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Decarbonizing construction

The future of clean energy starts now

In the midst of an ongoing global energy crisis, it is essential that urban environments take steps toward decarbonization and greater energy efficiency. Thankfully, although many important technological innovations are in the pipeline, the truth is that much of the technology we need to reduce buildings’ carbon emissions already exists. By using energy more efficiently with existing tools and resources, we can drastically reduce urban energy consumption and, in turn, reduce carbon emissions.

Clay Nesler, Founder of The Nesler Group, Rune Stene, Managing Director at Powerhouse and Business Developer at Skanska, and Tony Hans, Vice President at CMTA, are all working towards this same goal. Together, they share several ways in which current technology already holds the answers to many of our sustainability challenges.

Powerhouse Brattørkaia in Trondheim, Norway

Finding Solutions with ‘The Four Good DEEDs’


Carbon neutrality by 2050 is a necessary, and achievable, goal. By approaching questions of sustainability from four specific angles, what Clay Nesler calls “The Four Good DEEDs,” builders can make immense progress towards that goal.


The first of these “DEEDs” is decarbonization. As mentioned, buildings are some of the greatest contributors to global carbon emissions, but they’re not alone in their output. The transportation sector is also a significant source of carbon, and in urban environments, the two go hand in hand. Transportation is already making strides toward decarbonization through the rise of electric vehicles (EV). Buildings can capitalize on this existing technology by providing more EV charging stations within urban environments. This not only makes EVs more accessible but also expands an increasingly sustainable energy grid and introduces it into existing infrastructure. This synergy between industries is essential to a holistic decarbonization plan.


The second DEED is efficiency. Even with an extensive clean energy grid, wasteful use of that energy is a roadblock to sustainability. Using energy more efficiently decreases demand on the grid. This lightened energy load makes our current infrastructure less reliant on fossil fuels, and instead makes renewable sources, like wind and solar, reliable providers of energy to the grid.


The third of these good DEEDs is electrification. While newer buildings run most of their appliances and infrastructure on electricity, older buildings still use things like gas stoves, radiators and propane water heaters. Electrification means replacing those fossil fuel appliances with electric alternatives


The final DEED is digitalization. This last piece of the puzzle takes the previous three DEEDs and pushes them to their maximum potential. Digital tools can automate appliances and infrastructure to conserve electricity for when it’s most needed. The Brattørkaia in Trondheim, Norway, for example, uses digitization to only warm or cool rooms that people are actually in. This prevents the massive energy waste that comes from heating a whole building, even when the majority of it is unoccupied.


As that building demonstrates, the technology to construct sustainable buildings is already available. The project ahead for developers includes creating new carbon-neutral buildings and outfitting existing buildings using those available tools.


Powerhouse: a new standard for the buildings of the future


A template for sustainable construction projects using our existing resources and technology comes through the Powerhouse model. The Powerhouse approach engages construction with the Paris Agreement’s 1.5-degree target in mind. To reach this goal, carbon emissions are taken into account during every step of the building’s life cycle: planning, construction and operation.


Though the energy consumed by a building once it’s completed can be a big contributor to its total emissions, the construction process can also be a huge source of waste and significant carbon production. The Construction Site Zero Waste project by companies including Skanska Norway aims to achieve waste-free construction sites by developing and implementing digital tools to track sources of waste and use optimization methods for planning, procurement and logistics.  


Planning is a vital part of new building construction because it lays out the roadmap for how a project intends to meet its carbon-neutrality goals. The approach to those goals is not one-size-fits-all. Instead, each construction project requires a unique plan tailored to fit its specific needs. Heat pumps, for example, might be an important part of the construction of the Trondheim building, while they may not be essential for a building in a more temperate climate. The energy otherwise budgeted for heat pumps could then be distributed to other parts of the building’s operation or construction.


After a construction plan is created, acquiring building materials is the next key piece of the Powerhouse model. These materials need to be energy efficient in both their production and deployment. Low-carbon concrete, for example, is produced with a much lower carbon footprint than traditional concrete. CLT (cross-laminated timber) has a low impact on the environment and is also quick and easy to use during construction. Saving time and limiting waste lowers the carbon impact of the total construction project.


All of the techniques and materials required to produce net-zero buildings according to the Powerhouse model are already commonplace. All we need to create sustainable construction projects is an intentional effort toward careful planning.


Incentives for sustainability


Construction of carbon-neutral buildings can be expensive. The time spent planning, the unique approach to the construction process and the building materials themselves can all create financial obstacles that deter developers from pursuing sustainable construction. However, changes in governance and building regulations are now incentivizing the production of more zero-energy and carbon-neutral buildings.


One example of this is the Inflation Reduction Act. This piece of US legislation is aimed at reducing living costs for Americans but also has provisions for energy-efficient appliances. The act gives tax credits for certain energy-efficient equipment, like heat pumps. This both encourages more efficient construction and reduces the financial hurdles to creating these sustainable buildings. 


Another factor driving sustainable construction that is also slowly becoming a common standard among many developers is building certification systems, such as the LEED rating system. It provides guidance and oversight to building developers and owners wanting to create more efficient structures, factoring in all of the critical elements that work together to create a strategic sustainability plan that works within their budget. Different levels of LEED certification encourage even small steps toward carbon neutrality, rather than forcing an all-or-nothing approach.


The ability of owners to meet these certification levels depends, again, on existing technology. While building innovation is important, it is not essential for the creation of sustainable built environments and carbon-neutral construction projects. The principles listed here outline ways that organizations can already begin their journey toward sustainability instead of waiting for future innovation.


For those looking to engage in sustainable construction, the tools you need are already here – all that’s needed is a careful plan that lets you use them efficiently and affordably.