Global infrastructure demand is insatiable, but climate change calls for lower emissions. As the world’s biggest economies come under new pressure to go beyond ambition to deliver tangible climate-relevant action, there will be an even greater onus on how the construction industry can help take on both challenges, and play a lead role in making net zero happen.

More than ever, this will require an accelerated shift towards innovative green material solutions which minimise embodied carbon from the early design stage of a structure in order to achieve carbon savings through the building’s lifetime.

Here, Kirstin McCarthy, sustainability director at Aggregate Industries, explores the growing impetus for net zero construction and the latest advances in sustainable building materials which can help.

As demonstrated by rising greenhouse gas emissions and climate-induced disasters, there remains a marked gap between net zero promises and on-the-ground action. With this, 2022 was widely touted as ”the year” for world leaders to deliver on the commitments made to keep 1.5 degrees alive.

Kirstin McCarthy, head of sustainability, Aggregate Industries (1)

Kirstin McCarthy, head of sustainability, Aggregate Industries

But building a more sustainable and prosperous future isn’t something than can be achieved by governments and policy alone. It will require buy-in at all levels, amongst all nations and across all industries – and with construction accounting for 39% of the world’s annual carbon emissions1, it is clear that the sector must bear a large share of the responsibility.

At the same time though, the world’s soaring population needs more homes and buildings than ever before. This is seen as global construction output is expected to grow by 42% by 20302, driven by government stimuli and the demand for residential construction.

Thus, the complex task ahead will require construction to reduce the footprint of its building and infrastructure by building better, and building more with less.

The good news is the sector appears more than ready for this formidable challenge. According to research3 conducted by Aggregate Industries, which asked senior construction industry professionals, including owners, specifiers, contractors, buyers and architects, their views on all aspects of sustainability – an overwhelming majority are clearly committed to forging a greener, sustainable future. Of the key findings the survey found four in five (77%) state sustainability is important to their current organisation, a quarter (24%) of which go so far even to claim it is very important. Equally progressive is the fact that a clear majority (84%) confirm they’d be happy to pay more for a sustainable product or packaging, and a further four in five (81%) also say sustainability is an important driver when choosing one company over a competitor.

But, in an industry already tasked with tight deadlines, limited budgets and an unsettling economic landscape, the question begs – where to begin for those seeking to take sustainability one step further?

An innovation advantage

At one time it might not have seemed possible to make inherently carbon intensive materials, such as concrete or asphalt, sustainable. However this is all changing with the welcome addition of some revolutionary developments in the green construction materials category.

A product of extensive research and innovation, ECOPact, for example, is the industry’s broadest offering of green concrete for sustainable and low carbon construction.

ECOPact Max - Hope Statue

Hope Statue uses ECOPact Max

Unique to market, it contains an innovative mix of supplementary cementitious materials and admixtures technology and, where regulatory conditions allow, can integrate recycled construction and demolition materials, further closing the resource loop. Importantly too, it does all this while guaranteeing 100% performance via equal to or better properties than conventional concrete.

The result is a vast sustainability potential. Customers can choose from a wide range of options to reduce the CO2 emissions of their concrete supply by between 30% and 70% compared to standard (CEM I) concrete without offsets. Moreover, ECOPact also offers a carbon-neutral solution, ECOPact Zero, whereby the last mile of process-related emissions are compensated through offsets as a transition mechanism to full carbon neutrality.

Further green innovations can be found with the Aggneo aggregates range, consisting of a 50% blend of recycled aggregates, or SustainaCem, a unique product which has equal strength and durability of traditional cement while offering 15% lower carbon.

Clearly too, this innovation advantage is imperative for the industry with almost a third (30%) of senior construction professionals stating improving sustainability performance product development is the most important area of sustainability where materials manufacturers can help. Also, while significant, it is important to note that at Aggregate Industries we very much view our current green portfolio as “stage one” as we continue to invest heavily in the R&D needed to break new boundaries in sustainable innovation.

Traceability & trust

But it isn’t just about choosing the greenest construction product – it’s equally important to ensure it, in effect, “does what it says on the tin”.

Aggregate Industries sustainability strategy launch 1 (2)

Sustainability is, after all, an incredibly complex topic. A business might, for example, create a product out of 100% recycled materials but if the supplier’s manufacturing process and logistics approach aren’t green too it will thwart the overall sustainable validity.

Adding further complexity is the fact that the market continues to see a constant influx of new “green” products and processes, many varying greatly in terms of environmental performance and quality, sometimes even misleading with information around beneficial green effects. To put the “greenwashing” issue into context, it’s been estimated that as much as 40% of green claims made online from companies could be misleading.4

It is, perhaps, no surprise then our research shows that four in five (79%) senior construction professionals state reliable and certified data/traceability information is vital in product specification. A further 92% would also like suppliers to provide more Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs).

To address this, it is always advisable to choose a manufacturer will a history of excellence who will have typically gone to great lengths to ensure that no stone is unturned to ensure each green product is able to offer the exact carbon reductions intended. Reputable suppliers always supply details of all relevant EPDs and continue to verify and publish new EPDs in line with product updates. At Aggregate Industries, for example, we are constantly updating our products and manufacturing processes to reduce embodied carbon, and using our PAS 2050:2011 compliant calculator we are even able to provide up to date carbon calculations on request. We are also the first company to be certificated to BES 6001, The Framework Standard for the Responsible Sourcing of Construction Products, developed by the BRE (Building Research Establishment) in the ultimate nod to sustainable assurance.

Total transparency

Alongside traceability sits the importance of transparency. After all, sustainable specification may be one thing, but being able to accurately calculate how each product fits into the bigger carbon reduction picture is a different matter. This is seen with 80% of construction stakeholders stating it is vital to understand the low carbon data of the products they purchase.

In a complete industry first and well ahead of new UK policy surrounding low emissions industrial products, Aggregate Industries’ new carbon reporting tool addresses this by enabling customers to access an assessment to calculate, track and report embodied carbon with ease.

In a true “cradle to site” concept, Your Carbon Report looks at the entire manufacturing process, from raw material extraction to transportation. It also looks at the individual components of each different product and plant, as well as the distance to plant, raw material values, plant energy and distribution to site. The result is, without doubt, one of the most exacting carbon measurement and reporting tools the market – perhaps even any industrial market – has ever seen.

A helping hand

Inherently, with all this to consider sustainable specification can be a very complex and timely task which may require expert, technical input. According to our research, in fact, a quarter (26%) of construction stakeholders would like materials manufacturers to offer more demonstrations, 22% want more technical expertise and 17% call for more training.

The good news in this is that the industry continues to respond by providing a dedicated helping hand. At Aggregate Industries, for instance, customers can take advantage of a host of CPD seminars designed to increase their knowledge and skills on a range of sustainability issues. We are also committed to working closely with customers throughout the entire specification process; from making recommendations for change through to leveraging the various supportive standards available.

From ambition to concrete action

Yes, it is a challenging time for the construction industry as it embarks on the arduous journey towards net zero. But it’s also an opportunistic one. By taking advantage of the latest green construction material breakthroughs, stakeholders can not only unleash greater carbon savings but create differentiation, improve their corporate image and future-proof, as the world looks takes more concrete action to secure its sustainable future. 

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3 Research conducted via Building magazine amongst over 1,100 senior construction