Predicting theEnvironmental Impact of Building Construction

A team of researchers from the Polytechnic University of Catalonia (UPC) has developed a method that makes it possible to evaluate the environmental impacts caused during the construction of buildings in advance. Before beginning the works, with just the project data, the new method makes it possible to predict up to 37 environmental impacts. This information, according to the creators, could help improve environmental management in the construction processes.

Buildings in L’Hospitalet de Llobregat. Picture: SINC

"This model identifies in advance the environmental impacts associated with carrying out a particular construction project, making it possible to program the inclusion of environmental improvement procedures or apply preventive measures right from the project study, planning and preparation phases", Marta Gangolells, a member of the Group of Construction Research and Innovation (GRIC) at UPC and one of the authors of the study, explained to SINC. The technique can be applied to the construction of both single-family homes and apartment buildings.

Researchers began by classifying the environmental aspects into nine categories: emissions into the air, water spills, waste generation, soil pollution, resource consumption, local impacts, impacts associated with transportation, effects on biodiversity and emergency situations and incidents. This division is based on the EMAS (Eco-Management and Audit Scheme) Community Regulations, a piece of legislation that aims to improve organizations' environmental performance.

To increase the level of precision, the researchers subdivided these categories into specific impacts. For example, the "emissions into the air" category includes two environmental impacts: greenhouse gas generation (emissions from the machinery and vehicles used on the work site) and emissions composed of volatile organic compounds (VOC) and chlorofluorocarbons (CFC).

New environmental indicators

The team has identified 37 environmental impacts, according to the online version of the magazine Building and Environment, and for each one they have developed an "environmental forecast indicator". This parameter, which is based on the information in the project documents, makes it possible to evaluate the impacts objectively.

Continuing with the example, the greenhouse gas emissions can be estimated by analyzing the volume of material dug per square meter of construction surface area and the existence of special machinery or electricity generators on the work site. On the other hand, the VOC and CFC emissions are forecast with the percentage of synthetic paints and varnishes used.

The project measurement status also includes other practical information, such as the amount of thixotropic mud (semi-solid) used on the site, which is used as an indicator of the environmental impact from "dumping water from the construction of foundations and retaining walls".

To draw up the study, financed with funds from the Ministry of Public Works, the researchers analyzed statistics from 55 new construction residential sites. By doing so, they established ranges related to the magnitude of each environmental impact (non-existent, hardly significant, slightly significant and extremely significant). They have also confirmed the validity of the method by testing it on four new construction projects.

GRIC coordinator Miquel Casals concludes that these results will offer "a major incentive to construction companies that want to follow an environmental management system, either under the umbrella of ISO 14000 standards (environmental management for companies) or the EMAS Community Regulations".

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