What Does Sustainable Construction Mean? (What to Know)

A picture of a high-rise building with lots of glass windows and greenery incorporated. There are symbols overlain to indicate recycling, sustainable forests etc. Across the bottom, the following words are written: "What Does Sustainable Construction Mean?"

The construction industry shapes our environment, providing shelter for families and workers, roads and railways for commuters and goods, and shops, factories, and public spaces that society needs to function.

Given its all-encompassing nature, it’s little wonder that the construction industry is responsible for the lion’s share of energy and the use of natural resources worldwide.

The sector munches its way through 40% of the total energy consumption of the European Union. Construction also represents a third of the EU’s total water consumption and is responsible for a third of its waste arisings.

The figures are similar in the US and highlight an opportunity to benefit the environment by reducing water and energy use and minimizing waste arisings from the sector. However, more sustainable construction practices are needed to grasp this opportunity.

But what is sustainable construction, why does it matter, and how can construction firms adopt sustainable practices?

Sustainable construction is an approach to building that protects and, where possible, enhances the environment while also delivering benefits for society and the economy. It uses green building materials and techniques and incorporates energy and water-saving technologies into its designs.

In this article, I’ll look at sustainability principles and how they apply to construction companies.

I’ll also provide a few examples of sustainable initiatives in construction to provide some inspiration, as well as signposting the certification schemes that help builders deliver more sustainable construction projects.

Read on to learn more.

What Is Sustainable Construction?

Builders consulting plans on a table. One builder has a white hardhat in his hand and is pointing to a detail on the plan with a pencil. There is a green sustainability badge in the bottom left corner.
Sustainable construction is more than just using eco-friendly building materials. It is about delivering value for the environment, society and the economy through sustainable construction methods and design.

Since the industrial revolution began in the second half of the eighteenth century, humans have used the earth’s natural resources at ever-increasing rates.

During the twentieth century, the impact that this incredible rate of development was having on our environment became more and more apparent.

As air quality in our towns and cities and water quality in our rivers, lakes, and oceans deteriorated and climate change became more pronounced, it became clear that something had to be done.

The environmental movement responded to this need for action, with governments and ordinary people demanding action.

From this movement, the concept of sustainability was developed, which has been picked up by the green construction industry as a tool to help it minimize its environmental impact and maximize its benefits to the economy and society.

What Is Sustainability?

A person's arms extended, holding a model of the earth in their hands. To the left of the earth is a drawing of a building with a tree and circular arrows suggesting circular economy. The background of the image is blurred but contains a mixture of buildings and green space.
Sustainability involves the balancing of the needs of the environment, society and the economy.

The concept of sustainability, as set out in the Brundtland Report, published in 1987, is defined as follows.

“development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Sustainable construction comprises three key concepts:

  • Environment: The air, water, and land that supports life.
  • Society: People, institutions, and the relationships upon which civilization is founded.
  • Economy: Finances, trade, and the flows of goods and services within society.

The environment provides the conditions for life and society to flourish. In turn, society enables the economy to operate and create prosperity.

Sustainable development must enable these three elements to work together and strengthen each other so that future generations can enjoy a healthy, diverse environment, a strong society, and a thriving economy.

Image of Gro Harlem Brundtland, the physician, politician and former Prime Minister of Norway who established and chaired the World Commission on Environment and Development when the Brundtland Report was published.
Gro Harlem Brundtland, is a physician, politician and former Prime Minister of Norway who established and chaired the World Commission on Environment and Development when the Brundtland Report was published. The report, entitled, “Our Common Future” sets out the first formal arguments for sustainable development and was published in April 1987. Images Courtesy of Brundtland Commission. (2022, August 24). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brundtland_Commission and Our Common Future. (2022, August 23). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Our_Common_Future

The Three P’s Of Sustainability

Sustainability is often conceptualized in terms of the “three P’s of sustainability”:

  • People
  • Planet
  • Profits

For profits to be generated by a business, it needs people to work there (its workforce) and the people in broader society (its customers).

People rely on the planet to provide a healthy environment for them to live in, making the planet the most important, fundamental “P” of the three, upon which the other two depend. But that’s pretty obvious when you think about it!

The 3 P’s of sustainability sum up those interdependent relationships well, but what do they mean in the construction industry?

They are often broken down into seven principles that make sense for the construction industry.

What Are the 7 Principles Of Sustainable Construction?

A collage of photos showing the word "Principles" across the top, with an urban high-rise scene in the bottom left and a countryside scene with large body of water in the bottom right.
The seven principles of sustainable construction include energy efficiency, renewable energy, the use of renewable raw materials and good waste management, as well as thoughtful planning of the built environment.

According to the U.S. EPA, the seven components of green building are as follows.

  • Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy: The use of renewable energy, such as solar panels and heat pumps, coupled with energy-efficient design, such as making the most of natural light and installing high-performing insulation to maximize the thermal efficiency of the building and reduce energy consumption.
  • Water Efficiency: From the installation of low-flow faucets and shower heads to rainwater harvesting and greywater recycling, water efficiency is a key part of sustainable construction.
  • Environmentally Preferable Building Materials and Specifications: Using renewable and recycled materials for construction in conjunction with sustainable construction methods will help to make construction projects as green as possible. Sustainable materials have low embodied energy and carbon footprint, resulting in fewer environmental impacts.
  • Waste Reduction: Construction waste accounts for around a third of the world’s waste, so proper waste management practices are crucial to bring this figure down. Waste can be reduced with better inventory management and using recycled materials wherever possible.
  • Toxics Reduction: The use of harsh chemicals in the manufacture, assembly, and maintenance of construction materials can cause air and water pollution. Eschewing these harmful chemicals in favor of natural products on construction sites can reduce pollution and safeguard human health.
  • Indoor Air Quality: Some products used in construction contain chemicals that can cause harm to human health if inhaled. We all know about the dangers of asbestos, for example, but other effects, such as those from volatile organic compounds, are less known. Some harmful pollutants even come from natural sources, such as radon gas, in areas with granite geology. Avoiding products containing harmful chemicals is good practice, and proper ventilation is important, too.
  • Smart Growth and Sustainable Development: This encourages thoughtful urban environment planning to ensure it follows strategic sustainability principles. For example, ensuring development preferentially takes place close to public transport routes to minimize car journeys, reduce the use of fossil fuels and improve air quality.

If you’re interested in learning more about these principles, you might be interested in some further reading. I go into greater detail on this in my article about the seven principles of sustainable construction.

Sustainability Certification Schemes For The Construction Industry

A person's arm outstretched with a light bulb in their hand. Above the lightbulb are drawings of graphs and diagrams representing business processes. On the right of the picture are two people discussing notes on a clipboard wearing hardhats and high visibility PPE.
Certification schemes and proper audits can give customers and employees confidence that their project is being managed sustainably.

Several certification schemes can help companies in the construction sector demonstrate their business follows sustainable construction methods.

This is important to businesses that want to work on sustainable construction projects because it demonstrates to clients that they source sustainable raw materials and employ eco-friendly methods.

Let’s take a look at some of the available schemes.

Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)

A man drawing on a whiteboard. In the middle of the whiteboard are the letters "LEED" with icons and descriptions of different sustainability factors draw around the edge.
The Leadership in Energy and Environmental design certification tool helps to identify sustainable materials based on a wide range of criteria.

The U.S. Green Building Council developed LEED in 1998 to promote sustainability in construction, and today it is used worldwide by more than 100,000 companies.

LEED offers a framework for cost and carbon-saving green buildings that incorporate considerations of efficiency and health into their design and construction.

LEED is recognized worldwide, and certification indicates excellence in sustainable design.

ISO14001 Certification

A diagram illustrating the ISO14001 process with text and arrows. There is a woman's hand holding a pen on the right and a series of line-drawn buildings and trees along the bottom.
The ISO14001 Environmental Management tool sets out a framework and standards that organizations should meet if they are to be certified as having an effective environmental management system.

ISO14001 Environmental Management is an environmental management system that offers practical tools to help organizations and companies sustainably manage their business processes.

It makes available tools that can be used in any sector, including the construction industry, to assure customers, suppliers, and employees that a company’s impact on the environment is being measured and enhanced.

ISO14001 boasts over 300,000 certifications to its standard in 171 countries worldwide.


A picture of a person holding a model house over a grass lawn. Beneath the house are the letters BREEAM, spelt out on wooden cubes.
The Building Research Establishment (BRE) developed BREEAM in the UK in 1990 and it is now used in over 70 countries.

The Building Research Establishment (BRE) developed BREEAM in the UK in 1990.

BREEAM stands for the Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method and sets standards for sustainable design.

BREEAM is the standard used in over 70 countries worldwide to measure and assess the sustainability of the built environment. Some see it as a more rigorous approach than LEED, but each approach has its pros and cons.

Benefits Of Sustainable Construction

A pair of construction workers discussing a set of graphs they are holding. There is a construction site in the background and an overlain image in the bottom right of a pack of post-it notes the the word "benefits" on it.
The benefits of sustainable construction aren’t limited to improving the environment. They can extend to improving the health of people living and working in the building, and increasing the value of the building once it is complete.

More sustainable construction is a win for the environment, the economy, and society, helping organizations maximize their triple bottom line.

Some of the specific benefits of greener buildings include the following.

  • Helping to reduce the effects of global warming.
  • Minimizing air and water pollution.
  • Improved health of the building’s occupants and workers during construction.
  • Long-term savings on heating and cooling bills.
  • Enhanced value of the building because people find it a more desirable space.

Final Thoughts On Sustainable Construction

Sustainable construction is important because of the vast environmental footprint currently left by the building sector.

The sector produces enormous amounts of waste and consumes a lot of energy, which causes an outsized impact on the planet.

By following sustainable principles, such as good waste management, energy, and water efficiency measures, and using sustainable building materials in construction projects, the industry can mitigate its environmental impact while bringing valuable benefits to society and the economy.

In other words, greener buildings can add value for people, profits, and the planet.

Certification schemes such as LEED, ISO14001, and BREEAM can measure and document this value, helping to promote the merits of a green building industry and increase the uptake of more sustainable construction methods in a virtuous circle.

If you’d like to know more about sustainability in the construction industry, you might be interested in our article “23 Sustainable Building Materials You Can Use Today.

Similar Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *