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Sustainable construction: What to expect in the coming year

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February 6, 2024

Though sustainable practices have been part of the planning, design and construction process for more than two decades, their use has firmly shifted from a “nice to have” to a “must have” when it comes to new construction and remodel projects.

Over those same years, advances in and access to sustainable materials and technologies have grown dramatically.

From the point of view of someone who may be taking on a new construction or remodeling project in the coming year, here are a few things you may encounter or might consider asking about when it comes to sustainable design and construction.

Achieving a net-zero energy building is more relevant
More nations around the world are committing to a net-zero energy building (NZEB) target by 2050, which is just 26 years from now.

So, what is a NZEB?

NZEBs look like any other building except they have enough on-site generation from renewable energy systems to meet all required needs of the structure.

A successful NZEB often includes some or all of the following features:

High-energy efficiency through the use of quality insulation and glass choices, and thoughtful building system electrification, including HVAC, by using technologies such as ground source heat pumps (geothermal) or air source heat pumps.Optimal building position and overall design to maximize the use of natural light and available space for on-site generation and to maximize the impact of windows for quality views and natural light.On-site renewable energy generation in the form of solar panels, which are the lowest cost option for NZEBs and are easiest to incorporate into a building’s design.Building energy monitoring and battery energy storage systems, which can help ensure building energy costs are kept in check while also increasing the building’s resiliency.
Sustainably sourced materials, biophilic design
More and more, how materials are sourced and manufactured matters as building owners become more aware of the size of a building’s embodied carbon (or greenhouse gas emissions).

The use of sustainable, eco-friendly construction materials will continue to increase.

Items like reclaimed wood and recycled materials can lessen the environmental impact of a project and lend themselves to biophilic design.For new construction, using mass timber construction can reduce steel and concrete use, which are the most emissions-intensive materials used in construction.The use of non-toxic textiles, paints, solvents and adhesives can also help improve indoor air quality and the health of building occupants. In addition, many building materials have a published Environmental Product Declarations (EPD) that can shed light on a material’s sustainability.Tracking on-site emissions from construction activities can help fill in emissions tracking gaps when evaluating a building’s embodied carbon.
Biophilic design — design that creates interaction between people and nature — also matters. Because of its ability to reduce stress and improve air quality, biophilic design can play an important role in providing both mental and physical health benefits.
Imagine the benefits of:

Integrating natural light and plant life into your designs, such as a living wall that can be used to buffer sound and improve indoor air quality.Incorporating views of nature and natural materials into your project, which can provide much-needed opportunities for your occupants to relax and regenerate throughout the day.
To be continued-
More sustainable construction practices are on the rise — from adaptive reuse of vacant buildings and mass timber construction to incorporating microgrid controls with solar and batteries for increased green building resiliency.

The approaches here are a start, but they give a sense of both what’s already becoming common design and construction practice and what’s on the horizon.

With today’s federal and state incentives and cost decreases for on-site generation, more is possible than one might think when it comes to making our built environment sustainable.

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