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Sustainability in construction: the role of data-driven decisions

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As industries look to lower their environmental impact, the role of data has become a mission critical element to improving efficiency. But what role can data play in lowering emissions within construction? Richard Waterhouse at NBS explains why increasing product data framework and establishing hard sustainability targets will be key to achieving Net Zero.


Data now seeps into so many elements of our lives – from the dashboards in our cars which show engine performance and alert us to any problems, to washing machines which manage water and detergent levels. Even our fridges are capable of reducing food waste through the scanning of bar codes and sell by dates.

What do all of these elements have in common? They’re examples of where data and technology are improving safety, efficiency and sustainability. Where a major problem is identified, a technological solution that harnesses data has been developed. But is this way of thinking being applied to construction?

Understanding the issues

The construction industry accounts for over 40% of all carbon emissions, of which a quarter is due to ongoing construction activity. The energy performance of our buildings is also 30% lower than the performance we expect, and the initiatives to improve our energy performance on both new and refurbishment activities have been mismanaged, ending in disaster and unspent funding. It’s clear that construction needs to do more to overcome these issues but that for that to happen, it needs to find more sophisticated ways to manage data.

Data and the three ‘c’s

What’s clear is that the industry needs easy access to data to be able to make improved decision making on the three key elements of product selection – compliance, cost and carbon. On compliance, the products and systems must fulfil the function they are designed to achieve.

There needs to be a regulation on sustainable products – placing data at its core to test whether we are changing and improving and whether an appropriate framework is emerging

Currently, where a number of products achieve this compliance, the next step is to choose the lowest cost and there is plenty of data to help in this area. What we need now is accurate data on ‘embodied carbon’ – to understand the carbon footprint that was used to produce the product to begin with.

Standardising performance data

The recent announcement, by a consortium of construction institutes, covering the development of a standardised embodied carbon database is a more than welcome step forward for the industry. This will provide standardised data on performance of product types and classes and create a foundation on which products and their substitutes can be assessed and improvements made. The next step will be to ensure that product manufacturers replicate this with actual performance of their products using environmental product declarations (EPDs). Let’s extend this to include carbon labelling for simple product comparison.

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The need for hard targets

What’s interesting is that construction still appears to be missing the bigger picture. In a world where we can ban the internal combustion engine, why are we so loose with targets for the built environment? Why are we so unwilling to force a change in a sector that is the largest emitter of CO2? Self-regulation and ‘market dynamics’ have not helped.

There needs to be a regulation on sustainable products – placing data at its core to test whether we are changing and improving and whether an appropriate framework is emerging.

Joining the dots

When it comes to building safety, the new Office of Product Safety and Standards (OPSS) will regulate construction products that have a safety impact, using data sheets and unique product IDs.

The new Buildings Regulator will review building safety files to ensure compliance with the regulations and provide evidence of the digital ‘golden thread of information’. We should be able to use both to require provision of the environmental data (through the OPSS) and ensure its use through the golden thread, using building regulations to extend from ‘operating carbon’ to ‘embodied carbon’.

System overhaul

Yet if we are to see a true transformation towards sustainable construction, we need more. More data on behalf of product manufacturers with a guarantee that information is accurate and up to date. More advanced frameworks for specifiers and architects to access the data they need. But most importantly, we need a transformative target. It will take significant action akin to the banning of the combustion engine combined with a labelling system for product comparisons (similar to that seen with white goods) as well as a clear direction on eliminating construction waste before the sector can seriously think about achieving its ambition of a Net Zero future.

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