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7 Best Practices for Environmental Sustainability in Construction

Two high rise apartment buildings with terraces next to a shorter building, all with green plants growing out of them and blue sky behind them.

The construction industry has the potential to make a huge difference when it comes to environmental sustainability. According to the World Bank, construction contributes to 1.3 billion tons of solid waste from cities yearly. Construction materials account for about half of this waste. By 2025, cities are on course to create 2.2 billion tons of waste each year. 

If the construction industry adopted green building practices, including zero waste policies, it would significantly cut back on the amount of solid waste coming out of cities. Waste production isn’t the only factor involved. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, green building is the practice of “creating structures and using processes that are environmentally responsible and resource-efficient throughout a building's life-cycle from siting to design, construction, operation, maintenance, renovation, and deconstruction.” 

In other words, sustainable buildings save energy and help to cut back on pollution as the structure remains standing. Additionally, construction operations can conserve energy throughout the building process. To make this happen, construction workers and others in the industry can follow these sustainable construction best practices.    

1. Educate All Staff on Sustainable Processes

Contractors and construction staff need to be equipped with not just the right tools to get the job done, but with the information on how to improve sustainability on construction sites. According to Pacific Gas and Electric Company, “About 90% of an energy management program involves empowering participants with information.” 

Contractors should educate their staff, sharing the following to optimize green building processes:

  • Standards: Before construction begins, each employee needs a clear outline of sustainability standards the team is expected to maintain.
  • Reasoning: Employees must know why they are making an extra effort towards sustainability and using green building materials instead of the ones they used on other sites. 
  • Protocol: Staff must understand the steps they will take each day to reduce waste and conserve energy.
  • Utilization: Everyone involved should have a clear understanding of how to use the tools, materials, and systems that go into the green building process. 

This education enables staff to make informed and conscientious decisions each step of the way. A properly educated staff will enter the job site knowing sustainability is priority number one, and each worker can make a difference as the job comes to fruition.    

2. Look for Opportunities to Go Green at Every Stage of Construction

Every phase of construction counts when it comes to sustainability. At the outset, project designers are responsible for making decisions that affect just how green a building will be. Sustainable design focuses on the following:

  • Using a site to its maximum potential;
  • Maximizing the use of renewable energy in the building itself; 
  • Sourcing LEED-certified, environmentally friendly building materials;
  • Strategizing ways to conserve water;
  • Making sure the interior of the building is environmentally sound;
  • Detailing sustainable practices for the construction operation as well as building maintenance.

Next, contractors can go green on the job site by doing the following:

  • Conserve water by recycling storm runoff, installing low-flow toilets and aerators in staff trailers on-site, and using collected rainwater to wash boots;
  • Minimize rainwater pollution in the area by implementing a stormwater pollution protection plan;
  • Conserve energy from lighting by setting up separate temporary lights with energy-efficient LED bulbs that can be turned off while safety and egress lighting remains on at night;
  • Conserve energy in the job-site trailer by installing a programmable thermostat and positioning the trailer to take advantage of sunlight.
  • Conserve more energy by using up-to-date tools that don’t consume too much power. 

If building designers and contractors work together to prioritize sustainability at each stage of the construction process, construction will be green from start to finish.  

Furthermore, building owners who save money from energy and water conservation have the opportunity to turn around and donate the savings to nonprofit organizations such as Habitat for Humanity, Veterans Inc., and Home Forward, respectively. These are just a few of the organizations that help veterans find and afford housing after returning to civilian life. In the best-case scenario, a veteran could end up living in an eco-friendly home with minimal utility bills due to sustainable innovation.    

3. Prioritize Local Suppliers

For a construction project to be truly green, building owners must commit to sourcing materials from local and regional suppliers. Long-distance transport of construction supplies contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. The shorter the distance these supplies travel, the lesser the carbon footprint for a job. 

If a local or regional manufacturer isn’t available, supplies that are made in the U.S. are associated with a lower carbon footprint than those made elsewhere. This applies to DIY projects as well. To support the environment and local companies who, in turn, contribute to the economy you depend on, buy supplies manufactured close to home.   

4. Purchase High-Quality Materials & Equipment

Waste management at the job site benefits from high-quality tools that won’t wear out or break. Even something as basic as nails with superior craftsmanship can make a difference when you’re minimizing waste. Moreover, contractors with the budgets to do so can purchase solar-powered equipment, such as solar generators, solar light towers, and a solar GPS asset tracker for tracking the location of equipment. 

When it comes to curbing emissions, Volvo now makes a zero-emissions electric compact wheel loader, an excavator, and a diesel-hybrid wheel loader that is 50% more fuel-efficient than its diesel counterpart. Even if it isn’t electric, high-quality equipment is more efficient than older equipment.  

5. Use Materials & Equipment Efficiently

Efficient usage of powered equipment helps to save energy; make sure workers turn off powered equipment when not in use. Simultaneously, even something as simple as workers using hammers correctly will ultimately reduce waste and save energy. The less time you spend driving nails, the faster you complete a job, contributing to a lower carbon footprint overall. When you use equipment and materials correctly, it also causes less waste. 

6. Reduce Waste

Reducing waste is a must for any construction operation. According to a Transparency Market Research report on the construction waste market (which could contribute to 2.2 billion tons of waste annually by 2025), there are four steps in construction waste management:

  1. Storage and segregation;
  2. Collection and transportation;
  3. Recycling and reuse;
  4. Disposal.

Items that can be recycled and reused must be stored separately from waste that will go to the landfill. Job site managers and workers should also clean tools properly — if these tools are rusted over, proper cleaning will prepare them for reuse. A fastidious waste-management policy enables contractors and subcontractors to recycle everything that should be recycled and reuse everything that can be reused.   

7. Dispose of Waste Properly

Last, but certainly not least, it’s important to dispose of construction site waste correctly. The great thing about a successful waste reduction program is you don’t have to haul huge loads of trash to the landfill as the project progresses. Loads are smaller, which cuts down the carbon footprint. There’s more work separating out recyclables and reusables, but it’s a lighter load on your conscience, as well as the environment.