By November 22, 2021/
It’s an exciting time to be a green builder. The industry is growing by leaps and bounds, empowered by increased investments in sustainability by all levels of governments, as well as public interest in making homes and workspaces more environmentally friendly.
The increased investment has also led to a surge in green building technology, which offers designers and builders more options when it comes to lowering the environmental impact of their projects and more innovative ways to problem-solve.
Let’s look at some of the top trends in green building technology that have been on the upswing in 2021.
Embodied Carbon Calculators
Assessments of a building’s sustainability are expanding, from a focus solely on the operational carbon a building produces to its embodied carbon.
Embodied carbon refers to the carbon emissions associated with all the materials and processes that go into making a building. That includes everything from raw material extraction to the transportation of finished goods to construction practices on the site itself.
While solutions like vehicle telematics can help individual companies assess their own emissions, measuring the embodied carbon of an entire building project becomes vastly more complex.
Embodied carbon is notoriously difficult to calculate because to be comprehensive, an estimate of a building’s embodied carbon needs to include emissions data on the entire supply chain that a builder has utilized during a project.
Embodied carbon calculators work to simplify this process and give industry professionals tools to help them better assess their options when it comes to building materials and practices.
The non-profit organization Building Transparency, for example, has created the Embodied Carbon in Construction Calculator (EC3). This is a free, open-access tool that gives users access to supply chain emissions data and allows them to input that data into a building impact calculator.
Smart glass, or dynamic glass, is a green building technology that’s seen sizeable market growth recently, and that’s predicted to become even bigger in the near future.
Dynamic glass can be passive (thermochromic or photochromic) or active (electrochromic). Thermochromic glass will automatically tint when the glass heats up, returning to a transparent state when the window cools.
Photochromic materials darken as sunlight becomes stronger and revert to their normal transparency when light is weaker. Electrochromic glass can change from transparent to translucent when an electronic current is applied.
While each of these materials has applications in green building, electrochromic glass is of special interest. Unlike passive technology, it allows occupants control over the amount of light and heat that pass through the glass.
This offers more fine-tuned opportunities to reduce heating, cooling and electricity consumption, especially in buildings that use floor to ceiling glass facades.
Given the ubiquitous presence of concrete in the building industry, and the enormous carbon footprint that comes with its production, it’s not surprising that the quest to make it greener continues to trend upwards.
The processes being explored range widely. Recycling concrete is gaining momentum as a way to reduce aggregate extraction, as is replacing conventional aggregates like sand with materials like hemp, paper and ground post-consumer plastic.
Replacing cement, the most carbon intensive component of concrete, with industrial by-products like fly ash is another avenue researchers and manufacturers are exploring.
Others are investigating concrete’s potential for carbon capture, hoping to offset the carbon emitted during its production.
Maybe the most exciting innovation in the field of alternative concrete is to grow it. The University of Colorado Boulder, for example, has found a way to grow building materials using cyanobacterium to naturally produce calcium carbonate.
While many of these new techniques and processes are in their infancy, it gives some idea of the possibilities for decarbonizing one of the most common materials on the planet.
Storage is the current grail of the renewable energy sector. The costs of producing solar energy have dropped extensively, making it financially feasible for more people to install it.
This expanded market has produced a virtuous cycle of improvements in both the efficiency and the affordability of solar panels. Storing energy, however, has been lagging.
One way researchers have been attempting to improve on energy storage options is by investigating alternative materials to conventional lithium-ion batteries.
Iron and aluminum battery technologies have both had breakthroughs this year that could facilitate the production of lower-cost storage options that perform better over the long term.
This could pave the way for more utility-scale renewables and more options for people living off the grid.
In Canada there’s a lot of discussion over blue hydrogen, which is produced using fossil fuels. The process of creating blue hydrogen also creates carbon dioxide, but the prevailing hope from the fossil fuel industry is that that CO₂ could be captured and stored underground.
Green hydrogen, however, is made by splitting water through electrolysis. When that electricity comes from renewable energy like wind or solar, green hydrogen has a very small footprint indeed. Since it’s a liquid that burns, its proponents see it as an easy fit to replace natural gas in heating, as well as in concrete and steel manufacturing.
Despite the high costs of production at this point, green hydrogen is poised to grow tremendously thanks to recent global government investments, particularly in the U.S.
Timber has been making a giant comeback in building over the past few years. In the 20th century, wood-framed structures were overtaken by concrete and steel for commercial and public buildings. Thanks to new manufacturing techniques, however, mass timber can now meet or exceed concrete and steel in terms of strength and performance.
Cross laminated timber (CLT) uses one such technique. This material is made by gluing boards on top of each other in layers to create panels, with each new layer placed cross-wise. The result is a renewable, lightweight building material with low embodied energy and decent insulating properties.
Since mass timber manufacture is completed at the factory, rather than on-site, waste can be all but eliminated. Factory building can also reduce emissions associated with transportation.
These are just a few of the green building technology trends heating up right now. And while none of them is a silver bullet for making the building sector more sustainable, it’s inspiring to see these innovations tackle tough issues and find ways forward.