In recent decades, concerns about the impact that industries have on the environment have been growing, while questions about environmental sustainability have long been among the top issues for those in the construction industry.

From its heavy reliance upon sectors such as forestry and energy, to the level of construction-related carbon emissions, the building industry continues to move toward a greener future.

The greening of the construction sector

Given the nature of its business, working toward environmental sustainability presents the construction sector with major challenges as well as opportunities. That said, individuals within the construction industry are also residents of the communities they work in, which means they too want to breathe clean air, drink clean water, care about the environment and wish to contribute to ensuring a better environmental future for all.

A recent survey of 1,000 global respondents found executives in the engineering and construction industries are among those who’ve made the most progress toward sustainability, with 47 percent citing sustainability as a major concern.

Designing buildings and communities that are environmentally friendly has become an intrinsic element in the building sector, as has ensuring that commercial and residential buildings are energy efficient. However, balancing the multitude of regulations governing the construction industry, while striving to ensure sustainability, can be a challenge.

The World Green Buildings Trend report, conducted in 2021, found that 34 percent of the U.S. engineering and construction companies surveyed said they were focused on “green buildings,” while 46 percent said they planned to do so over the next three years.

Of course, constructing new buildings involves a multitude of professionals, including architects, builders, suppliers, subcontractors and others.

The responsibility for ensuring that the final product is environmentally sustainable relies on the dedication and commitment of all stakeholders.

Change can be difficult but is required for sustainability

The renowned Chinese saying that the “journey of 1,000 miles begins with one single step” certainly is applicable to the moves toward sustainability within the construction sector.

Although technological advancements have altered some aspects of the industry, the fundamentals of constructing strong and visually appealing buildings have, for the most part, remained constant.

However, gradually there are changes afoot within the construction sector, with the goal of ensuring environmental sustainability. It’s important to acknowledge that buildings constructed in 2024 could well be in service for decades, and thus they have to be designed and built with that reality in mind.

The carbon footprint of a building in 2024 must be constructed with the understanding that environmental changes may require alterations to those structures to meet future, lower levels. A key element in this effort is attempting to use recycled – or recyclable – building materials during construction of those buildings.

Lower-carbon models and strategies can often assist in “greening” a construction project as well as lowering some costs. Optimizing the amount of recycled building materials, while ensuring they meet all regulatory demands, is another important method of how construction can contribute to environmental sustainability.

Still, while balancing the need to reduce energy cost and consumption is a laudable goal, it is also reliant upon the contribution of all stakeholders, including suppliers, subcontractors, and the approval of those who are paying for the building’s construction.

By its very nature, construction is a complex business that requires a multitude of skilled professionals working together toward the single goal of building the highest quality, affordable, environmentally sustainable structure.

Decisions made during the construction of a new building – beginning with the hiring of the best people, selecting the most appropriate building materials and equipment – right through the actual construction phase to its completion, requires an understanding of the many factors that ultimately determine the quality, and environmental impact, of the building.

The ever-changing regulations of environmentally sustainable construction

The construction industry is a complex and demanding business where issues such as the safety of employees and customers is always paramount, but it is also an industry that wants to play its role in environmental sustainability.

The question, of course, is how to balance the various demands of all the stakeholders, ranging from budgeting and deadlines to the availability of renewable supplies, all the while meeting the strict regulatory oversight that governs our industry.

Domestically, laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act require federal agencies to assess environmental effects of public construction, such as infrastructure projects, while the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act is a federal law governing the generation, transportation, treatment, storage, and disposal of hazardous waste, including construction items such as lead pipes, and asphalt waste among others.

In addition, there’s the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, which requires contractors to report on the storage, use and release of hazardous substances. Local and state jurisdictions also may have additional regulations governing the construction of new buildings.

Going forward, it will fall upon all of us – consumers, regulators, and builders – to each do our part in working toward greater environmental sustainability. As the song says, “it’s not easy being green,” but in 2024 it is both the law and the right thing to do.

Bryce Clutts is president and CEO of Metcalf Builders.