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Sustainability is gaining momentum in the construction industry. With an increasing awareness on environmental concerns and the renewed tailwind from the 2021 United Nations COP26 Climate Change Conference, many construction companies and developers have put out long-term sustainability goals to play a part in reducing carbon footprints in an industry that accounts for as much as 40% of the CO2 emissions with building operations, construction and materials.

Taking a step back, the construction industry has traditionally been slow to adopt innovative sustainability technology and practices. A major contributing factor to the slow adoption in sustainable solutions is that productivity in the construction industry remains unchanged for decades, and has even seen a gradual decline since the 1970s; it is not an overstatement that the business of construction today is more or less the same as it was in the 1950s.

Due to stagnant productivity, coupled with other macro challenges such as skilled labor shortages, the industry has seen low margins for decades. This has a direct implication on sustainability: When an industry suffers from perpetual low margins, it is difficult for it to adopt sustainable solutions as those solutions are often deprioritized over more pressing matters that directly affect their day-to-day operations.

What the industry needs, therefore, is a two-pronged approach to sustainability: innovation that addresses sustainability directly, and innovation that addresses the fundamental challenges of productivity and cost. This, in turn, would allow the industry to adopt more long-term initiatives. There are growing examples of the former (albeit still small relative to the massive potential of the industry), yet for those sustainable solutions to gain further momentum, the industry needs to adopt innovation that also addresses productivity and cost.

Rise of Sustainable Materials and Green Buildings

One area in the industry where significant innovation is occurring is in sustainable materials, modular construction, carbon tracking and green buildings. All of these new technologies, or processes, address sustainability head-on.

From new materials and construction processes to building management, there is a growing number of solutions that provide sustainable solutions. For example, building systems provide proprietary materials and a building solution for everything from residential, retail and industrial properties. Additionally, there are now technologies that introduce recycled CO2 into fresh concrete, making buildings greener.

The construction process is getting a sustainable overhaul as well. Multiple modular and 3D printing construction companies are working to reduce carbon footprints by using environmentally friendly materials and processes to achieve carbon neutrality.

Once the building itself is constructed, data management solutions can help real estate owners and operators capture environmental performance metrics, from electricity, water, fuel, and waste data to climate risks and how a building stacks up against ESG benchmarks.

This is useful for tenants as well. Real estate owners are required more than ever before to differentiate their buildings by providing green and healthy office spaces. Tenants today are looking for green features—from improved air quality to smart windows that reduce the overall HVAC energy consumption—and costs, while providing health benefits.

Robotics, Drones and Efficient Equipment

Another area where strides have been made in sustainable building is through the rise of robotics, drones, improved equipment efficiency, and site management tools to improve overall operational efficiency during the construction process.

General contractors are seeking to automate a large portion of the construction process for large-scale initiatives to address labor shortages, reduce costs, and improve accuracy and safety. Robotics companies have developed hardware robots that can be deployed at construction sites to automate the floor layout process, or software robots that allow excavators to navigate areas more autonomously.

There are also a number of promising drone solutions that capture aerial as well as internal and external visual data to minimize rework and improve safety. These are significant pain points for the industry. For jobsite management, a number of emerging software platforms can capture and digitize field data and workflows into the cloud via a mobile device. The ability to share data across teams efficiently helps streamline the entire workflow process.

Blockchain has also entered the construction industry. Blockchain technology can assist construction companies with financial workflows, or capture data that is then transparent to all stakeholders.

The construction industry’s shift toward sustainability is still in its infancy. Yet with the construction industry’s technology adoption still among the lowest across all industries and substantial investments going into new technology, expect the industry to see massive disruption in the coming years. Sustainability will come to the forefront as more innovation tackles it head-on, while the perpetual challenges are addressed to make the entire industry—and its materials and processes—more efficient.

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