As we creep closer to the government’s 2050 net zero target, we all have a role to play in reducing our environmental impact, both on a personal and professional level – and the construction and engineering sectors are no different.
In this article, we hear from Ian Poole, Associate Sustainability Consultant and Engineer at Elliott Wood about his thoughts on sustainability in practice.
Q: In your opinion, where is the engineering industry currently at on its journey to net zero?
Every day more clients are changing their viewpoint on carbon – which is great. There’s a trend where both investors and building users are beginning to view low carbon buildings as premium and high value spaces, with ‘value’ going beyond just economic value to include factors such as sustainability. We’re also witnessing prominent building projects being called in or refused planning permission, due in part to the high level of carbon emissions their construction and operation would generate. London’s Tulip skyscraper and the M&S Building on Oxford Street are landmark examples of this.
Generally speaking, carbon is also becoming a key and influential factor when making design decisions. Whereas just a few years ago, teams would have been more likely to go ahead with the most architectural or cost-effective choice, with little consideration to carbon emissions.
All of this feeds into a changing landscape when it comes to carbon. The UK Net Zero Carbon Building Standard, which is currently in development and due to come in next year, will also further influence this. I expect it to have a considerable impact on the construction and engineering industry, setting out metrics by which net zero carbon performance will be evaluated, as well as performance targets (or limits) that need to be met.
All of this said, a change of mindset and upskilling is still required on many levels of the construction supply chain if we are to truly deliver, as one, on this greener future.
Q: What would you say are the benefits of digital carbon tools, such as Tekla’s carbon calculator?
The fundamental benefit to using digital carbon tools is the ability to undertake live calculations as you are designing.
Through using digital tools, such as the carbon calculator in Tekla Structural Designer, the time barrier to completing embodied carbon calculations is removed, with the tool running in the background as you are designing. This in turn allows us to understand and visualise the impact of our design decisions, as we are making them, contributing to a more informed process.
The live calculations help to inform our decisions when optioneering (where you can compare different materials, foundation types and column layouts and their carbon emissions) and optimising our design (identifying carbon ‘hot spots’ and highlighting members with high carbon and low utilisation). The calculations and visualisations in the software also enable us to communicate carbon much more effectively, both visualising design decisions and sharing project insights with other professionals. Finally, the results can be used to make reporting and recording easier, to enable data collection, setting targets, and reducing emissions on future projects.
Q: How does this all fit into the circular economy and why should people consider re-using materials?
It’s estimated that around 200,000 tonnes of steel sections come out of buildings every year in the UK; buildings that are either being repurposed, refurbished or demolished. Of course, not all of that steelwork can be re-used elsewhere but a large portion of it can be. If we re-used all of the steel sections coming out of buildings, it could save the equivalent carbon as required to heat 150,000 UK homes for a whole year.
Digital tools can be used to aid steel re-use by using material passports and tagging elements in our BIM models. In our design models, we can use inventory-based design to limit the steel sections used to those which we have coming from a donor building or from the market. In my latest refurbishment project, we’re looking at how we may be able to re-use steel being removed from the building and re-introduce it in the extension works. For example, using the 15-metre steel beams at the current roof level and cutting them down to re-use for 12-metre spans at the new roof level above. Although there are several barriers to achieving this, the market is moving fast and as designers we have a large role to play in developing our approaches to maximise re-use potential.
Another side to the theme of a circular economy is to design buildings with the intention of the materials being re-used, with structural components detailed and fabricated with a view of how it will carefully be disassembled at the end of the building’s life. The increased use of digital tools and ‘digital twins’ of our buildings would enable this in the future.
Q: Why is communication so important when it comes to Net Zero?
For me, communication is one of the most important parts of this journey to net zero. As engineers, while we can do the work, we have to also be able to convince others to make decisions which are better for the environment. Having digital tools available to us, such as the embodied carbon tools within Tekla applications, allows us to make easier visualisations of the results. In design meetings, I’ll often have the 3D model open and, if the architect asks for a change, I can quickly make that and give them a high-level overview of the impact (good or bad) that decision will have on the structure’s embodied carbon.
It’s all about impacting positive change and how we communicate this throughout the project. By demonstrating opportunities to reduce carbon with the client and architect, taking time to explain and demonstrate how carbon can be saved and what this means for the building design, we can help to deliver on sustainability.
Available within both Tekla Structural Designer and Tekla Structures, the Embodied Carbon Assessment tool works directly in conjunction with the existing 3D modelling and engineering software. The Embodied Carbon Calculator also offers export options to One Click Life Cycle Analysis, the construction life-cycle metrics software.