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Materials innovation in construction: why it's crucial to reaching net-zero

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The construction sector is rapidly evolving. To meet the challenge of net-zero targets, the built environment must engage with material innovation.

This article will discuss why this is important and our approach to solving this challenge through research and development.

Why is low-carbon innovation needed for the built environment?

The built environment is a significant consumer of resources and often has negative environmental impacts.

It is responsible for 39% of global energy-related carbon emissions (UN Environmental & the International Energy Agency 2017).

Moreover, the built environment is a central theme of international efforts by policy-makers to tackle climate change. This means that it will also be subject to increasingly strict regulation.

As a result, architects and construction industry professionals need to consider the impact of emission regulations on their upcoming projects.

Solutions also need to be long term. For example, planting trees to achieve global net-zero by 2050 is not ‘mathematically possible’. It would require an amount of land five times the size of India, the same as the total amount of global farmland (Oxfam 2021).

Carbon offsetting methods like tree planting can also be unreliable investments. These methods can be associated with negative publicity. Regulation is also rewarding more long-term solutions, and it can be challenging to quantify the actual amount of carbon removed.

In short, new ideas and rapid change are needed to meet the net-zero transitional challenge.

Why materials innovation as a solution?

Of the 39% of energy-related emissions, 11% relate to embodied carbon. These are the carbon emissions caused by the materials and construction of a building.

The construction sector has an exceptionally high embodied carbon footprint due to its heavy reliance on concrete, steel and other materials.

These emissions will likely be part of net-zero regulation in the UK.

Embodied carbon is mentioned in ‘whole life’ measurement frameworks proposed by the Royal Institute of British Architects and the UK Green Building Council. It is also a focus of the UK’s sixth carbon budget targets.

This article will help you learn more about embodied carbon regulation in the UK.

Additionally, The Carbon Emissions (Building’s) Bill (2022), currently making its way through the UK parliament, will require large public sector organisations to measure and report their ‘whole life’ emissions.

Innovation in design and construction methods can play an essential role in reducing embodied emissions from the built environment. However, it is also necessary to focus on the materials that make up buildings.

Take the example of concrete. It’s the second most used material globally (after water) and makes up 7% of global carbon emissions (Mineral Products Association 2020).

Concrete is one instance of the embodied carbon challenge discussed in the UK’s 2033 – 37 (sixth) carbon budget. The solution? A construction industry shift from ‘high to low embodied carbon materials’ (CCC 2020).

How is LCM (formerly Sphera) contributing to the solution?

Our carbon-negative concrete aggregate OSTO could reduce the carbon intensity of concrete and construction.

The aggregate is partly made from industrial waste that would otherwise be landfilled or incinerated.

By recycling the unrecyclable and centring on cross-industry collaboration, using OSTO in blockwork significantly reduces its embodied carbon footprint.

Moreover, the aggregate has improved material properties. OSTO is 2.5 x lighter than traditional mineral aggregates and is thermally insulating.

Our approach to R&D

OSTO is an example of our ‘outside the box’ approach to research and development as an innovation partner to the construction industry.

Our R&D approach at LCM is rapid prototyping by modifying existing technologies with a key focus on scalability.

We begin with a central challenge faced by the construction industry.

Next, we conduct a material investigation that moves into rapid prototyping and large scale testing.

The final stage is scale-up and commercialisation.

Collaboration and innovation are at the core of our business model and team ethos.

What's next?

In addition to the launch of OSTO, we are developing other types of low carbon aggregates for alternative concrete markets such as pre-cast and ready mix.

If you want to help create the built environment solutions to climate change in a fast-paced, innovative environment, make sure to visit our careers page.

You can learn more about carbon construction terminology, UK carbon targets and much more in the ‘Explained’ series on our blog page.