How will decarbonisation impact demolition?

By Richard Vann26 July 2022

Decarbonisation and all things climate change was once a topic only of interest to those in the sustainability sector. However, with the global population developing a ‘greener’ conscience, the race to net zero and beyond is increasingly dominating the mainstream headlines too.

Thankfully, while continuous improvement is always possible, the demolition profession has long had an excellent environmental track record when it comes to sustainable performance. But Richard Vann, managing director of RVA Group believes there’s another reason to pay more attention to the decarbonisation topic.

RVA Group decommissioning service The RVA Group has worked on projects in the chemical and other industries for almost 30 years. (Photo: RVA Group)

As a demolition professional with 35 years’ experience and counting, my CV is varied to say the least. And I bet many of my peers would say the same. We’ve worked on the clearance of many different buildings and structures over the years, from MDUs (multi dwelling units) condemned as building standards and lifestyle expectations have evolved, to sites left redundant when operators have been squeezed by mounting economic pressures.

The nature of the demolition projects we’ve executed, and the catalysts for such works has been complex and wide-ranging, and it’s unlikely that this will change. However, the sectors we find ourselves invited to work in look set to develop quite significantly, as we look ahead.

Demolition projects: what has changed?

Over the last 30 years at RVA Group, our work as an independent consultant has seen us focus primarily on the decommissioning, decontamination, dismantling and demolition of large-scale processing facilities in heavy industries. That’s because operators in these inherently hazardous worlds – petrochemical, pharmaceutical and energy, for example – have had many reasons to engage demolition firms.

As plants have reached the end of their useful life – whether due to legislative, efficiency, innovatory or economic factors – they have had to be cleared safely, cost-effectively and with minimal environmental impact. Some operators have drawn their entire businesses to a close, some have invested in and erected more modern plant on the same footprint, and in certain instances, processors have sold assets for re-erection overseas.

It’s been an interesting three decades, with project specifics differing from one assignment to the next, due to multifaceted factors such as the age of plant, historic maintenance regimes, supply chain influences, operator resource and so much more.

The shape of every individual project will therefore continue to be quite distinct. However, the core trends driving demolition projects will likely remain the same – processing innovation, the obsolescence of technology, economics, legislation and societal pressures. What will change however, is the wider demand for our demolition engineering expertise, in sectors that are perhaps a little more unfamiliar.

How will decarbonisation change the demolition industry?

Sustainability and climate change is now a huge topic of conversation, not least as a result of COP26 in Glasgow, last November. Globally, there is a significantly greater push towards ‘net zero’ – a step-change to ensure the amount of greenhouse gases added to the atmosphere does not exceed the amount taken out. And, while there is still a long way to go – not least because some environmentalists argue this alone won’t address the climate emergency – there can be no denying the fact that the decarbonisation agenda is rising.

Consequently, oil refineries and coal-fired power stations, for example, are just some of the facilities that will be increasingly phased out in favour of cleaner, renewable technologies – and understandably so.

Richard Vann, managing director RVA Group Richard Vann, managing director of RVA Group. (Photo: RVA Group)

But with the acceleration of change rising, even newer, ‘greener’ facilities – such as windfarms, hydrogen-powered sites, battery storage units, energy from waste plants and so on – will also reach their end of life, as innovators engineer even more efficient designs that bring about greater environmental progress. And I think the demolition profession will experience growing demand from these industries, over the coming years, as a result. Every site has a ‘shelf life’ of some kind.

A change of approach to demolition projects

When the time comes, the operational history of such sites will be different to that of the processing sites we work on now, of course. However, the manner with which we approach any resulting decommissioning, decontamination, dismantling or demolition projects will remain a constant. We should engage with stakeholders; understand and manage risks; plan the works with utmost respect for safety, environmental protection and budget; assemble the best-fit project team and proceed with the execution of works with compliance as the very minimum benchmark standard.

What does the future of demolition look like?

It’s a subject I’ve spoken about before, but I also predict a notable rise in the number of investment companies, land development firms, architects, designers, and construction specialists who will also seek to engage the services of the demolition industry. This may sound odd, given our role in a plant or structure’s lifecycle is typically considered as adding value when the asset has reached the end of its useful life – not when its erection is being considered.

But just like product designers are consulting recycling specialists, to increase the ease and efficiency with which materials can be recovered, reused and remanufactured when an item is disposed of, we see the same trend emerging in the built environment.

It will be far easier and safer to decommission an asset if the appropriate considerations have been made, by people with a demolition engineering skill set, at the earliest design stage – even before its construction has begun. Financial provisioning can be undertaken too, which mitigates the fiscal risks involved as an asset ages. I’d go so far as to say the environmental impact of the project could be better managed too, which – to loop back around to the start of this conversation – is important for lots of reasons.

The future of demolition is therefore dependent on the rich expertise that the industry has amassed over the decades. But the deployment of that expertise will continue to vary. Things are ever-changing, after all.

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