The green path: The industry’s journey to sustainability

Though some will disagree, sustainability and the ‘need to go green’ is not a trend. With climate temperatures rising and the planet’s population increasing at the same time, there is a very real need to consider the impact that projects have if they aren’t thoughtfully planned, designed and constructed.

A considered approach

“Building and construction is responsible for up to 20% of New Zealand’s emissions. That means our sector has a huge role to play if we are to build a zero-carbon world, and achieve a healthier, greener Aotearoa,” says Andrew Eagles, chief executive at New Zealand Green Building Council (NZGBC).

“There are two main challenges – how we are designing and building new homes and buildings of tomorrow, and how we can decarbonise the buildings of today.”

Where exactly should you start though?

Liz Root, Aurecon’s sustainability associate for environmental and planning, suggests that instead of taking a “scatter gun approach or attempting to change everything at once”, it is important for projects and organisations to first identify some priority areas to focus on.

For Profile Group (PGL), parent company of APL Window Solutions, one of these focus areas is the circular economy and working to design out waste wherever possible.

“At PGL, we are reinventing the way we do business from the design considerations of our products to implementing a sound waste management plan across the group’s entire supply chain,” says Mikayla Plaw, executive director of organisational development and sustainability at PGL.

“Our new state-of-the-art manufacturing facility, bordering the Waikato Expressway near Cambridge, saw us tackle major waste obstacles throughout the construction of our first building in a 56.7-hectare green-visioned industrial campus.”

Plaw explains that key challenges faced with this project included:

– Waste management: The target was a 90% diversion rate of construction and demolition waste to landfill. “This was challenging due to extensive product packaging and manufacturers who do not provide take back schemes,” says Plaw.

– Sourcing sustainable materials: “We researched, procured and installed sustainable materials which have less impact on the environment compared to similar products in the market.”

– Sourcing sustainable material with low emissions (volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and formaldehyde): Products containing high VOCs and formaldehyde content have a significant impact on building occupants’ health.

The company’s solution to these challenges was to think outside the box, collaborate with others, and execute “new and innovative” solutions.

“Achieving our 90% target required careful planning,” says Plaw. “The two key parts to this was implementing a thorough waste management system to sort excess materials onsite and repurposing materials where possible.

“Although time-consuming at times, it is very rewarding and does illustrate the circular nature of materials when you put the effort in. Preventing end-of-life is much simpler than it is made out to be.”

Starting from the products

SaveBoard is one piece of the puzzle when it comes to building a circular economy.

Each year more than 400,000 tonnes of packaging waste is sent to landfill in New Zealand. At SaveBoard’s Te Rapa plant, 4,000 tonnes of this waste will be turned into approximately 200,000 construction boards each year. And with every new production line added at Te Rapa or other facilities, a further 4,000 tonnes of packaging waste will be taken out of landfill and turned into construction boards.

SaveBoard’s Te Rapa facility

“SaveBoard products achieve up to a 90% reduction in carbon emissions compared with other boards,” says Paul Charteris, co-founder and CEO of SaveBoard.

“For example, SaveBoard’s United States equivalent was used as the roofing substrate on one of the biggest buildings in the world: Elon Musk’s Tesla Gigafactory One in Sparks, Nevada, which has a roof area of approximately 200,000sqm. This project alone equates to upcycling 2,000 tonnes of composite packaging in one roof, saving 336,000kgs of embodied CO2, compared to using a plywood substrate.”

Charteris challenges every client and specifier to prioritise the use of recycled materials and content in new or retrofit construction projects. By doing so, a demand for recycled materials will be created – in turn making it easier for products such as SaveBoard to enter the market.

“The cost to complete compliance testing is significant as the NZ building codes and standards are based around traditional building materials. Our system is not set up for innovative materials and comparisons need to be benchmarked against traditional building materials, which can be a challenge as they don’t perform the same.”

SaveBoard production line newly installed in its Te Rapa facility

Charteris hopes this will change though, with the demand for SaveBoard products demonstrating the industry’s need for such innovative materials.

“If our experience of the demand for SaveBoard from the building design and construction industry is any indication, there is a massive desire from the industry to use circular economy products that reduce carbon emissions.

