Think of a building, any building (flats and offices included), and what you’ve got in mind is a care home for carbon: the longer the building stays standing, the less of the carbon tightly captured in its bricks, steel and concrete can escape into the atmosphere. It takes a quarter of a tonne of carbon to make one tonne of bricks…even more for the steelwork, and a typical three bedroom house has more than eighty tonnes locked into its bones from the get-go. None of that would be a particular problem for our precious environment if the house, with its latticework of carbon, were allowed to grow old gracefully…but it probably won’t be: more and more these days, the care home for carbon is closing early.
Current life expectancy for a new property can be as short as sixty years (a blink of an eye when it comes to the future of our planet), and once it’s demolished, virtually none of those raw components will be recycled (twisted steel, crushed concrete and broken bricks in particular): instead they’ll be carted off to the landfill: between breaking up and burial, virtually all of the eighty tonnes of carbon that went into the original construction will be casually (and disastrously) released into the atmosphere.
To put that in context, the average person living in the UK at the moment (obviously, we’re not talking Boris Johnson here: his carbon footprint is as big as his appetite for gold wallpaper)…no, the average UK citizen produces five tonnes of carbon a year. So building and demolishing one masonry home will eventually emit as much carbon as Joe (or Jane) Normal can produce in thirty two years…and their cradle-to-grave lifespans are pretty much the same too.
All in all, embodied carbon, generated and progressively released over the course of a traditional construction cycle, is currently responsible for 11% of carbon emissions worldwide, and it’s the third biggest contributor to global warming: just think about that for a moment…it’s more than the aviation and worldwide shipping industries combined (www.iea.org)). In the UK alone, the built (or perhaps, more appropriately, misbuilt) environment accounts for 25% of greenhouse gas emissions (www.parliament.uk).
No surprise then that the UK’s Environmental Audit Committee warned last May that urgent action was needed to monitor carbon emissions in the construction sector: it recommended new assessment systems should be embedded into future regulatory and planning systems to keep track of the damage: but, honestly, in the middle of a global crisis, is anyone seriously going to respond to “closer assessment” and “better regulation” as clarion calls for action? It’s like making Spiderman wear a bowler hat and carry a briefcase. Keeping closer track of the destructive cycle of dinosaur construction (whilst welcome) is no longer enough. We need to change the paradigm…
Creating a new building with Modular, ConstrucTech, systems typically leads to a 45% reduction in carbon emissions over the full life cycle (compared with traditional steel and concrete options): because Modular Projects use far fewer carbon-intensive materials, they generate less transport based pollution (with components being manufactured to specification off site), and more of the materials they do use (such as wood and bespoke electrical components) can be recycled when the building eventually comes to the end of its useful life.
But don’t just take my word for it, those are the findings of a recent research programme conducted by Cambridge and Edinburgh Napier Universities (www.housingtoday.co.uk). Two of the modular schemes the Project looked at (based in Croydon and Redbridge) returned aggregate carbon reductions of more than 28,000 tonnes: and bearing in mind one of them (the “Ten Degrees” Towers in Croydon) has since become the world’s tallest modular building, that’s something worth taking notice of…it certainly seems like a new paradigm to me.
Embodied levels of carbon in traditional construction projects are now the third biggest contributor to global warming and account for 11% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. That’s not something we can address by tinkering with monitoring and regulation…it’s going to require a brand new paradigm.