Constructing the future? Why we need a revolution in the construction industry and how it can succeed

6. 8 .2021, Nele Feldkamp

The climate crisis is omnipresent - we hear about rising CO2 emissions in the news, read reports on species extinction and experience extreme weather events first-hand.

In addition, we are taking action by buying organic food, driving less and eating less meat, no longer flying on vacation, and shopping plastic-free whenever possible. While these are important steps toward achieving the climate targets set by the EU and also Germany, there is other great potential for saving enormous amounts of CO2 - namely in the construction sector. The construction sector is responsible for around 50% of CO2 emissions worldwide. The cement industry alone is responsible for 8% of global greenhouse gases (Langen, 2019). In addition, there are currently already supply bottlenecks for raw materials such as gravel and sand, elementary components of concrete.

Through massive construction projects, more and more soil is being sealed. As a result, rainwater soaks into the ground less effectively, posing a threat of flooding, especially during heavy rainfall. Water does not evaporate on sealed ground, so the cooling effect that evaporation has in summer is also lost. In addition, sealed soil is not receiving a supply of water and air. This leads to a disturbed soil fauna that is difficult to regenerate (UBA, 2020).

Apart from the ecological impact of raw material use, the construction sector is currently in a tense situation. Prices for a range of materials have risen massively in the wake of the Corona pandemic and due to supply problems in 2021 (see chart). The most striking change here has been in the price of solid structural timber. In May 2021 alone, the price increased by 83.3% compared to the corresponding month of the previous year. In addition, reinforcing steel in bars (used in ceilings, walls and floors, among other things) was about 44.3% more expensive in May 2021 than in May 2020 (Destatis, 2021). 

The good news is that we are not helplessly exposed to such influences and changes in the construction sector. The principles Reduce, Reuse, Recycle are also crucial in the construction sector to successfully minimize the carbon footprint as well as to achieve a sustainable economy.

Reduce

Completely abandoning the construction of buildings is not a realistic solution in times of increased demand for living space. There is, however, potential for minimizing the environmental impact of buildings. In order to seal less ground area, it is generally advisable to build in height rather than in width. Using existing, vacant properties rather than building new also leads to longer use of building materials and less need to manufacture new materials. To minimize the harmful effects of CO2-intensive materials, the focus is on alternative building materials as well as the increased use of wood, for example.

This is where Polycare takes a consistent approach to accelerate the use of secondary raw materials in the construction industry. Polycare has 10 years of experience in dealing with low sands (e.g. desert sands) as well as secondary raw materials (recyclates, construction waste, foundry sands, etc.) in order to produce sustainable building materials and building blocks. The idea came after the catastrophe in Haiti in 2010, when the founders asked themselves how we could create new building blocks from construction waste (or material that is directly available) that would allow everyone to participate in the construction process (for the inclusive reconstruction of the island). The result is a system of building blocks reminiscent of Lego construction and characterized by a lightweight design. The use of a new generation of binders thus saves 75% of material and weight to volume and about 60% of CO2 emissions (compared to reinforced concrete).

The so-called polyblocks are currently already being produced in Namibia and will be produced in South Africa from 2022. Use of foundry sands as the main ingredient in the formulation will be scaled up industrially in these countries for the first time, so that this material will no longer end up in landfills in the future. In Germany, Polycare also produces building blocks and is about to receive general building approval. The challenge here will be to also be allowed to use secondary raw materials - a regulatory hurdle in Germany.

Since the building blocks are not mortared or glued, but braced together by a threaded rod system, they can be dismantled non-destructively and then reused. Polycare has already impressively demonstrated this in Germany and South Africa.

Reuse

In addition to the avoidance of CO2-intensive raw materials, recycling is also based on the principle of "reuse", i.e. the reutilization of resources. A true circular economy therefore provides that all products and materials can circulate endlessly in cycles. Applied to the construction industry, this means that the building products used in buildings should be designed in such a way that they are chemically harmless, separable by type and fully recyclable. At present, a large proportion of products do not yet meet these requirements. Moreover, the product contents, their material composition and the monetary value of the raw materials are not sufficiently documented. In other words, it is not possible to fully understand whether a building product bound in a building is suitable for recycling and what its raw material value is.

To promote the circular economy in the construction and real estate sector, a digital register is needed. This register contains all the necessary information on materials in an online cloud platform. Through a so-called "one-stop access point," users can provide information on the environmental impact of a product or asset, as well as health-, regulatory- and financial-related decision support over the lifecycle of the object. The database should also be able to store, enrich, share and manage information about objects in a digital and standardized way (keyword: digital twin/BIM) with asset, product and material data.

Madaster is this kind of online platform for materials. It provides transparency on material values and offers a trustworthy data source. At the same time, it establishes an ecosystem that brings together products, architects, project developers, banks, asset managers and the public sector in marketplaces.

An important prerequisite for value preservation is that buildings are designed and constructed in such a way that it is easy and consequently economically worthwhile to deconstruct and to reuse the materials and resources stored in them. This provides a financial incentive for developers, producers and builders to "anticipate" transience in design and construction.

Recycle

Materials that can neither be avoided nor reused in their form and function are often recycled. While the recycling of plastics, paper and glass, for example, is already established practice, construction waste and the like are often landfilled, and recycling into "new" building materials has so far been time-consuming and does not appear to be profitable. Besides the high standards that secondary building materials must meet in order to be reused in the construction industry, another obstacle to the widespread establishment of secondary building materials is the lack of acceptance by building owners (source). In fact, recycled building materials are often required to have higher qualities than new raw materials (source).

This means that while the mindset towards recycled building materials also plays a crucial role, another obstacle is the lack of infrastructure for trading construction waste and recycled building materials. This is exactly where Cyrkl's digital B2B marketplace steps in. Via our online platform, companies can offer waste free of charge or buy recycling materials themselves. In this way, networks between construction waste producers, recyclers and recoverers can be created easily and across Europe or entirely locally.

Any construction waste can be offered on the marketplace. Interested recyclers or reusers can easily contact the supplier directly through the Cyrkl marketplace and discuss potential costs or prices, transport or details about the material. This is a quick way to broker materials and enable the circular economy in the construction sector.

We are looking ahead to challenging years in which we must succeed in minimizing negative impacts of human life on our planet. Fortunately, there is no shortage of solutions and innovation, and the construction sector in particular has huge potential to minimize greenhouse gases and preserve resources. Transforming the sector will bring us significantly closer to the climate targets we have set ourselves. Companies such as Polycare, Madaster and Cyrkl will be able to continue to show in the coming years that many, smaller solutions can also achieve great things in their entirety.

‐ Nele Feldkamp

Cyrkl in the media