“We can no longer dig things up to make new materials, then bury them at their end-of-life. Building a circular economy is one of the key pieces of the puzzle to design out waste and keep materials in the built environment as long as possible,” says Charteris.

Solid foundations

There are a lot of aspects that piece together in the journey to sustainability though, and setting guidelines is one way to not feel the overwhelm.

“Frameworks and tools such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals, Green Star, Infrastructure Sustainability, and Passive House can provide some structure and direction to guide and verify your efforts,” says Aurecon’s Liz Root.

NZGBC’s Andrew Eagles says that trusted third-party certification such as Green Star and Homestar is seeing rapid growth in new buildings, showing the steps to a lower carbon future are accessible, manageable and viable.

The road to building sustainably is certainly no easy task, and PGL’s partnerships with others – including NZGBC – is something the organisation is proud of.

“We continue to support the NZGBC as a major corporate sponsor, we are a major partner of Sustainable Coastlines who dedicate their work to restore the health of our natural environments, and we are a member of the Sustainable Business Network,” says Plaw.

Example of PGL’s product range

All of PGL’s product ranges are ‘declared’ by the International Living Future Institute. This means that the organisation is being measured by an industry-recognised tool that requires total transparency about its product ingredients.

“And more recently, we’ve teamed up with Toitū Envirocare to help us achieve carbon zero certification and thinkstep-anz in order to achieve an Environmental Product Declaration.”

Making the most of these tools

“We have the tools, we just need to pick them up and use them at scale,” says Eagles.

Winstone Wallboards’ GIB plasterboard is one product range on the market that has taken advantage of certifications such at Green Star, which can be achieved through the company’s recycling services.

Gordon White, Winstone Wallboard’s residential market manager, says the company is increasingly looking to further integrate sustainability into its everyday business practices.

“In 2023 Winstone Wallboards is opening a new world-class manufacturing site in Tauranga with the existing Auckland site to be decommissioned.

“The new site, in addition to increasing our production capabilities, will offer significant environmental improvements including reducing our carbon footprint by at least 10% and allowing us to incorporate plasterboard offcut waste back into the manufacturing process of new plasterboard,” says White.

“Additionally, we are working with the wider New Zealand construction industry to develop tools to assist with minimising plasterboard waste onsite, as well as working with waste collection providers around the country to set up recycling options which trade customers can readily access to recycle their offcut waste instead of it ending up in landfills.”

From the ground up

The construction sector has always been open to innovation in design, materials and building methodology, and director of FormShore, Andy Robertshawe, is glad to see that “the same spirit is now being applied to building sustainable”.

Robertshawe says that sustainability in construction encompasses design, procurement, construction and operation of the asset and that a key consideration in the design process must be the selection of the best products for long-term durability.

While concrete isn’t the most sustainable of materials, it is the “most durable and, in many cases, the most practical material for structural elements.”

“Building sustainably includes building structures which will stand the test of time. In many cases, this involves using in-situ concrete which has many structural and buildability advantages over pre-cast concrete and steel structures,” says Robertshawe.

“New Zealand has lagged the rest of the world in the use of in-situ concrete in commercial and multi-unit residential buildings. Part of the problem is that we have had limited access to modern, reusable formwork systems.

“FormShore was set up to address this problem, and we have selected Meva as being the most sustainable formwork system available.”

Reusable formwork has traditionally had a plywood form face, lasting a maximum of 20 cycles before it starts to deteriorate and affect the finish of the concrete. By instead replacing the plywood face with the Meva formwork system with its recyclable Alkus form face, Robertshawe says the system will get the most reuses of any formwork system – up to 1,500 cycles.

A greener future?

In the words of NZGBC’s chief executive, Andrew Eagles, “there’s no doubt we are making progress”.

With Kiwi companies being conscious about the waste they produce and focussing on a circular economy, and sustainable alternatives to traditional building materials entering the market, we are looking towards a healthier future for both the environment, and our people.

“The expertise, technology and systems already exist to allow buildings to rapidly and effectively slash their emissions, whether it be through reducing the huge amount of waste going to landfill through recycling or design, using sustainable materials, or turning an office into a zero-carbon workspace through efficient systems and sustainable management,” says Eagles.

As put simply by PGL’s Mikayla Plaw: “By championing better choices and building practices, we believe we can shape a greener future for New Zealand”.