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Massive increase in scale of green construction - zero carbon buildings

Future of construction, and how the construction industry will respond to the climate emergency.

The construction industry is responsible for almost 40% of global CO2 emissions, taking into account the embodied energy in building (30%), energy wasted in demolition (10%), and costs of heating or cooling the building during it's lifetime (60%).

Look at the largest green building projects we have seen over the last decade or two, and multiply by ten or more over the next twenty years - in individual size and collectively.  

We need to be far bolder and more ambitious in ramping up decarbonisation of our world.  And at the same time expect massive steps to decarbonise construction.

Take for example the targets announced by the UK government in November 2020. 4 times current offshore wind capacity by 2030.  

First town heated entirely by hydrogen by 2030 with £500m investment. 600,000 heat pumps a year installed by 2030.  £1bn on carbon capture - and so on.  China will continue to dominate green tech investment globally.

Buildings will be required by regulators to last longer

There will be huge focus on creating smart, “carbon neutral” buildings that are ultra-efficient to heat or cool. 

But we will also see far more attention on how long those buildings will actually last.  My own home was built in 1842 and I expect will still be lived in by the year 2300.  

But I don’t know many commercial tower blocks or factories being built today that have a life-expectancy of more than 50 years - and many buildings being demolished today are less than 40 years old.

This really matters, because 30% of the entire energy consumed in the average life cycle of an office tower is the energy consumed in building it, and 10% more can be consumed in demolition.  

We need to see far more life-enhancing, iconic structures that people will love and enjoy using for generations to come. 

And also far greater efforts to convert, adapt, upgrade, renew, restore, repair and redesign existing buildings.

Re-purposing and recycling of old buildings by the construction industry

So we should expect rapid growth in all kinds of innovations and technologies to repurpose older buildings, refit their interiors, and extend their useful lives.

Secondly, we talk a lot about recycling as being good for the environment. And we will see massive growth in recycling of building waste.  But we can go a lot further. 

The truth is that most recycling in our communities is down-cycling.  

For example, plastic drinking bottles converted into lower-grade insulation products.  But closed-cycling is where those same plastic drinking bottles are collected, melted down and recast into new plastic bottles.  

Closed-cycling in construction industry

We already see closed-cycling construction - for example with recovery of steel girders and so on.

By 2050 many high-efficiency, carbon-neutral buildings will be going up in cities that are destined one day to be dismantled almost entirely into their component parts, so that most of the building materials (and some individual components) can be reused. 

Now if you achieve that, it becomes less of an issue to remodel an inner city landscape for every new generation.

* Patrick Dixon is author of 17 books including The Future of Almost Everything, and SustainAgility - both of which cover the future of construction.  He is also a Non-Executive Director of Mace Ltd, a $2.6bn a year global construction company.

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