The New Look of Sustainability


A decade ago, ask employees at virtually any construction and engineering firm and they would tell you one of the most popular services they offered was helping clients earn LEED certification. At the time of its introduction, it no doubt provided a number of firms enough work to keep employees busy during working hours and beyond.

Fast forward to 2017. LEED certification projects still come across the desks of construction professionals, but have likely become a smaller part of the daily workload. That’s not because it isn’t important and the certification isn’t valuable. Companies that meet the requirements get more than a nice plaque, but also save on their utility bills and can also qualify for a number of tax breaks.

The change in course has more to do with the fact that as an industry, the definition of a major buzzword is changing somewhat, which has in turn changed the focus of many companies.

What is Sustainability?

It’s a word synonymous with the recycling programs and efforts to reduce energy and water usage mentioned above. When you think of sustainability, you might think of things like installing bike racks allowing employees to ride to work, thus decreasing carbon emission by taking cars off the road.

Everything mentioned previously is great and as an industry,we must always work to reduce our environmental footprint. But there’s a way to think about sustainability that might not immediately come to mind.

Let’s start with a statistic. According to the Hague Center for Strategic Studies, 70 percent of the buildings that will be occupied 30 years from now already exist today.

What does this mean for engineering and construction firms? It is a statistic that will likely guide the focus of companies towards developing expertise in the renovation of existing buildings. When we think sustainability and sustainable construction, our greatest focus should be considering what it is going to take to deliver projects that will last 50, 60, 70 years and beyond.

Long-Lasting Projects

Today engineers, designers and maintenance professionals have a wealth of software and technology that makes it easier than ever to draw up designs that are more cost effective, stronger and durable and maintain them when problems arise.

For example, let’s start with Revit. The computer program allows designers to create 3-D models and see how a building will perform before construction begins. On the maintenance side, consider that modern HVAC systems can now self-monitor and let maintenance workers know in advance when a repair will need to be made. In the past, maintenance was mostly reactive as workers were first alerted to problems when the breakdown had already occurred.

When it comes to materials, a minor example of how far we have come as an industry can be found with LED light bulbs. In the days when fluorescent bulbs illuminated warehouses across the country, maintenance required taking out a lift and hoisting someone 35 feet in the air, potentially multiple times a year.  Furthermore, entire closets dedicated simply to light bulbs had to be kept because of the need for frequent changes. LED bulbs have essentially eliminated this headache as they last 2 to 4 times longer, operate on far less electricity and shine brighter than ever before.

That’s not all. These days, construction materials are getting lighter and stronger.  Foam insulation is leaps and bounds better than its predecessor. Even paint is better – ten years ago, many clients didn’t know there was paint that didn’t include dangerous VOC solvents, but today, it’s standard.

As engineers and construction professionals, we must continue to familiarize ourselves with the latest technology and materials that are more durable, will require less maintenance, and will help our clients cut down on costs.

Shape of the Future

I don’t have a crystal ball, but in the future, I can only imagine that technology will continue to drive the way we renovate buildings and help them last longer than ever. The consensus is that technology like augmented reality will be introduced to the industry, which could allow construction professionals to scan a jobsite with a few clicks on their smart phones to make sure standards of work are being met and identify issues that could arise in the future.

Sustainability is a popular word in the industry, but one that tends to take on a different definition depending on who you ask.

Jason Cocek is a sustainability specialist for C1S Group. Based in Dallas, C1S is one of the Southwest's leading construction and engineering firms. Cocek has nearly ten years of experience helping companies earn LEED Certification and has led several energy reduction projects for commercial office buildings and manufacturing facilities.

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