What Design Firms Can Do to Forward Sustainability

Aug 15, 2022Engineering, Environmental, Magazine

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Carbon neutral. Net zero. Sustainability. Greenwashing. When it comes to climate change, sometimes it seems like there are a lot of buzzwords out there. What do they all mean? Let’s look at some of the key definitions below:

  • Carbon neutral means that the carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and carbon dioxide reductions equal each other, leading to net neutral emissions.
  • Net zero means completely negating the amount of greenhouse gasses produced by human activity.
  • Sustainability is a word that can be used to vaguely signify eco-consciousness. However, sustainability is technically the idea that a process or practice can meet present needs without jeopardizing future generations.
  • Greenwashing essentially refers to marketing strategies designed to make a company and/or its products appear eco-friendly or sustainable despite such claims being exaggerated or even fraudulent.

What does it take to turn these words into actions? How do you know the difference between a focus on sustainability versus simple greenwashing?

While climate change and sustainable decisions are critical globally, Alaska is somewhat ground zero in the battle. Thawing permafrost, rising sea levels, wildfires, and floods are daily considerations in the 49th state.

How can design firms and their architects, engineers, environmental scientists, and others support sustainability? While the A/E/C industry touches all parts of Alaska, how do you put sustainability into practice?

Here’s a look at three ways we can help businesses think sustainably for the long-term: mining, environmental restoration, and building reuse.

Making Mining Sustainable

To put it simply, a net zero world needs mining. From the cars we drive to the renewables that power our lives, the energy transition starts with precious minerals and metals that are still in the ground—and we need them.

Batteries require materials like lithium and cobalt, solar panels require copper and zinc, and wind turbines are produced from nickel, chromium, and more. Furthermore, as we transition from the combustible engine to electric vehicles (EVs), we must understand that building an EV requires approximately six times more minerals than a conventional car.

But isn’t mining the opposite of sustainable?

A net zero society is out of reach if extracting minerals and metals is polluting the Earth. In the mining industry, some of the largest contributors to carbon emissions are diesel vehicles, ore processing, and ventilation. They also present the greatest opportunities to reduce emissions and move toward net zero mining.

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Diesel fuel: By transitioning away from diesel fuel, mining can take a huge leap toward net zero. Many mine sites—including those in remote Alaska—use diesel generators to power operations like ventilation, conveyor belts, and other infrastructure.

To decarbonize, mine operators can look to clean energy like wind, solar, hydrogen, and hydropower instead of diesel to run operations. That’s happening around the world. On the other side of the planet, Australia is at the forefront of sustainable mining. Both TransAlta and BHP Nickel West are working on a large-scale solar farm—with a battery-storage system—to provide renewable energy for two of their mines down under.

The Northern Goldfields Solar Project aims to provide fuel savings and reduce BHP’s Scope 2 emissions from its Leinster and Mount Keith operations by 540,000 metric tons of CO2 over the first ten years of operation. This renewable energy project is the first solar photovoltaic build in Australia for TransAlta and provides a platform for further renewable energy development. The project comprises a 27.4 MW Mount Keith solar farm, 10.7 MW Leinster solar farm, 10.1 MW/5.4MWh Leinster battery energy storage system, and interconnecting transmission infrastructure.

Diesel is also used in vehicles. Switching from diesel to battery electric vehicles (BEVs) or hydrogen-powered vehicles greatly reduces carbon emissions. Those vehicles can include dump trucks, passenger vehicles, and semi-trucks that haul the mined materials.

Naturally, the switch isn’t perfect. BEVs used in mines need to be charged multiple times each day, leading to potential delays. Strategic planning and positioning of charging stations and quick battery swaps can reduce the down time to something negligible.

Ore processing: Much of the rock extracted during mining is not the sought-after ore. Hauling tons of rock miles away from the mine site only adds to carbon emissions. A better approach is to sort the ore from the rock as close to the mine site as possible.

Ventilation: By using ventilation-on-demand and natural cooling techniques, mines can reduce the amount of diesel-powered ventilation equipment. In a cyclical way, BEVs also reduce the amount of ventilation required by limiting vehicle fumes. The switch to a fully electric mobile fleet often results in a 40 percent to 50 percent reduction in ventilation demands.

Ecosystem Restoration

Oceanographic moorings are a well-established and reliable underwater remote sensing tool, yet new technology offers cheaper options to measure the marine environment.

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The COVID-19 pandemic helped us see what ecosystem restoration looks like. There was clear air over cities like New Delhi and Los Angeles during lockdowns. Birds migrated without the challenges presented by airplane traffic. Global carbon dioxide emissions dropped.

Ecosystem restoration focuses on the enhancement or recovery of degraded, damaged, or destroyed ecosystems. It includes feasibility studies, master planning, design, construction, implementation, and monitoring. It can happen on mountain tops or in the ocean. And it’s critical to a sustainable world.

