Sustainability in Construction

Lynelle Cameron, Vice President of Sustainability for Autodesk, gives her thoughts on sustainability in construction

Give us your thoughts on sustainability in construction; where it is and where is heading.

At the moment, an estimated 30 percent of every construction project is waste. This is waste before, during and after the construction project. From a sustainability perspective, this presents an incredible opportunity to both save materials and costs. In construction, we are always looking to do both those things. For buildings to be more sustainable, this should be one of the first things we think of.

We are definitely seeing a new trend in construction that involves circularity and circular construction. The idea is to design buildings with the materials and components that will be continually reused in future buildings. There is no waste and through the entire lifetime of the building, it generates zero waste. This is the future.

What do you mean by circular construction?

At AU Middle East 2018, we talked about Royal BAM, the team behind the design of a pavilion for ABN AMRO Bank. They discussed how they were designing the pavilion using the principles of circular construction by using materials that can be repurposed and reused instead of discarded. Components from another building, that was dismantled and demolished, went into the construction of the pavilion. Inner walls, doors, cables, fire hose reels have all been reused from other construction projects. In fact, they even used blue jeans that have been recycled from employees in the ceiling insulation, and some of the components of the building will have a second life after the pavilion is dismantled. This is circular construction and circularity, which we think is going to be the future of construction.

So, any waste that can be found on a construction site can be reused anywhere, essentially?

Ideally, yes. But if you start the design process itself with a goal to generate less waste, by reusing materials, for example, then you have less waste from the onset. But this leads to another important trend in construction. And that is 3D printing. Using this technology allows companies to robotically print building parts, like one of Autodesk’s clients who are currently 3D printing an entire bridge. This changes the waste equation because you only print what you need, with no waste. So there are two different sides to construction waste reduction.

What are net zero buildings?

A: Net zero buildings are buildings that generate as much energy as they consume. We’re seeing this trend emerge globally and we’re working together with an initiative called Architecture 2030 that many of our customers have signed up to as well. It is a commitment to have a net zero portfolio of buildings by 2030. The good news is that the technology available today as part of our AEC collection helps our customers achieve this goal. So, we’re working with them to put together an entire workflow that they can implement across the country to help design and make high performance buildings which are also net zero in terms of energy consumption.

Is there any other way we can reduce waste in construction sites? 

A: I think we’ve hit on the two major ones, but the technology available today is enabling us to radically reduce the waste along the entire construction value chain, technology like cloud computing, robotics, and additive manufacturing.

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What are the benefits of 3D printed buildings?

3D printing eliminates an enormous amount of waste. Autodesk, incidentally, does some work with a robot we call ASH. We have been training ASH to robotically 3D print in stainless steel, and she’s able to print only what she needs without polluting the environment or creating extra waste. That’s fundamentally going to change the industry going forward.

3D printing with stainless steel? Could you tell us more about it?

A: Yes! It might sound easy, but it is completely different from printing with plastic. However, it is happening and the technology is working. In fact, we are working with a client in the Netherlands, MX3D that is designing and robotically 3D printing a bridge. The robots (like ASH) have sensors that enable them to keep track of what they’re doing and understand how hot the metal is at any given point. This lets them adjust and correct while printing, which is very advanced.

What is the future of work?

People are curious and apprehensive about how automation, technology, AI and machine-learning will influence the future of work. It certainly is changing, not only how people work, but also changing what we are now able to design and make. From a sustainability perspective, we now have incredible technology that is enabling us to solve incredibly complex challenges that we haven’t been able to solve in the past. Smart and sustainable cities are now not just possible, but doable.

If you were to ask an economist, they will probably tell you that 47 percent of jobs are going away. If you ask a journalist, they will say that we’re being replaced by robots. And if you ask a technologist, they will say that technology will be our salvation in the future. The reality lies somewhere in between, but the important point is that technology is not only changing how we work, and the nature of jobs, but it is also changing what we are now able to make. It is augmenting and amplifying human abilities so that we can now design and make much better things than we have before.

When can we expect renewable energy to replace non-renewable energy? 

I would say that I’m optimistic about the growth of renewable energy around the world. We at Autodesk power our operations with 100% renewable energy. That has been an important strategy for us. Not just by any renewable energy, but by local renewable energy that is additive to the market. We’ve been trying to use our own power strategy to catalyse demand in the places that we work, and it is very inspiring to see here in Dubai the development of one of the largest solar farms. I believe that is certainly exciting, but we have a long way to go to develop renewable energy at a scale to power these lifestyles.

One of the things I didn’t mention earlier is that we will be 10 billion people on the planet soon. Half of them (5 billion) will be living in what is considered the ‘global middle class’. So cars, computers, condominiums – all the things that we enjoy in this fine city – will take twice as much energy to produce and power the lifestyles that they will demand. We cannot rely on fossil fuel-based energy, so it will require that we create an incredible amount of energy which calls for a massive design change.

What are the challenges ahead?

 I want to commend the government in the UAE for setting truly bold and visionary goals around sustainability. I think that is really important, and I see governments around the world being really visionary when it comes to sustainability and addressing climate change. I think this is what will be needed to get the private sector to really innovate and leverage the technology that is suitable to get us to this future. It will have to be a combination between public sector leadership and private sector leadership that will help us capitalize on climate change and sustainability as a business opportunity.

The market for low carbon and circular products and services is US$5 trillion, so it’s a big market. If we can better our understanding of climate change, work on preventing further climate change, and also help cities, countries and communities to adapt to the climate change, that is a business opportunity. I believe that the companies that are going to be successful in the future are really thinking about how to use technology to design and make everything better – and better is about restorative communities. It’s about energy efficiency; it’s about material efficiency and productivity; it’s about circularity; it’s about net zero; many of the things we discussed at AU Middle East. I feel like we can now actually realize that future because of the access to technology that we currently have at our fingertips.

One of the customers that we heard from today is the team working on the Dubai Museum of the Future, which is a fantastic local example of sustainability in the region. They have used technologies to really do incredible innovation around energy and materials to come up with a beautiful example on sustainability, and it is going to be a fantastic landmark here in Dubai.

What is the difference between a regular building and a net zero building?

Net Zero Energy buildings are buildings that are producing/generating as much energy as they consume. So these are buildings that go beyond just being energy consumers, but as a source of energy. This is the future of energy, and there will be a need to design more of these buildings.

But can you convert existing buildings to net zero?

You can certainly add renewable energy to a building that has been fully converted to Net Zero Energy. I think that is something that probably would happen at the design stage. But the other trend with Net Zero Energy is we’re seeing companies that are building affordable Net Zero Energy buildings. One of our customers, Van Wijnen is building Net Zero affordable homes and neighbourhoods in the Netherlands, and that’s a great example where generative design is enabling the customers to weigh things like the sustainability, and affordability and profitability together.

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