Digitisation’s critical role in reducing embodied carbon costs

May Winfield is global director of commercial, legal and digital risks at engineering consultancy Buro Happold

It’s well known that the construction industry is a major contributor to the climate emergency, with construction and materials accounting for an estimated 11 per cent of energy-related CO2 emissions. It is resource and waste-intensive and key materials, such as concrete, don’t yet have readily available low-carbon alternatives.

With environmental targets fast-approaching, sustainability is no longer an optional extra for the construction industry. It has become a key focus, and there’s a pressing need to act.

We have the technology

The good news is that there’s a huge amount of innovation happening, particularly in the world of digital and technology. Technology can help collect and process data quickly and accurately to make the most informed design decisions, thereby reducing embodied carbon costs.

“The good news is that there’s a huge amount of innovation happening, particularly in the world of digital and technology”

There’s a huge number of systems that can help us do this, including building information modeling (BIM), modular construction, design for manufacturing and assembly (DfMA) and digital twins. There are also a range of complementary technologies such as AI, automation and a variety of bespoke toolkits and dashboards to record, analyse and facilitate progress.

With DfMA, for instance, new ways of designing for manufacture and assembly provides an opportunity to create products much more simply and cost-effectively, with less waste and lower embodied carbon costs.

There are further gains to be made using BIM, allowing designers to analyse and track which design and construction options will see the most sustainable results and, in turn, make more informed decisions with their clients.

What’s more, BIM technology is constantly improving. New platforms can utilise ever-improving generative design and game-engine technologies. These kinds of platforms incorporate real-world data, gaming and 3D visualisation to enable the intelligent selection and validation of domestic heat network solutions. Other toolkits can shorten the time needed to generate a climate or comfort report from as long as one day to as short as 10 minutes, covering areas like wind speed, humidity, horizontal radiation and heat maps, giving engineers the data to make faster design decisions that assess and mitigate climate challenges.

The data analysis challenge

Creating these new technologies is an important first step, allowing us to make more informed decisions during the construction process.

However, the real value is achieved when data is analysed and discussed quickly enough to provide alternative scenarios and effect change at the right time. This creates a truly collaborative approach where stakeholders can make informed decisions before a project gets off the ground, modeling different scenarios and picking the one with the best sustainability credentials.

For instance, assessing wind and solar performance at an early stage in the design process can facilitate much better sustainable design decisions. Changes to building-height profile, wind-friendly measures and building massing can be integrated with the architectural design to enhance performance and lower embodied carbon costs.

Still more to do

While technology is already doing so much and is a tremendous facilitator for new projects, we are not yet fully utilising the power of the available software.

It’s really important that the industry and clients collaboratively explore how they can use software to inform design decisions. Together in this way, we can work towards lowering the embodied carbon cost of constructing every building in the future.

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