Construction, as it stands today, is far from a sustainable industry. The sector is responsible for as much as 50% of climate change and 50% of global landfill waste. Material waste is one of the most pressing parts of this issue.
The construction industry is notorious for material waste. Frequent mistakes and setbacks require tearing sections down to start again, and imprecise operations lead to cutting away and discarding more material than is necessary. While this issue is concerning, modular construction, which involves constructing a building in pieces off-site, could help.
Construction’s Waste Problem
Waste is not the only environmental issue in construction, but it is a significant one. In 2018 alone, the industry generated 600 million tons of waste, with more than 143 million tons going straight to landfills. This is a rapidly growing problem, too, as the industry generated less than one-third of that just 13 years prior.
The kinds of materials the industry wastes make the matter more concerning. Concrete, steel, and aluminum are common construction materials. Discarding these items routinely means the cost of production for these materials is higher than necessary. Producing these three materials accounts for 23% of all greenhouse gas emissions, so this waste can seriously impact the environment.
If current trends continue, the global construction industry will produce 2.2 billion tons of waste annually by 2025. As a result, the industry must adapt to conserve its materials and reduce material-related emissions.
How Modular Construction Reduces Waste
Modular construction is a promising solution. In this practice, workers create pieces of buildings called modules in a controlled factory setting. Then, they ship the modules to the construction site to piece them together and form a complete building. This method opens the door for substantially less material waste. Here’s how.
Using Fewer Materials
One of the biggest sustainability advantages of modular construction is that it reduces material usage from the start. It is easier to be more precise in a controlled environment, so there’s a lower chance of making mistakes that would lead to demolition and rework. Since demolition is responsible for 90% of all construction debris, modular construction results in far less wasted material.
As companies can work on multiple modular projects in the same space, they can also easily transfer unused materials from one project to another. That way, it’s less tempting to send materials to the dump. This transfer also means there’s little to no transportation involved, so moving materials from one project to another produces fewer vehicle emissions.
Material-related emissions also decrease because modular projects reduce the need for new fabrication. If a project has a surplus of provisions, they can easily reallocate it to another in the same building, and then that project can order fewer materials.
Using Less-Wasteful Materials
Modular construction can also enable teams to use less-wasteful materials. Some resources, like copper, one of the most recycled metals in the world, are already common across construction projects. The harsh environments of on-site construction can limit other eco-friendly materials, but modular construction doesn’t have that problem.
For example, building with wood can be challenging with traditional methods because extreme weather can compromise its strength and resilience. In a controlled environment, that’s not an issue, so modular construction can use wood more extensively, setting it up before it can absorb water. Since wood entails far less embodied carbon and is easily recycled, this reduces construction waste.
These controlled environments also let teams use materials that require less cutting or shaving, reducing material waste. It’s easier to use molds and prefabricated structures, opening the door to novel materials better suited to indoor environments.
Modular construction also makes it easier to recycle materials. Since teams will build modules in the same space every day, they can set up permanent nearby recycling centers. They can then transfer any unused material to these centers at the end of a project and retrieve materials from them at the start of another.
Using recycled materials in modular construction requires far less transportation, logistics planning, and costs, thanks to these centers. As a result, it’s easier to convince construction teams to use recycled materials.
The safe, controlled environments that workers build in also eliminate weather damage, enabling more recycling. With less rain, dirt, and other contaminants present, construction teams don’t have to worry about materials losing their recyclability. Since recycled steel has a carbon footprint five times smaller than virgin steel, that also reduces related carbon emissions.
Modular Construction Can Virtually Eliminate Waste
The construction industry’s waste problem is daunting, but modular approaches are a promising solution. As more companies adopt these methods, they’ll become more precise, use less-wasteful materials, and further increase the rate of material reuse and recycling. They could virtually eliminate solid waste from the sector as a result.
Modular construction won’t solve all of construction’s sustainability issues, but it helps. Reducing material waste in the industry and related emissions will have considerable environmental benefits.
Rose Morrsion, Managing Editor of Renovated.com
“I aspire for readers to reflect more deeply on materials, their vitality, and how they endlessly shape our world and future.”
*This article is the work of the guest author shown above. The guest author is solely responsible for the accuracy and the legality of their content. The content of the article and the views expressed therein are solely those of this author and do not reflect the views of Matmatch or of any present or past employers, academic institutions, professional societies, or organizations the author is currently or was previously affiliated with.
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