Whilst the world still comes to terms with Covid-19 and develops strategies to deal with the impact of the pandemic’s aftermath, we must not lose sight of another pressing global concern. By Mar Esteve Cortes

The climate change emergency represents one of the greatest challenges mankind has faced in centuries. Over the last decade, public awareness around environmental issues has increased, forcing us to address our practices and processes on every level, from the way we do business to the way we live our lives. Nowhere is this more so than in the architectural, design and construction sector.

Currently, it’s estimated building and construction accounts for 39 per cent of all carbon emissions worldwide1, with operational factors, such as heating and lighting, producing 28 per cent. Unquestionably, this has to change and immediately, in line with other big emitters such as energy, transport and manufacturing.

Of course, there are many ways in which we can redress and reform the built environment to make it more sustainable and ecologically friendly. These can range from new approaches to construction such as ‘Active Buildings’ and ‘Green Urbanism’ to systems, which better manage water attenuation and improve electric vehicle infrastructure. It will take a little imagination, and considerable investment, but it will be worth it in the long run.

Before we can even begin to consider these ambitious, but achievable, goals, we need look at the materials we are specifying in our towns and cities. It’s often the manufacturing of building products which represents the largest proportion of emissions. Whether refurbishment or new build, construction professionals should be designing out carbon-heavy products and replacing them with eco-friendly ones as a priority.

On the face of it
As our urban centres become more densely populated and we start to focus more on building up than out, cladding materials have come under increasing amounts of scrutiny. This is not only in terms of safety and performance, but also sustainability.

Specifiers need to start looking to ways in which to reduce the amounts of carbon-intense materials used in these builds such as concrete, steel, plastic and glass. One place to start is the façade.

Recently, there’s been much debate in the architectural and engineering community around the suitability of ground to floor glazing on high rise buildings. For years, this has been a hugely popular cladding method, however as climate change awareness gathers momentum, attitudes are changing. The main problem is glass offers poor insulation, requiring a high level of unsustainable mechanical heating and cooling and leading to significant waste.

Many other cladding materials are no greener as manufacturing and shipping, particularly of metal and precast panels, produce huge amounts of carbon emissions. They are not suitable for anyone trying to achieve a carbon neutral build, or as near to one as possible.

In Verdant Vertis
Fortunately, the range of green surfacing solutions available on the market is growing and there are a number of truly sustainable cladding materials out there. Just as important, these materials also deliver the essential structural integrity and resistance required for urban application. This has become even more important in a post-Hackitt world.

These materials are always of a 100 per cent organic composition and a proportion (if not the entirety) of the composition will be recycled. Furthermore, the manufacturing process will be low carbon and low emission. Many will also possess the ability to be repurposed or reconstituted beyond end of life too and come with a raft of official certifications which demonstrates its green credentials.

There are a lot of manufacturers who talk a good game around sustainability so prior research is essentials to ensure the right choice is made.

Clean cities
Ongoing research and development by manufacturers also means building products are continuously evolving to meet the climate conundrum. Constant innovation and emerging technology has led to greener material solutions year-on-year.

Now materials and systems exist which not only deliver passive environmental benefits such as thermal efficiency, but active ones too, like smart energy capture and storage, presenting a huge opportunity for façade construction.

We were recently involved in one project which has the potential to change the industry’s approach sustainable façade construction.

570 Broome, completed in summer 2019, is one of the latest additions to the New York City skyline. At first glance, it appears like any luxury apartment block, however its façade differs significantly from its neighbouring buildings as the slabs used for cladding have been treated with PURETi.

This water-based, photocatalytic solution was used on 3300 sqm of Neolith slabs for the building’s façade. It effectively enhanced the skyscraper’s surface, transforming it into a self-cleaning air purifier. Not only does it enable the cladding to stay cleaner for even longer, but it actively improves air quality.

The ingenious technology underpinning PURETi reduces air pollution by harnessing sunlight to destroy nitrous oxides (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) which contact the façade.

It’s just one of many emerging technologies which can help construction professionals deliver net-zero carbon buildings through savvy material choices.

No choice
The nature of façade construction is changing, urgently demanding a reappraisal of existing processes and practices at both a business and policy level. We are already witnessing sweeping changes in safety and fire building regulations, this should go further and also address sustainability.

There’s a wider, pan-industry discussion to be had around this topic and we must adopt a unified approach to win hearts and minds. Fundamentally, there’s no real excuse not to specify eco-friendly cladding, given the appropriate solutions exist.

If we’re really serious about protecting the environment, and sustaining it for future generations, we need to carefully consider the materials we choose for cladding purposes. Ultimately, we cannot afford not to, for society’s and the planet’s sake.

1 https://www.worldgbc.org/news-media/WorldGBC-embodied-carbon-report-published

Mar Esteve Cortes is Director, Neolith, the pioneering brand of Sintered Stone, a sustainable type of surfacing material suitable for all interior and exterior applications. Manufactured using a process that replicates the geological formation of rock over millennia, Neolith slabs are produced in a matter of hours. One hundred per cent organic, the materials combine high-strength and resistance with style and elegance, with a collection of over 50 designs and finishes, from Italian marble and exotic granite to polished concrete and unvarnished wood.
For more information, please see: www.neolith.com/en/