ConTech: 10 technologies to make the construction industry greener
By Early Metrics Team - 06 July 2022
Construction is a sector at the forefront of the EU’s 2050 carbon neutrality plan. Indeed, the building and construction industries combined account for nearly 40% of global CO2 emissions. The manufacturing and transportation of building materials, waste and construction debris, the degradation of real estate and the over-consumption of energy in buildings… Many sources of carbon emissions come from this industry, which is generally perceived as conservative and unproductive. So how can we make construction more sustainable? Is ConTech the answer?
The solution may lie in the intersection between Industry 4.0 technologies and construction. According to the investment fund Cemex Ventures, 4.5 billion dollars was invested in ConTech startups in 2021 – that is three times more than the previous year. This figure illustrates not only the sector’s dynamism, but also an awareness of the necessity to revitalise it. So how will new technologies impact the construction sector’s sustainability? Who are the startups on the move?
Here are 10 innovations to address one of today’s major challenges: making one of the most polluting industries on the planet greener.
1) Construction waste reduction and recycling technologies
According to a report from the Environmental Protection Agency, the global construction sector will generate 2.2 billion tons of waste by 2025. Even worse, no less than 30% of all building materials delivered to a standard construction site have a chance of ending up as waste. Because of this, the EU has set a goal of 90% recovery of construction waste by 2025.
Several digital initiatives have risen to deal with this issue. Waste Marketplace is an app that enables site managers to choose the best local service provider to recycle their waste at a low cost. The startup Néolithe, on the other hand, transforms waste (even non-recyclable) into stone for construction through the process of fossilisation. Finally, Optimiz Construction (rated by Early Metrics) minimises scrapping offcuts by combining a cutting optimisation algorithm with Lean Construction.
2) ConTech for more sustainable materials
Largely used in the construction sector, concrete, steel and aluminum alone account for 23% of global CO2 emissions. As a result, many initiatives have emerged to develop sustainable alternatives to cement and other traditional building materials.
Many of them are the initiative of startups rated by Early Metrics. Carbicrete, for example, develops a concrete that is cement-free (replaced by steel slag) and carbon-negative thanks to a CO2 polymerisation process. Neolitik designs alternative slabs and cobblestones made of recycled raw materials. Basilik Concrete develops a technology that gives concrete self-healing properties, improving the life span of buildings. Technocarbon develops low-carbon composite materials that are lighter and more resistant than concrete and steel.
3) Innovative window systems
As the development of these more sustainable building materials continues, other technologies have emerged to improve the thermal properties of building materials. One example is the startup Brite Solar, ranked in the top 30% of startups rated by Early Metrics in 2020. It has deployed an electrochemical nanotechnology integrated in buildings’ windows, which produces energy and optimises its preservation thanks to outdoor lighting. Another example is Immoblade. This startup specialises in the solar protection of windows thanks to a passive technology, optimising the temperature of a building regardless of the season.
4) CO2 capture technologies
Recently, the capture and storage of carbon (CCS) has become a leading option to reduce CO2 emissions from the manufacturing of construction materials or from buildings.
Included in our database of noted startups is Canadian company Carbon Upcycling Technologies, which manufactures concrete additives using a process that converts CO2 gas into solid powder. Additionally, Blue Planet Systems combines CO2 captured from various emission sources with calcium from construction waste to make synthetic and sustainable aggregates.
Finally, the Finnish company Soletair Power is developing a ventilation system that captures CO2 from the air, converts it into synthetic methane and reuses it as a green energy resource for various purposes.
5) 3D printing in ConTech
In the construction industry, 3D printing also offers multiple advantages for sustainability. First, it puts an end to manufacturing output and thus to the polluting transportation of goods and their delivery on site. Based on a layering method, 3D printing does not require cutting, sanding nor milling, which drastically reduces the waste generated. Finally, the materials used are often recyclable or biodegradable.
The French company XtreeE is a pioneer and expert in large-scale 3D printing of architectural elements, infrastructure and furniture. Another example is Batiprint3D, which uses this technology to produce concrete structures and façade insulation, similar to the startup Etesias, which specialises in the creation of prefabricated reinforced concrete elements.
6) IoT and smart buildings
As gas and electricity costs climb considerably and limiting energy usage becomes a necessity, more and more connected objects are designed to optimise our energy consumption.
Swiss startup Ledcity is one of the startups that we have rated in this field. It develops an autonomous lighting system that reduces energy consumption from lighting by 80%. Ween, on the other hand, develops a thermostat that automatically adjusts the temperature of a house according to the residents’ habits. Infogrid develops a platform to visualise and retrieve data (temperature, air quality, leaks, occupancy rates, etc.) collected by sensors placed all throughout a building. Other companies like the startup E-nno, process the data collected via machine learning algorithms. As a result, the system learns and adapts over a period of 3 months to deliver adapted recommendations to optimise the building’s energy consumption.
