Mónika Serrano, a Resilience Project Manager at Turner Construction Company, is helping pave the way for sustainable and resilient development for general contractors. While the standard for a building’s environmental impact is usually set by the owner or client, Serrano has brought her two decades of experience in the industry to reimagine the role GCs can play.
A mechanical engineer by trade, Serrano did not anticipate working in construction or in sustainability. She learned about the world of construction management once she was at Turner, where she began working in 2004. She held various positions from an engineer, to a superintendent, and eventually a project manager.
“Sustainability classes weren’t a thing when I was in college,” explained Serrano, who moved from Venezuela to the US as an exchange student and later graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering from Lafayette College in Pennsylvania. “I only started learning about it and climate change while I was studying for my LEED Green Associate accreditation. It felt like a whole world opened up. I was exposed to the challenge of climate change and I knew I had to do something about it.”
The Growing Focus of Sustainability in Construction
Serrano took on more opportunities related to sustainability and resilience, eventually becoming a Climate Reality Project leader and volunteering for sustainability initiatives at Turner. This area of construction has grown in recent years. Half of Turner’s completed work every year is considered “green.” The company has over 1,000 staff that retain a professional credential under one of the various green building rating systems and a national network of 70 Sustainability Managers who work closely on the company’s sustainability efforts.
Serrano regularly speaks at industry conferences and events, including Procore’s Groundbreak 2020 construction technology conference, where she served as a panelist on a session entitled: “Sustainable Design and Construction: Challenges and Opportunities from a Latin American perspective.” While Serrano is currently very active in the conversation about sustainability, it took her a while to figure out how to get involved. She shares her path to becoming a leader, her thoughts about the industry’s future in sustainability and how Turner is following through on sustainable practices.
Turner’s Three Pillar Plan: Environmental Efficiency, Resiliency, and Green Building
Turner has outlined a three pillar plan for their sustainability strategy that includes Environmental Efficiency, Resiliency, and Green Building, anchored by the vision of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and water consumption on on-site construction operations in half by 2030.
Greenhouse gas emissions reduction plans take a lot of planning and continuous monitoring. To set the baseline greenhouse gas emissions starting in 2019, Turner started by measuring the water, electricity, and fuel use on roughly 30 job sites over a two-year period. The company captured their consumption data by asking subcontractors for their monthly fuel usage, collecting utility bills, and installing meters to analyze live usage trends. These metrics were used to estimate their total greenhouse gas emission across all projects.
With a baseline set, they will be able to make energy-efficient improvements and meet their goal of cutting their construction operations emissions in half by the next decade. Turner is now collecting data on more than 150 projects and has made emissions and water tracking standard across their portfolio. This allows Turner to use real data to drive their emissions reductions decisions.
What is the Difference Between Sustainability and Resilience?
Sustainability is often the headline when talking about climate change but resilience is equally as important, especially for our built environment. While sustainability is about protecting resources and building in a way that can continue long into the future, resiliency is about embracing change and adapting to changing conditions. Being resilient means understanding that some of the impacts caused by global warming cannot be reversed and adapting to changing weather patterns and climate is necessary.
“When it comes to construction, resiliency is about building our buildings and structures in a way that they can withstand hurricanes, floods, or wildfires,” Serrano said. “It’s about making our built environment resilient enough that when these events happen, the integrity of our buildings and structures will not be disturbed, they will continue to be operational while keeping occupants and communities around them safe.”
Sustainability in the Industry
Serrano points out that the conversation around sustainability and carbon reduction has mostly been focused on building operations in the past. For instance, how much energy and emissions it takes to heat, cool, and keep the lights on inside a building. But, where Serrano sees the construction sustainability conversation headed is toward embodied carbon.
Embodied carbon refers to the carbon emissions that come from the materials and construction operations before the building is occupied or used. Architecture 2030, a nonprofit organization working to find climate solutions, reported that embodied carbon contributed 11 percent to the annual Global Carbon Emissions in 2018.
This is part of the newer focus in sustainability conversations to take into account the entire lifecycle of a building as a more comprehensive evaluation of how construction contributes to global CO2 emissions. Turner is focusing on providing clients with the option of tracking and reducing embodied carbon and is working to educate the industry about it.
“There is no doubt that our buildings need to become more resilient to the natural disasters that are happening more frequently and intensifying with climate change as well as chronic climate stressors such as extreme heat, drought, etc.,” said Serrano. “I’m confident that the real estate industry and insurance industry are increasing their focus on assessing climate risk. At the same time as our buildings become more efficient in their day-to-day operations, I anticipate more construction and material manufacturers will focus on embodied carbon as it becomes a bigger piece of the carbon pie.”
Serrano and Turner Construction Company are helping to shape the future of the industry by engaging in the conversation of how to assess the climate risk our built environment is facing. As the industry continues to adopt both sustainable and resilient practices, all stakeholders are coming together to best prepare for what’s to come.