Addressing the sustainability of our society is a goal everyone can share. Whether you are motivated by reversing climate change, reducing our reliance on foreign sources of fuel, or just want to save a little money, incorporating sustainable principles and elements into the design, engineering, and construction of buildings can go a long way toward making the world a more sustainable place.

Structural engineers today and creating more sustainable buildings. Each element of a project will impact how much energy the building uses and how much waste it generates. Engineers should consider the lifecycle of the building, the amount of operational energy it will require, and the amount of carbon embodied in each construction.

Building lifecycle

Chances are that your building’s first tenant won’t be its last. Companies open, grow, contract, and close every day. How well will the building accommodate the second tenant, or the third, or the tenth? Can offices and other spaces be reconfigured easily to serve a variety of purposes in an ever-changing building climate? 

Many homes and office buildings today were constructed before the advent of the internet. Therefor they lack the wiring an infrastructure to support this modern-day business essential. Think three steps ahead about the changes the next fifty years will bring to family and business life to ensure that they will be able to adapt without expensive retrofitting.

At some point, every building will reach the end of its useful life, either through the normal passage of time or due to a natural disaster. When it is time for the building to come down, can the materials be reused or will they be shipped off to a landfill? Designing for deconstruction allows your building to remain sustainable even after the end of its useful life. Should a hurricane or tornado hit, ensuring that the building remains functional, even if it sustains some aesthetic damage, is a key consideration.

Operational energy use

One of the biggest components of a sustainable building is engineering it to run on the least amount of energy possible. If more daylight enters then fewer light bulbs are required. The framing of the building should allow for as much daylight to enter as possible, and to reach as deep into the building as it can. The demand for energy related to climate control will also decrease if those inside can regulate the temperature by opening or closing windows. 

Exposed beams and other structural elements are common design choices, but a beam protruding through the enclosure insulation could allow heated or cooled air to be lost through thermal bridging. Taking exterior conditions and internal uses into account when designing a building, along with an appropriate heat transfer analysis, will suggest elements that are both attractive and energy efficient.

Embodied carbon

While the amount of energy used during the life of a building is one that often gets the most attention, the amount of energy needed to actually construct it is also extremely important. The structural materials of a building can account for 50 percent or more of all its embodied carbon.

In addition to being a renewable resource, wood has a low amount of embodied energy. Not all wood is created–or shipped–equal, however. Using locally produced wood and other materials can help reduce the amount of fossil fuels burned. Koa is an extremely attractive wood and is often used as a decorative element in construction. Unless you live in the Hawaiian Islands, where it is endemic, it is not typically a sustainable choice, however. After being cut and processed it must then be shipped across the ocean and trucked across land to your site, burning a lot of carbon along the way. Additionally, buying lumber only from sustainably run forests, or from recycled lumber production mills, can help reduce your project’s carbon footprint.

Portland cements is responsible for eight percent of worldwide carbon dioxide emissions. For all of its energy intensiveness as construction material, there are few substitutes for it. Instead, considering cutting the cement with ash or silica fume. With proper reinforcement, it is just as strong but requires less carbon to construct.

Sustainable structural engineering: The future of construction

As time goes on, knowledge improves, and building codes tighten, sustainable development is not only going to be required by inspectors but demanded by consumers. Forward-thinking structural engineers are incorporating sustainable elements into their projects today to get out ahead of the curve and prepare for a more prosperous, and sustainable, tomorrow.