The future of energy and net-zero buildings: where is construction headed?
Construction faces many more challenges than it has ever done, net-zero goals for sustainability being among the highest priorities. But there are also opportunities in there and many ways in which innovation is going to make the industry more effective and expansive in the years to come. We’ve focused on some of the key trends, relevant right now, that are going to have the biggest impact on the future of the construction sector, from what’s happening in the energy industry, to site sustainability and the progress made in net-zero design.
Increasing sustainability on construction sites
Why does this matter? 45% of the UK’s carbon dioxide emissions come from the built environment sector, with 10% directly associated with construction activities. The future of construction necessarily involves more sustainable practices that will produce lower emissions and minimise the negative impact on the environment. These include:
- Focusing on the energy efficiency of premises on-site e.g. choosing accommodation with an EPC (Energy Performance Certificate) rating of A, B, or C and sustainable options for power.
- Moving on from “make, use, dispose” to recycling and reusing wherever possible.
- More off-site construction to improve cost-effectiveness and reduce waste.
- Local sourcing and a more efficient approach to transportation – 20% of total UK carbon dioxide emissions are created by the transport sector every year so this could make a big difference.
- Sustainability by design so that materials are sourced in a way that will act to reduce their impact e.g.making the switch to recycled or secondary materials.
The future of energy + the future of construction = ?
The energy sector is another industry undergoing a lot of change in order to help ensure that eco targets are going to be met. These include mass decarbonisation, which means robust efforts to try and reverse the damage that has been done since the Industrial Revolution – according to the experts there is a window of around 11 years in which this could potentially be achieved. The energy sector is also moving to a model of decentralised structures and microgrids, which will require a lot of input from the construction sector when it comes to getting these established. Achieving key goals with respect to tech integration, as well as energy efficiency and interconnection are all going to place some fairly heavy demands on the construction sector going forward.
The future of construction is heavily interwoven with the future of energy, especially given the reliance that the energy industry has on the construction sector when it comes to bringing to life the vision for a more decentralised, decarbonised, and interconnected future. Moving away from fossil fuels and towards greener alternatives is essential to achieve goals relating to slowing down climate change. Construction will have a key role to play in almost all of the strategies available to achieve this, from decentralised energy grids, creating new solar energy fields, kinetic wave power collection plants, and hydroelectric dams to increase the reach that renewable energy infrastructure has. As a result, the future of energy and the future of construction are necessarily interconnected.
Butterfly wings and their impact on construction
It may sound like an odd statement but butterflies – specifically, their wings – are going to be a key part of construction going forward. This is especially so with respect to the need for more sustainable building design, which necessarily involves the integration of renewables. Scientists and researchers are continuously looking for new ways to improve existing renewables technology and make it cheaper and more accessible – and, when it comes to solar tech, butterfly wings may have provided the key inspiration.
It’s all about the way butterflies absorb sunlight. In fact, butterfly wings have been found to be full of randomly spaced holes that are a key part of the effective way that butterfly wings are able to do this. The existence of these holes was discovered via research that was carried out to improve the way that next-generation thin-film solar cells function. Although these new solar cells have many advantages in terms of being lower cost they have, up until now, not been as effective when it comes to performance. The information that researchers have uncovered with respect to how butterfly wings absorb sunlight could make all the difference to the solar cell design too. In fact, new solar cells using this insight have been developed with a 200% increase in sunlight absorption.
As always, nature turns out to be our greatest teacher and the inspiration for technology that could ensure both the human and wildlife worlds survive.
The net-zero building challenge
A net-zero building is one that effectively generates more energy than it consumes, something that can be achieved via a combination of on-site power and carbon offset. There are a number of key factors that are especially relevant for any organisation keen to take on the net-zero building challenge (which will need to be most construction businesses by 2050 if targets are to be met).
- Location and orientation. Location will include integrating the influence of factors such as climate, temperature, and rain patterns. Orientation is how the building can be positioned to take maximum advantage of the physical attributes of its situation.
- Building design that integrates passive strategies, such as minimising energy consumption and maximising performance.
- Renewables systems. Active strategies can help to minimise energy consumption during the process of building, as well as afterwards. These include the use of wind power or photovoltaics, as well as hydroelectric or geothermal power, biomass energy, or solar power.
The question of how much value retrofitting can add to the net-zero challenge is also a very relevant one. Adding new technologies to existing buildings to help reduce energy consumption is actually very effective. It tends to be both more environmentally sound and less expensive than new construction. Two key retrofitting techniques to consider are: building reskinning (effectively, insulating building exteriors) and packaged mechanics (grouping together mechanical components into a single unit for ease of installation and control).
Construction is necessarily headed in a very sustainable direction in the years to come. From the inspiration of nature to the hard targets of the Paris Agreement there are many motivations for accelerating progress in this direction.
Whether you’re attracted by the innovative projects and materials in construction today, or the training and career opportunities, this is a sector with a lot to offer right now.