Why data is vital for the industry to achieve net-zero

Antony Brophy is UK director of business development at Cobuilder

Achieving net-zero carbon emissions has become a top priority for construction companies. As part of a UK government strategy set out last year, all new buildings will be required to operate at net-zero by 2030 – meaning the amount of carbon emissions associated with a building’s usage and construction stages must equal zero or negative.

However, there are significant hurdles for the industry to overcome before it can achieve this. The global built environment is currently responsible for almost 40 per cent of global energy-related carbon emissions and 50 per cent of extracted materials, according to the World Green Building Council.

The latest Climate Change Committee report also highlighted how rates of improvement in energy efficiency for buildings in the UK continue to be well below the necessary level and that reliable data in the sector is impacting how progress is being tracked. The report comments on existing data gaps in terms of coverage and frequency of reporting, with data often not compiled centrally by organisations.

To get closer to carbon neutrality, organisations must pay attention to the environmental impact of materials and products they are using. Gaining a more holistic view of this information will enable them to opt for materials which improve performance and extend the lifespan of new buildings.

Gaining a clearer view

Understanding the carbon emissions from a specific material or product involves continuous measurement throughout its lifecycle. This measurement needs to start from the point of specification for building materials through their design, purchasing, manufacturing, distribution and installation. The assessment then needs to continue through to maintenance, repair, reuse and, finally, recycling of those materials.

This measurement has been made much easier by environmental product declarations (EPDs), which document the environmental impact that any product or material will have over its lifetime. The declarations enable architects and engineers to compare different materials before selecting the most sustainable option for a project. They also help manufacturers be more transparent about the carbon content of their products.

“By creating a common digital language to assess the performance of construction products, everyone involved in the design and build of new buildings can draw from a reliable source of information”

The data provided in EPDs must always be reliable and verifiable so needs to be organised and managed effectively throughout the construction process.

The siloed approach towards data management traditionally taken by many in the industry makes this a hard task to achieve. Data is often held in different places and managed by people on many different levels, by project, department and even country.

A digital ecosystem

A digital ecosystem, through which all actors in the construction process can draw upon environmental information when designing a new building, will enable more efficient data management and break down silos.

Data in this platform needs to exist in a standardised data structure. For example, anyone involved in a project should be able to see all the properties that make up a piece of pipe, including generic properties of size, area and volume, as well as environmental properties, such as energy use and ozone depletion potential, based on the processes that have been used to create it.

Here, data templates can provide an easy way to exchange information about products and materials throughout the industry. They provide a framework within which to agree an approach to recording the defining characteristics of products and materials, according to both international and European data standards. Data templates are already playing a key role in the digitalisation of the construction sector and they have an equally important part to play in helping organisations to reach their sustainability objectives.

By creating a common digital language to assess the performance of construction products, everyone involved in the design and build of new buildings can draw from a reliable source of information. Ultimately, this makes it easier for them to compare products and choose ones which help them to achieve carbon neutrality.

Data already plays a key role in helping construction become more advanced. As the industry looks to push forward on sustainability and reach the UK government’s 2030 net-zero objectives, it will have an even bigger part to play. The focus needs to be not just on how it is leveraged, but also how it is managed.

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