7) Drones and robotics
Over the past few years, workers have been working with the help new partners on construction sites for dangerous and time-consuming tasks: robots. These robots have many undeniable advantages in terms of lowering production costs, increasing productivity and reducing delays. However, they also present less obvious virtues in terms of environmental impact.
From remote-controlled arms and demolition machines to masonry robots, most of these machines help reduce construction waste by standardising and optimising resource consumption. French startup Paint’Up, rated by Early Metrics, offers a robotic solution for painting building facades using the right amount of product needed.
The adoption of drones in the construction sector has numerous environmental benefits. First, they are an ideal solution for observing hard-to-reach or risky areas, taking measurements, and monitoring construction sites. As early as the planning phase, drones can be deployed to perform aerial captures, thus avoiding the dispatch of measuring equipment and workers to the site, and the resulting CO2 emissions. Used as a tool to monitor and inspect construction sites, such as those developed by the Israeli startup SiteAware, drones can also detect defects at the right time, reducing the risks of demolition, delays and waste production.
Last but not least, these devices make it possible to carry out thermal assessments, much faster and more accurately than those carried out from the ground. Skydrone, for example, performs thermal mapping using drones equipped with an infrared camera, in order to quickly visualise information related to humidity and heat loss.
8) Digital twins: BIM and BOS
Building Information Modeling (BIM), which acts as the living avatar of a building, has the potential to make a significant contribution to improving the environmental footprint of the construction industry. Defined as the digital transposition of a building’s information, this model allows all stakeholders to simultaneously manage, modify and share data throughout the lifecycle of a building. Alongside BIM, Building Operation System (BOS) is also emerging. This operating system enables the BIM data to be crossed with various complementary data sources. Some can be obtained via sensors placed in the physical structure (lighting, temperature, energy consumption, humidity) and others from software, thermal simulations or carbon footprint calculations, for example.
In the future, BIM and digital twins will enable the visualisation of energy performance assessments on a digital model, and the use of a remarkable collaborative tool for decision-making support.
To illustrate this, the startup Sitowie has developed a predictive maintenance solution for buildings based on a digital twin (BIM). The latter is coupled with a SaaS platform that uses climate, material quality, maintenance and usage data to determine how a building will age.
9) Urban green energy
For a few years now, it has become more and more common to install solar panels on the roof of building lots. Nevertheless, their aesthetics are still controversial, and their energy production is insufficient to guarantee the energy independence and carbon neutrality of a building. Fortunately, some innovations manage to combine performance and integration into the urban landscape.
A good example is Power Roll, which was ranked in the top 5% of startups rated by Early Metrics. This British startup is developing an ultra-thin, lightweight and recyclable photovoltaic film. This technology, based on the placement of electrodes in micro-grooves, enables the discrete integration of these “architectural fabrics” into buildings. Similarly, the Swiss company Solaxess specialises in the supply of aesthetic nanotechnological solar film to building owners and architects. The startup customises its products to meet the needs of its customers. Its film can be flat, curved, flexible or coloured. Finally, the French company Unéole has given itself the mission to strengthen the energy mix in urban areas. It combines urban wind power and photovoltaics in a mixed energy platform, resulting in a more profitable, more balanced (day and night operation) and low-carbon solution.
10) The use of blockchain in ConTech
As the use cases for blockchain continue to increase, the construction industry could likely benefit from this technology to accelerate its sustainability.
There is no currently no way of tracking construction materials all throughout the lifecycle of a building. Data concerning the origin, production, state and recycling options can thus be lost. Blockchain could act as an actual “passport” to document and track building materials through each step of their lifecycle. Information about each material would be recorded in the blockchain and accessible to all members of the network. Once implemented, this technology will allow real estate developers to carry out reliable environmental assessments, to implement a recycling plan adapted to the composition of the product and to verify the origin of materials for a more ethical and transparent sourcing.
In the French ecosystem, startups like Tilkal in the food-processing industry are beginning to use the properties of blockchain to meet the traceability challenges faced by several industrial sectors. There is no doubt that this type of solution will also be applied to the construction sector in the future.
Green light for the growth of ConTech
The Covid-19 pandemic has significantly accelerated the adoption of new technologies in the construction sector, while highlighting the tremendous effort required to reduce the environmental impact of this industry. Just like the 10 innovations presented in this article, there are now a multitude of technologies that aim to make the construction sector greener. However, their adoption by the sector’s players remains hampered by several challenges. Initial investments are often more expensive, the quantity of sustainable materials available is still insufficient, and the regulatory framework is quite fluid. Furthermore, the funding ecosystem for ConTech startups still needs to be structured to support the often heavy investments required for their development. While the foundations of a sustainable construction industry have been laid, several building blocks still need to be added to achieve the EU’s carbon neutrality goals.