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As freshwater supplies dwindle worldwide, billions of people lack access to safe drinking water, a crisis expected to worsen with the onslaught of climate change, population growth, urbanisation, and extreme weather.

The construction industry is a significant consumer of water, projected to be using nearly 15% of the global fresh water stock by 2030. Given this, the built environment at large faces a pivotal challenge, or rather a challenge to pivot, in the next few (very few) years. As the demand for water, food, housing, and other resources surges with the growing population, so does the pressure on the natural world. Construction activities — from material production to onsite operations — consume vast amounts of water, heightening the urgency to address water footprints and push towards a more resilient, less water-intensive built environment.

Quantifying the water footprint of buildings through Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) is a crucial step in understanding and mitigating the environmental impact of construction. The water footprint of the construction industry can be complex to keep track of, encompassing direct water use (e.g., on-site activities like mixing concrete and irrigation) and indirect water use (e.g., the water embedded in building materials from manufacture to construction). The life cycle water consumption of a building includes all water used throughout its existence, including potable water, equipment operation, and wastewater treatment.

Materials like steel, cement, and glass, staples in construction, require substantial water for production. Another staple of our urban landscape, bricks, are manufactured using one of the most water-intensive processes, exemplifying more than ever the need for a shift in material selection, manufacturing processes, or, ideally, both.

The persistence of water stress and scarcity necessitates transformative changes in the built environment. Water-sensitive designs will become imperative, particularly in urban areas, to integrate and manage the water cycle effectively. This approach can include recycling storm and groundwater and redesigning urban landscapes to enhance water absorption.

As the built environment evolves to meet these challenges, a shift towards sustainable practices, informed by comprehensive LCA and innovative water management strategies, will be crucial for ensuring the future sustainability of architecture projects.

In this sense, direct and easy access to EPDs is once again crucial, as the LCA data is absolutely necessary to change the current decision-making trend for the better. Having access to EPDs allows construction professionals to make informed choices about materials based on their water footprint, among other environmental impacts. Data transparency is fundamental here, and selecting materials with lower water requirements is one of the few (if not only) ways in which the industry can significantly reduce its impact on global water scarcity.