Underwater remote sensing is one place in Alaska where the impact of ecosystem restoration is easy to see. The technology allows us to observe and measure key elements of underwater ecosystems using a variety of remote sensors and underwater platforms. Previously, it required physically being at sea during all times of the year for monitoring.

While scientists still go out on ships to deploy most sensors—and for many other reasons—modern underwater remote sensing technology often provides better, safer, and less costly options to get the job done.

What sorts of projects might require or benefit from this technology? If a project—new or ongoing—has the potential to affect the marine environment in some way, then the project would likely benefit from information that underwater remote sensing can deliver. These kinds of projects can include putting in a new port, energy terminal, or harbor. Also, projects like expanding an existing marina or installing a pipeline, transmission cable, or fiber-optic cable along the ocean floor would benefit.

All these activities can impact the marine environment in different ways—from plankton, fish, birds, and marine mammals to water and sediment quality. In most instances, scientists need baseline data for key parameters like sediments, water quality, habitats, fish, and marine mammals.

This data can be used for an environmental assessment or an environmental impact statement, a necessary part of most development projects. Then, during construction and afterward, the environment must be monitored for any further impacts. This often extends across the entire life cycle of a project, so it can be costly and involve complicated logistics.

Since there are so many underwater remote sensing options available, both in terms of platforms and sensors, it is key to define objectives and create a proper study design before using the technology. It’s possible to use the wrong tool to collect data—like trying to use a hammer to remove a screw.

Retrofitting Buildings

Hennick Bridgepoint Hospital in Toronto, Ontario

Reusing old buildings spares the material and energy that went into their original construction. Top, the Hennick Bridgepoint Hospital in Toronto, Ontario repurposed a jail into an administration building. In the rendering below, the former headquarters of the Boston Globe in Dorchester, Massachusetts is re-envisioned as The BEAT, a space for creative office, laboratory, and retail uses.

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As we target net zero energy and net zero carbon, we will need to look at reusing our existing buildings.

Even if every new building were designed for net zero energy, we’d still face the significant carbon footprint of North America’s existing building stock. Most of our buildings will still be in use fifty years from now, so retrofitting them is key to decarbonizing the built environment.

When one takes life cycle and embodied carbon into account, there’s nothing greener than reusing a building that already exists. Here are six key reasons to look at reuse:

Embodied carbon and waste: Research from the nonprofit Architecture 2030 shows that the building materials and construction sector represents 39 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. That figure breaks down into operational emissions (heating, cooling, and lighting buildings) at 28 percent and embodied carbon emissions accounting for the other 11 percent. The reuse of existing buildings offers a great opportunity to curb these emissions by prolonging the useful life of materials already in place—especially steel and concrete.

Budget: Demolishing a building is rarely cheap, but a lot can be done with retrofitting and reuse on a budget. For some, choosing reuse is fiscally wise. If energy costs are skyrocketing for a building operator, they have an incentive to reduce the operational budget by investing in efficient systems upgrades. This is especially true if energy systems are nearing the end of their life. Advances in digital technology mean designers can quickly model the payback time for these upgrades against business-as-usual energy usage to make an informed decision.

Smart land-use planning: Reusing existing buildings eases demand on new land development. Existing buildings already have sewer, utility, and transportation connections to the broader community. This helps to lower infrastructure costs—and the associated carbon. They also offer an opportunity to enhance their surrounding community with improved accessibility in and around their sites.

Utility efficiency, accessibility, and resiliency: Existing buildings are only partly to blame for current levels of global greenhouse gas emissions. However, they hold a key to its reversal and mitigation. For North American cities to hit their 2050 emissions and carbon-reduction targets, they’ll need to rethink existing buildings alongside ultra-efficient new construction.

When we give existing buildings new uses, it triggers the need for compliance with modern codes. This offers an opportunity for us to enhance energy efficiency, water efficiency, resiliency, and equity through equipment and fixture upgrades, hardening and raising critical equipment, and upgrades to promote universal access.

Phased renovations: Practical, budget-conscious clients can plan renovations over multiple budget cycles to slowly transform their building. The phased approach allows the spreading out of capital investments over time, providing flexibility.

Tax credits and incentives: In some locations, generous tax credits encourage developers to take on the risks of redeveloping buildings that exhibit historic significance for modern use. Often this is the only way such buildings achieve economic viability. Government incentives make renovations and retrofitting for energy efficiency more palatable.

What a Sustainable Future Looks Like

Across Alaska and around the globe, climate change is affecting communities on many levels, but there are ways to make changes and move toward a net zero future.

From mining to environmental restoration to building reuse, there are opportunities near and far. That’s when we can start to see the switch from greenwashing to real sustainability—and we can march forward.

Steve Edwards is a senior public relations specialist at Stantec in Anchorage. The Stantec community unites more than 25,000 employees working in more than 400 locations across six continents.

Steve Edwards

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