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WEC 2019 Day 2: Sustainability in the built environment

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Day one of the World Engineers Convention (WEC) kicked off with a conversation about what defines a sustainable city. Matt Gough’s opening keynote on day two focused on how to make that possible and why.

Gough is currently the Director of Innovation at MACE, the construction company behind structures such as The Shard and the London Eye. It’s amazing to create projects like this and to shape city skylines, he said, but more importantly flagship projects like these not only create the vision of the industry we want, but serve to create contrast when things go wrong in construction. 

The Grenfell fire in London, the Morandi Bridge collapse in Genoa and the Opal Tower cracking in Sydney reinforce the importance of making improvements in how the construction industry operates. 

“We are in an age of exponential growth – small improvements are not enough. We have to do better,” he said. 

Why construction?

By 2050, there will be 10 billion people on the planet; 70 per cent will live in cities, which means we need to “build the equivalent of New York City every month to accommodate this change”, Gough said. 

As a result, construction is going through a period of disruption, but it’s not coming from the usual digital sources that other industries are facing. Rather, he said, the climate emergency is the biggest disrupter the construction industry and the built environment face today. 

“When I joined construction, everyone was talking about how digital technology would disrupt the industry,” he said. 

“But it’s not a panacea. It’s enabling a lot of things to be done better, but not necessarily better things.”

The difference is crucial, he said, but one feeds into the other. It’s important to do things better – to be more efficient, less wasteful, less labour-intensive – because it means the industry can focus on making the built environment as sustainable as possible. 

The reason the industry needs to think more about sustainability, he said, is that construction is a big polluter: it accounts for 30-37 per cent of total carbon emissions. If the cement industry were a country, it would be the third largest contributor of carbon emissions behind the US and China.

“We have a pivotal role to play in making sure the planet stays habitable,” he said. 

“It’s not our task alone, but reduction targets are not achievable without us.”

Learning from others

To create this change, Gough suggested borrowing techniques from elsewhere to bring in advancements that help construction do more with less – less waste, less cost, less emissions. 

One idea is bringing elements from manufacturing into construction. There is lots of interest from construction companies, investors and governments in modular construction as a way to take work offsite, and the technique is being explored for houses to high-rises as a way to meet future demand quickly and efficiently. 

But what about creating factory conditions onsite? Gough spoke about the ways MACE is experimenting with “assembling buildings like the automotive industry assembles cars”. 

As an example, MACE’s recent NO 8 project in London was built in an innovative way to eliminate many of the factors that can cause issues on construction sites, like high winds, delays and the dangers of working at great heights. 

To work around these, MACE brought the assembly floor to the high-rise by building two, 600 tonne steel structures that act as rising factories. As floors are built, the rising factories ‘jump’, using the same amount of force as what’s required to launch a rocket into space. (Gough joked they called these factories MACE X). 

Building something in this way is unusual, but Gough said the benefits for construction are evident. No tower cranes were required, labour onsite was reduced by 50 per cent, and because it was a closed environment there were fewer safety incidents, less risk of falls or dropping something, and no leading edge. 

All together, they built two 36-storey high-rises in 18 weeks – 30 per cent faster than traditional methods. Other benefits included a 40 per cent reduction in vehicle movements (which meant less emissions and happier neighbours), and a 70 per cent less construction waste. 

Matt Gough gives the opening keynote on day two of the World Engineers Convention. A slide depicting the jumping factories can be seen in the background.

“Make better choices”

This example illustrates that it is possible for construction to do better, but Gough stressed there is still work to be done. 

“We are asking people to make good choices and do better, because it doesn’t just make sense environmentally – it makes sense financially,” he said. 

He recalled an incident where one employee asked a supplier to stop providing fittings wrapped in single use plastics. It seemed like a simple request at the time, but it reduced the amount of waste produced during construction, and saved both the supplier and the customer time and money. When viewed through the scale of how many fittings are required for any project, this small change can have a massive impact. 

“It pays to be sustainable,” Gough said. 

He ended his session with a call to action for the engineers in attendance: make better choices.

“We have to build more, but we have to do that in a better way and make better choices,” he said. 

“Reversing climate change is not going to happen without the construction industry’s help.” 

Barangaroo precinct sustainability

Steel’s sustainability role in iconic Barangaroo precinct

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InfraBuild is helping construct a sustainable and world-class precinct in Australia’s largest city by taking active steps to reduce the embodied carbon in its steel products.

Lendlease’s Barangaroo precinct on the western shoreline of Sydney’s CBD is creating a major urban zone with leading sustainability credentials and world-class amenities.

Barangaroo South’s leadership in demonstrating sustainability initiatives and advanced workplace design has led to it winning several awards, most notably the prestigious Australian Development of the Year award at last year’s Property Council of Australia Innovation and Excellence Awards.

Lendlease said its goal for the wider Barangaroo development is for it to be “the first of its size in the world to be climate positive – that is, to be carbon neutral, water positive and to generate zero waste”.

Already, 89 per cent of all the on-site waste is recycled, reused or repurposed. As a comparison, the average commercial building food court recycles only 25 per cent of its waste.

Steel manufacturer and distributor InfraBuild (formerly LIBERTY OneSteel) played a significant role in the already-completed Barangaroo South precinct through its integrated and collaborative supply of Australian-made reinforcing and structural steel.

InfraBuild Construction Solutions (formerly LIBERTY OneSteel Reinforcing) supplied more than 45,000 tonnes of reinforcing steel product to the Barangaroo South precinct over a 4.5-year supply period. Processes were implemented to ensure a 20 per cent reduction in embodied carbon for the reinforcing steel used, which contributed to the project being awarded a Green Building Council of Australia (GBCA) Six Star Green Star – Communities rating, the highest available. All product was delivered with Australasian Certification Authority for Reinforcing (ACRS) certification.

Barangaroo South’s sheer scale and its CBD location added a layer of complexity that required detailed collaboration between InfraBuild Construction Solutions and the project’s construction partners, including developer Lendlease.

Embracing green renewal

Property Council of Australia Chief Executive Ken Morrison praised Sydney’s newest urban redevelopment, which he said “has recalibrated the way Australians think about precinct-scale urban renewal”.

“Lendlease has combined iconic buildings designed by acclaimed architects with world-leading sustainability initiatives that have transformed entire supply chains and challenged large tenants to embrace green business practices,” Morrison said.

With the southern precinct now complete, attention has turned to the landmark Crown Sydney project at the northern end of the Barangaroo site, with InfraBuild supplying 2500 tonnes of structural steel, welded beams and plate to what will be Sydney’s tallest habitable building when it tops out in 2021.

Engineering for humanity and liveability will be explored in detail at the upcoming World Engineers Convention 20-22 November in Melbourne. To learn more and to register, click here.