Why digital engineering will help us hit our net carbon goals

Posted by Derek Mason

6th July 2021

The goal is net zero carbon emissions by 2050. In fact, it’s more than a goal since the UK has committed to this as a legally binding target.

The year 2050 may sound like it’s a long way off, but it’s closer than we think. In fact, we will all need to take action sooner rather than later if we’re to have a hope of meeting the target.

This is about much more than targets though. Climate change is a huge threat to the planet, and those of us who work in the construction industry quite possibly feel like we have a responsibility to join the work to reduce our impact. To do this, we’ll need to change the way we design and construct our buildings and infrastructure.

And we’ll need digital engineering to help us achieve our targets. This is not AI taking our jobs. I don’t think there’s any real danger that artificial intelligence is going to take over from human engineers, architects and other built environment roles.

Robots can’t replace us entirely. After all, we’re a long way off from a robot heading onto a site, taking a few pictures and knowing what needs to be done next.

Our experience gives us humans the edge. But we can use AI for processing data and homing in on important improvements we can make to bring our buildings towards that net zero goal.

And we need to do this at the start of the process. Coming in later and trying to shoe-horn in low carbon design practices is not the way to go. Modelling at the outset is the best approach.

The most important part of the process when it comes to reducing carbon emissions is the “iteration” stage.

With the built environment sector such a major source of emissions – approximately 40% worldwide – we need to look at carbon emissions not just during the life of a building, but during the manufacture and transportation of building materials, the construction and the eventual demolition. As you probably know, the emissions in the non-operational phase of a building are known as embodied carbon. Embodied carbon plus operational carbon gives you whole life carbon emissions.

To look at efficiently reducing emissions for the whole life of a building, BIM systems are important, along with carbon measuring methodologies like the Inventory for Carbon Energy (ICE) database, the NGET Carbon Interface Tool (CIT) and the RICS whole life carbon assessment. Using these alongside engineering technology tools will help us all work towards net zero.

Value engineering will also be important – the process of looking at the highest-impact, lowest-cost options for reducing carbon.

One such example is concrete production. It’s a carbon-intense process, and by using an alternative such as Cemfree – a cement-free alternative to conventional concrete – projects can see a 77% reduction in emissions for that material alone.

With constant iterations of this type, it will become quicker and easier to make improvements and we’ll hopefully see a step change that gets us closer to that net zero target.

Let’s finish with an inspirational example. The award-winning GSK Carbon Neutral Laboratory at Nottingham University is built from natural materials, and its operational energy requirements are provided via solar power and sustainable biomass. The excess energy created by the building will pay back the carbon used in its construction over 25 years.

Not many buildings are in that league (yet) and that’s the kind of approach I think we’d all like to be able to work towards.

In the meantime, if you need assistance with the structural elements of an upcoming project, please do get in touch.

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