In an earlier post you might remember that we discussed the concept of life cycle thinking. This is the approach to identifying and assessing environmental impacts from cradle to grave. I thought in this post it would be useful to see how that approach can be applied in practice, with the subject matter being a building. It is interesting to consider that what is completed at earlier stages in the process, such as the design phase, links to the scale of impact for later phases such as the operation and decommissioning of the building. We will now take a look at each stage and consider the key impacts.
Life Cycle Impacts – Concept
The task of understanding and mitigating environmental impacts start at the inception of the project. The potential environmental impacts of the project should be identified in strategic studies or plans. Even at this early phase of the project there are several activities that are crucial and where environmental issues need to be considered. These include:
- The project definition
- The identification of the study area
- The current and future conditions.
A key tool that can be used to reduce impact at this stage is Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). This forms part of the design element of building projects and may be required by law. An EIA will assist by considering environmental issues in development proposals and highlighting the environmental impact of the proposed development. It will also assess the risk associated with alternative ways of delivering the construction project. As part of this appropriate mitigation and monitoring approaches will be considered. These factors will all be incorporated into the project design such that the chosen approach will be the best practicable environmental option.
The construction of our building may have several potential impacts. Key issues that need controlling will probably include the escape of dusty material causing nuisance, or the release of diesel leading to water pollution. There might also be emissions of noise or vibration from activities such as vehicle movements, sheet piling or grit blasting causing upset to nearby residents or wildlife disturbance. Waste may also be produced in large quantities causing air, land and water pollution and potentially a threat to human health. This phase may also lead to significant impacts on the ecology of plants, animals, birds and fish. These may all be destroyed, disturbed or their habitats damaged depending on where the development is located. Additionally, there are significant resources used at this stage which might include wood, metal or minerals. All of these can have a significant impact in extraction, processing and transportation.
The next phase is the actual use of our building. When a building is being used it can have a significant environmental impact for many years. The decisions made earlier in the life cycle, particularly in the design phase, can make a massive difference. Such operational impacts may vary on size and location but are likely to include climate change, air, water and land pollution, noise nuisance and reduction in biodiversity, to name a few!
After what in most cases will be many years of operation a building will come to the end of it’s useful life and will need to be demolished. This will involve the clearance of the site. This stage is very similar in impact to the construction phase. Again, decisions made many years earlier in the design phase will have a significant bearing on the scale of environmental impact.
Life Cycle – Final Note
By understanding the life cycle of a building we can significantly reduce environmental impacts. If poor decisions are made early on in the process then this can lead to significant impacts at later stages. For example if we locate a building in an area of high biodiversity (concept phase) then it is likely that it will cause an issue during the construction phase.
John Binns BSc (Hons), MSc, MIEMA
With over 19 years’ experience working in environment management, John Binns BSc (Hons) MSc MIEMA is an experienced environmental tutor and consultant with knowledge of health and safety management.