Bricks need to offer lower embodied carbon and so does concrete and cement. The industry is responding

It was the demand from architects, builders and government  – and maybe the general  writing on the wall – that convinced Brickworks to sign up to a stronger climate objective and even dip into its own pockets to make its products carbon neutral.

The company now offers clients Climate Active carbon neutral certification for any of its clay brick or pavers –  at no extra cost.

According to Brett Ward, general manager international marketing at the company, there’s already been some cuts to carbon emissions with a bio fuelled kiln in its Tasmanian facility that uses sawdust from timber milling operations, but some architects not only wanted to use Australian made low embodied carbon products, but locally made as well. 

This meant that each of the company’s operations, in all Australian states, needed to offer a better environmental profile.

Demand for products that are sustainable is so strong if we don’t do it, we will miss out.

Brett Ward, brickworks

The Tasmanian program was a “great initiative and obviously we wanted to improve the cradle to grave emissions,” Mr Ward said.

“Now architects want local products. They’re saying, ‘we want Australian based products’ – and this is driven by builders and by state governments – ‘and by the way if I can get the bricks from Victoria, that’s even better’.

“So, we saw the opportunity to provide low carbon certified bricks from anywhere in the country.

“We did analysis with Energetic to look at carbon emissions and how we can offset our product anywhere in Australia and that’s the journey we’ve been on in the last five years.”

Emissions are calculated based on the entire life cycle of the product — from extracting the clay, to production of bricks, delivery to customer, and end-of-life disposal.

Carbon credits are purchased from three Australian-based projects. Two protecting native forests in Tasmania and the Paroo River North Environmental Project and a savannah burning initiative in Cape York. 

The company claims the initiative is a first for the construction industry.

Mr Ward said the because of their long life cycle bricks can offer good environmental benefits.

“Bricks have a long life-cycle and can be recycled. They come with embodied energy in their manufacture but the energy to make bricks is completely outweighed by the benefit they provide when they are in the built environment.”

The company is looking at how to improve its overall environmental performance with a new sustainability strategy out to 2025.

Ideas include the possibility of more biofuels “where possible” but hydrogen was also “exciting” Mr Ward said.

He agreed the carbon neutral offer would cut into margins now but offered the potential to grow the volume of sales. And besides the reasoning is that “demand for products that are sustainable is so strong if we don’t do it, we will miss out”.

“The Institute of Architects is looking to be a net zero association and I think architects themselves are looking to become net zero.  As a manufacturer we want to support the industry.”

On the business side there was a hit to demand during the recent two-week Covid shut down in Victoria and NSW but overall the picture is positive. 

In a tough jobs market, skewed towards employees, the company was currently trying to recruit around 50 people to fill vacancies in its 1500 strong workforce.

In the US the company employs an additional 2000 or so staff thanks to its acquisitions of the Glen Gerry, Redland and Illinois brickworks operations in recent years.

The overseas expansion was to make space for growth, Mr Ward said. While Australia has just two brickmakers at scale (with CSR) the US has about 40 largely family owned companies in an industry with familiar structures to that of Australia.

Concrete and cement also have ambitions on climate 

Not to be outdone the cement and concrete industry reckons it too will improve its environmental profile with a new commitment to get to net zero by 2050. 

A “climate ambition statement” jointly released by Cement, Concrete and Aggregates Australia (CCAA) and the Cement Industry Federation (CIF) declares the industry will work towards decarbonising cement and concrete in the construction supply chain. 

CIF chief executive, Margie Thomson said the cement industry had already reduced its CO2 emissions by 25 per cent since 2000. 

“Cement substitutes including blast furnace slag from steel production and fly ash from coal fired electricity production are increasingly being used to produce lower carbon concretes with enhanced product performance,” she said. 

Then there was the growing use of “alternative fuels that would otherwise go to landfill and the widespread adoption of technical process improvements”, that had contributed positively, she said.

Ken Slattery, CCAA chief executive officer said the statement outlined “the industry’s commitment to work towards decarbonisation throughout the value chain, with a strong emphasis on technological, regulatory, structural, and behavioural change”. 

To reach the objectives would require “changes to policy settings, material technology and design practices which can only be achieved through collaboration across the construction supply chain”.

“This statement represents a call to action to governments, regulators, procurers, researchers, designers, builders and customers to work with the industry to achieve this important goal.” 

with Duncan Murray

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