industry use massive amounts of energy and resources, and are directly responsible for the burning of the bulk of fuels used by humankind, it must be pointed out that the industry is inculcated in the kinds of issues that constitute the ecological crisis, as explored in the first part of chapter 1. This is because of the various different kinds of impact that the fossil fuel industry has on the environment, as discussed in the relevant sub-section above; the impact it has due to its use of fresh water, also discussed in a relevant sub-section above; the destruction of forests for timber and the accompanying loss of topsoil, again already discussed; and the same when it comes to the loss of biodiversity, which occurs alongside the listed ecological issues. Information provided by Wilmott Dixon touches upon such wider issues of ecological impact; the following is about the construction and building industry in the UK, but the issues are relevant globally:

“The mass of resources used in the UK construction industry is dominated by stone and primary aggregates: sand and gravel extraction of these primary resources implies major environmental impact from loss of habitat and ecosystem, damage to the landscape, potential subsidence problems and release of methane. Noise and dust and heavy transport through populated areas confer local nuisance. […] The same issues arise in the disposal or processing/recycling of waste.”

On the topic of landfill waste, Wilmott Dixon states6 that the construction and building industry is responsible for approximately 50% of global landfill waste, another reason to highlight the construction and building industry as highly problematic in the context of the ecological crisis due to the extensive issues associated with landfill waste. Landfill waste was, in the relevant sub-section above, listed alongside the ecological issue of pollution; Wilmott Dixon has the following to add about pollution: in the context of the construction and building industry, pollution

“can be defined in many ways: that arising from the built environment (sewage, waste etc.); pollution caused during the manufacture of materials and products; pollution and hazards from the handling and use of materials or from the site itself; and other construction and operationally-related activities. The design and construction phases involve the specification of materials, and the use of plant, processes and techniques. Most also involve extensive disturbances to the existing environment, whether on green field or previously developed sites.”

The ‘existing environment’ disturbed by all aspects of the construction and building industry is further affected by the release of ‘other’ harmful chemicals: As UNEP says, “the Buildings and Construction Sector is also responsible for significant non-CO2 GHG emissions such as halocarbons, CFCs, and HCFCs (covered under the Montreal Protocol), and hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), due to their applications for cooling, refrigeration, and in the case of halocarbons, insulation materials.”7

Another problematic material widely used in the construction and building industry is cement. Domone and Illston (2010: 542-543) point out that the “quantity of cement used worldwide has risen markedly in the last few years, a trend that looks set to continue for the foreseeable future”: from just over 1.5 billion tons in 1996 to approximately 2.6 million billion tons in 2007. Cement is high up on the list of the world’s most environmentally unfriendly materials, mainly due to the large amount of energy required to produce it. The authors (2010: 536) explain some of the details:

“The production of Portland cement … requires high temperatures firstly to decompose the calcium carbonate to calcium oxide and calcium dioxide … and then to fuse the calcium oxide with silicates, alluminates and ferrites to form the cement compounds. Carbon dioxide emissions therefore occur as a result of the burning of the fuels to produce the high temperatures, the breakdown of the calcium carbonate and the production of the energy required for raw material extraction, clinker grinding and transport of the finished cement.”

This information about cement draws attention to the intricate web of fossil-fuel processes required for one material used widely in the construction and building industry, but the vast majority of materials used in construction have large carbon footprints associated with them. In a research paper called Carbon footprint for building products8, Antti Ruuska lists building materials and their carbon footprints; what is of interest here is not the specific carbon footprint of each material, as the alarming percentage of total global greenhouse gas from the building sector has already been established. What is of interest is that Ruuska lists 50 materials, each of which is, like cement, a product that requires numerous industrial processes to create and transport to a building site; among these are: Fibreboard (porous), Chipboard (Raw), Chipboard (Melamine faced), Gypsum plasterboard, High Density Fibreboard, Medium Density Fibreboard (Raw), Medium Density Fibreboard (Melamine Faced), Oriented Strand Board (Raw), Plywood (Standard Birch), Plywood (Standard Conifer), Laminate Flooring, Massive Parquet, Multi-layer Parquet, Shipping Dry Timber, Dried Timber (Coniferous), Dried Timber (Deciduous), Special Dry Timber, Glued laminated timber, Planed Timber, Glass Wool, Polystyrene (EPS), Polyurethane (Rigid Foam), Wood fibre insulation, Aerated Concrete Block, Reinforced Aerated Concrete Block, Aluminium extrusion profile, Aluminium sheet, Ceramic Tile, Stainless Steel, Copper Sheet, Copper tube, Copper wire, Crushed stone, Float Glass, Gravel, Gypsum plaster, Gypsum stone, Lightweight Concrete Block, Polyethene (LDPE), and Pre-cast Concrete. Note that the list is not an extensive one; hundreds more materials are used in the construction and building industry in the construction phase of a building, in the maintenance of the building during its lifetime, and in renovations.

To return briefly to the topic of cement: one further concern has been found during the course of this research about cement in ‘The cement industry as a scavenger in industrial ecology and the management of hazardous substances’ by Lucas Reijnders9. Here follows part of the abstract for the paper, which draws attention to the potential toxicity of a fairly ubiquitous substance:

“The cement industry uses a variety of secondary materials and fuels, thus fulfilling the role of “scavenger” in industrial ecology (IE). The use of wastes in cement production has been advocated to reduce cement production costs and to achieve the degradation and immobilization of hazardous compounds. In dealing with hazardous elements contained in the wastes, this development has side effects such as relatively significant stack emissions of heavy metals and leaching of hazardous compounds during the life cycle of cement-derived products.”

Overall, the construction and building industry has been shown to be another ecologically destructive subsidiary of the fossil-fuel industry; more specific information is available about other environmental issues due to construction and buildings, but enough has been covered in this sub-section for the purposes of understanding this industry in the context of the ecological crisis. In the acquisition of the fuels required to run machinery for construction and to keep buildings cooled and heated etc., the environment is damaged (forests cleared for roads and sites, biodiversity decreased, fresh water sources jeopardised, topsoil lost, etc.); in the burning of the fuels in such a massive industry, greenhouse gases are released en mass; in the acquisition of resources for building, forests are cleared further and biodiversity, topsoil and fresh water are affected; in the production of an array of different kinds of landfill waste and pollution (much of which is the product of the petrochemical industry, yet another subsidiary of the fossil-fuel industry), the environment is heavily degraded.

6 Same document already referenced for Wilmott Dixon