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Sustainable Design for Structural Engineers
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Experts agree that buildings are the biggest source of emissions and energy consumption both in the U.S and around the globe. Currently, they account for 40 percent of the world’s energy use.1 As such, early design decisions can lead to significant reductions in building energy consumption and can help to create a more sustainable design. It appears as though sustainable design practices are becoming even more engrained in the design and construction industry than ever before. In fact, according to McGraw Hill’s “2009 Green Outlook”, green building is growing “in spite of the market downturn,” with the value of green construction increasing from $10B in 2005 to $49B in 2008.

Traditionally, architects and more recently MEP engineers have been leading the way to ensure a building’s design is sustainable. In fact, in my role here at Autodesk, I often hear from our MEP engineering customers about ways that they are employing technology to help them make better informed decisions that benefit both the environment and their client’s bottom line. Structural engineers can also play a critical role in this process. However, to take on that role they must be proactive. There are many ways in which a structural engineer can influence a building’s sustainability such as investigating and utilizing the most effective materials, or designing buildings for longevity by considering the design’s adaptability and reuse. Let’s explore these opportunities and explain further how and when these decisions can impact the overall sustainability.

Material Selection

The main design strategy structural engineers can adopt for building sustainability is to minimize embodied energy and maximize design efficiency. Embodied energy can be defined as the total energy consumed in processing, manufacturing, transporting and constructing building materials. Material selection and reuse can go a long way in reducing building waste both for new constructions as well as renovations of existing buildings. During the design process, structural engineers have a direct impact on the committed energy use and embodied carbon footprint of the building. As such they can help to reduce the impact that the buildings have on the built environment prior to construction.

The design phase becomes a critical juncture for the structural engineer to assess how to maximize the use of sustainable materials. There are many factors involved in selecting the most appropriate building material, but many engineers do not consider sustainability when doing so. The predominant choices worldwide for most commercial and institutional structures are reinforced concrete and steel, chosen primarily for availability, strength, and design flexibility. Based on total embodied energy, steel and concrete are comparable and neither offers any significant energy advantages.

But there are alternatives that engineers can explore to reduce the total embodied energy2 of concrete structures. Cement, one of the main components of concrete, is the largest contributor to concrete’s total embodied energy . Utilizing alternatives such as fly ash and slag in concrete mixtures can reduce cement content, and ultimately reduce the concrete’s total embodied energy.

Organizations like WoodWorks--an initiative of the Wood Products Council--promote wood as a viable material for non-residential construction, citing sustainability as one of its many benefits. Wood is the only major building material that is both renewable and sustainable in the long term, and outperforms steel and concrete when measuring global warming potential, resource use, embodied energy, air and water pollution 3.
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Published  08/17/2009 
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