Northwestern University in Illinois and WWF have partnered to develop an international tool that helps people working in the construction industry to make environmentally responsible decisions when they select, source, use and dispose of construction materials.
Originally created by WWF for disaster recovery and reconstruction guidance in the wake of the devastating 2015 earthquake in Nepal, the Building Material Selection and Use: An Environmental Guide (BMEG) offers information on the environmental impact of different materials, potential alternatives, and design and construction best practices.
The original BMEG guidebook covered sound practices designed to minimise the likelihood of future disasters caused by deforestation, erosion landslides and floods. In 2017, WWF and the Institute for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern (ISEN) began to collaborate to expand the BMEG as a decision-making tool.
The BMEG consists of a database that covers more than 50 different building materials and their mechanical, thermal, electrical and durability properties. The guide emphasises the materials’ lifespan, considering the environmental and ecosystem impacts during each stage from extraction to storage and disposal. It provides a close-up look at the impact of a chosen element, including its carbon footprint, toxicity, embodied energy, disposal, reuse, recyclability and approximate pricing. Users will soon be able to input material amounts and desired specifications into an algorithm that will provide recommendations of material combinations.
‘The guidebook equips government agencies, companies, NGOs and community organisations with the tools to responsibly select, use and dispose of construction materials,’ said WWF senior fellow and ISEN visiting scholar Missaka Hettiarachchi Hettiarachchi. ‘Accounting for environmental considerations in the construction sector benefits both people and nature.’
The BMEG research team hopes to incorporate an algorithm that optimises materials choices to facilitate smoother decision-making and provide a balance between minimising costs and environmental impacts. The machine learning model that the team is building will create quick, practical, cost effective and environmentally responsible suggestions.
‘Selecting the right materials for building reconstruction is a complex process that can involve dozens of competing considerations and trade-offs,’ said Northwestern engineering professor Andreas Waechter. ‘This includes sustainability and climate impacts as well as material costs. We’re developing a versatile computational tool that uses mathematical optimisation and detailed building models, and allows for rapid comparisons of options in the decision-making process. Our approach is truly unique.’