Sustainable Innovation:  what’s new, and what you need to know, in 2024

By Nicole DeNamur, Esq., Owner, Sustainable Strategies

January 18, 2024

A variety of new building strategies and products have emerged to meet the increasing market demand for sustainable, healthy and resilient projects.  There are now a myriad of emerging and innovative technologies that project teams can employ.

What are the risks and opportunities?

At a high level, it is worth reiterating a key risk management theme:  the importance of clear, accurate language.   Utilizing new products that result in sustainable outcomes can be exciting, and it is important to share these stories.

That said, environmental claims have garnered increased attention from regulators, as well as consumers, who are more educated on environmental claims than ever before.  To help manage the risks of over-stating these outcomes, review marketing materials closely.  Avoid jargon and “buzzwords.” Ensure that any sustainability claims are data-driven and defensible, and where feasible, look to external, industry standards to ensure alignment, particularly around carbon goals and reductions.

Examples of products and strategies

Keeping this risk management strategy in mind, below are a few examples of products or processes that are shaping the future of healthy, sustainable design and construction in 2024 and beyond.

While there are many examples of new and emerging technologies, this article will focus on three themes:  embodied carbon, electrification and weather-related safety.

Lower embodied carbon products, specifically concrete

Embodied carbon is an important consideration on any sustainable project.  As noted by the Urban Land Institute report, Embodied Carbon in Building Materials for Real Estate, “As buildings continue to improve operational efficiency, embodied carbon will become a larger proportion of the building’s lifetime carbon emissions.”  Concrete, and specifically the cement in concrete, is one product that has been a focus of recent work to reduce embodied carbon in construction.

The general idea is to move away from prescriptive concrete mixes, and towards performance-based specifications.  This provides the opportunity to substitute lower carbon alternatives to cement, such as fly ash, clay, glass, and others (known as Supplementary Cementitious Materials (SCM)).  For more information, see the Rocky Mountain Institute’s Concrete Solutions Guide. As noted by RMI, “Replacing mix requirements with performance-oriented specifications can foster innovation in low-carbon concrete without compromising performance or safety.”  And at least one SCM product made BuildingGreen’s list of Top 10 Products for 2024.

Electrification of construction vehicles

Electrification of construction equipment can, among other benefits, reduce climate emissions from diesel fuel, and improve air quality for on-site workers.  While there are various challenges that are – and are not – unique to construction equipment, there are also companies testing the technology.  For example, the construction and development company Skanska has piloted electric excavators on a transit project in Los Angeles.  And developer Lendlease has made public commitments regarding “Fossil Fuel Free Construction,” which includes testing and prioritizing electric machinery and equipment.

Health and wellness for construction workers

As the climate changes and weather conditions become more extreme, the safety and wellness of outdoor workers requires increased attention.  Various guidelines, standards and recommendations (both published and proposed), exist for heat stress and prevention of heat-related illness.  And while as of this writing (January, 2024), there is not currently a federal OSHA heat standard, there are opportunities for innovation.  For example, Turner Construction, in collaboration with research partners, recently published a study on the effects of rising temperatures on construction workers.  As noted by the authors, “This research emphasizes the urgent need for strategies to protect the health and safety of construction workers” as well as the need for education around hydration outside of work.

Opportunities for the future

As sustainability, health, and wellness solidify their place in design and construction, there are many occasions to engage with new technologies and processes.  Smart project teams will want to capture leadership opportunities while managing any associated risks.  This includes, as outlined above, carefully considering how the benefits and outcomes are described on any public-facing marketing materials, reports, and websites.

Nicole DeNamur is an attorney and sustainability consultant, based in Seattle, WA.  Her company, Sustainable Strategies, helps clients identify and manage the risks of sustainable innovation so they can pursue robust sustainability goals.  She is also an award-winning contributing author and has developed and taught graduate-level courses at the University of Washington and Boston Architectural College. Nicole was named Educator of the Year by the International WELL Building Institute, and Sustainable Strategies hosts an online course, Accelerated WELL AP Exam Prep.

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AIA Contract Documents has provided this article for general informational purposes only. The information provided is not legal opinion or legal advice and does not create an attorney-client relationship of any kind. This article is also not intended to provide guidance as to how project parties should interpret their specific contracts or resolve contract disputes, as those decisions will need to be made in consultation with legal counsel, insurance counsel, and other professionals, and based upon a multitude of factors.