Solar & Water Construction for Sustainable Development

by Duncan Williams   |   June 3, 2022

Current Construction Practices Contribute to Greenhouse Gas Emissions

The greatest energy demand in the US comes from residential and commercial buildings - accounting for 39% of total US energy consumption, the majority of which are still non-renewable and contribute to climate change. Water is also coming under increasing scrutiny as long term projections of climate change point to scarcity. The water industry has the equivalent carbon footprint to the aviation industry, so the two are also interrelated. 

It is important to note that many Federal regulatory requirements and mandates for energy, water and waste management generally aim to first reduce consumption, then seek alternatives to drive net zero targets. The sustainable construction strategies offered here are shared to support these initiatives but not intended to replace, substitute or modify any statutory or regulatory requirements and mandates.

Sustainable construction aims to achieve energy-saving goals and lower a building’s carbon footprint, minimizing waste production and energy consumption. In the design and build of a construction project, whether it is an infrastructure project, a capital project, or a renovation, listed below are several ways to contribute to sustainable construction initiatives:

  • Including solar energy sources in the building design,
  • Introducing intentional water-saving strategies, and
  • Choosing appropriate carbon-neutral building materials.

What is Sustainable Construction?

Construction with a focus on solar and water is becoming a key aspect of sustainable development in the construction industry.

Often, capital projects for corporations have energy-saving goals that require several methods to achieve, and project owners want to know how solar and water construction in coordination with carbon-neutral building materials can help them achieve their energy-saving goals with sustainable construction practices.

Sustainable Construction

Side note: Recent changes to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) will affect Federal projects where sustainability is concerned. Construction for railways, highways and pipelines will require additional review to determine indirect and cumulative environmental impacts—owners managing these types of infrastructure-related projects should re-evaluate their timelines and costs to help mitigate delays and overages.

Solar in Construction

Solar energy is a common source of renewable energy that when combined with energy efficient appliances and building systems, contributes to sustainable development within the construction industry.

When approaching the idea of sustainable development in construction, owners should consider their needs and their goals:

  • Does the organization need a zero energy building?
  • Is the overall goal to reduce the company's carbon footprint by a certain amount?
  • Does the owner want a reduction in reliance on the grid to account for frequent power outages in the area?

Before the design, the organization’s foundational energy needs and goals must be set and aligned with budget and schedule constraints of the project. The organization must determine risk versus reward and return on investment. Using these inputs, a determination on solar construction can be decided, priced, and planned.

water conservation

Reducing Water Inefficiencies in Construction

Builders and owners can plan intentional water conservation or net-zero water strategies into their water construction initiatives.

Net-zero water buildings are buildings that are intentional about water conservation, minimize total water consumption, maximize alternative water sources, minimize wastewater discharge from the building, and return water to the original water source. With net-zero water buildings, the owner would have a goal to create a self-sustaining water system.

Builders and owners can decrease a building's overall utility bill, decreasing demand and improving efficiency, and have a positive impact on the community by deciding to use reclaimed water, incorporating water reduction efforts, or using alternative water sources.

Systems for net-zero water or conserving water are most cost-effective when a building is a complete new-build as opposed to renovations. Considerations for renovations and new-builds to include in water conservation efforts are additional pipes, storage tanks, and filtration systems that the building must accommodate, codes that must be complied with, and size limitations due to building square footage.

Should an owner want to reduce water inefficiencies—like energy efficiency, this should be accounted for from project conception.

Carbon-Neutral Construction Building Materials

A carbon neutral building is one where the design, construction, and operations are offset by reducing the equivalent amount of emissions elsewhere. There may still be emissions associated with the project, but these have to be accounted for. It’s important that the way in which they are offset are verified by a creditable accrediting body and backed up by data.

A method to decrease greenhouse gas emissions associated with a project is to include low carbon building materials—meaning materials that have drawn down carbon from the air, e.g. wood, or materials that didn’t have to be made in an energy intensive process.

Green Construction

Examples of low carbon building materials are low-carbon bricks, green tiles, sustainable wood and recycled metal. Replacing typical materials with these low carbon materials contribute to sustainable construction development for a project.

While exploring carbon-neutral building materials, a project owner would want to work closely with the engineer or architect to ensure the materials meet the building’s load specifications and building codes. Additionally, the project owner would need to collaborate with the construction project manager to determine if the special materials would have cost effects or schedule impact vital to the completion of the project.

Key Topics Covered: Sustainable Construction

About the Author

Sustainability Manager at Trimble