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Beyond sustainability: the real future of construction

In a world where climate change dominates the concerns of almost every industry, the pressing need for sustainability is transforming the way buildings are made. But it’s important that we don’t take a blinkered approach, focusing solely on sustainability at the expense of other important considerations.

That’s the message from The Times’ supplement ‘The Future of Construction’, published in August. The publication highlights some of the exciting developments in construction methods, such as Dubai’s pledge to 3D print a quarter of all new buildings by 2030, but also draws attention to concerns that have been, or are in danger of being, overlooked.

Concerns like safety, mental health and worker marginalisation. Building cities that are exponentially more environmentally friendly is not a long-term solution for the human race if it leaves people jobless and living in stressful or dangerous environments.

Sustainability at all costs

3D printing is changing the shape of construction in every sense. Dubai’s commitment to this technology could drastically reduce emissions, as well as bringing down the cost of housing stock for a rising urban population. What’s not to like? Yet it will inevitably affect the livelihoods of construction workers unless the pledge includes a plan for retraining and redeploying the builders being replaced by machines.

The severity of the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017, which claimed 72 lives, was blamed on the building’s cladding – an insulation method designed to improve the building’s thermal properties? The focus on reducing heat loss and energy consumption led to a fatal oversight in health and safety.

We recently saw a shining example of the holistic approach to sustainable building when we visited the Facebook HQ in California. The Frank Gehry-designed complex ticks some impressive sustainability boxes, such as 90% waste diversion and 100% renewable energy from 3.6mW of rooftop solar, but it looks after the welfare of its employees too. There are hundreds of free-to-use bikes to get around the place, numerous installations by local artists and a 150,000sq.ft roof garden, which is home to more than 200 trees and 4,000 birds.

According to a recent article in the Silicon Valley Business Journal, Facebook HQ is home to Silicon Valley’s happiest workforce. It’s a productivity focused ecosystem – a ‘sustainable workplace’ created through biodiversity with employee wellbeing enhanced through building design and service innovation.

Broader concerns

The message is clear: focusing on sustainable construction without applying the same consideration and imagination to the welfare of people is futile and, in some cases, fatal.

Sustainability requires not just a few new methods but a complete change in mind-set. We need to consider every element of the process: where the materials come from and how they’re transported; the emissions generated from powering a building and the emissions generated from its waste; its cost-effectiveness and its reliability; the mental health, diversity and safety of workers and occupants.

This is the sort of thinking that Livingstone is bringing to the problem of creating a ‘zero carbon’ built environment for a burgeoning urban population. The true measure of whether we’re successful will not be merely the UN’s 1.5˚C global warming target but the quality of life of the predicted 10 billion people on Earth 40 years from now.

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