Sustainability in Construction: Preserving Nature and Wildlife


Construction sites can have significant impacts on the environment. However, there are numerous legislations established across the United States that serve to protect plant and animal species as well as the habitats and resources they rely on. Construction teams take great measures both on and offsite to minimize the impacts of building on our environment and wildlife. With early planning and innovative strategies, we can take the right steps to understand a project’s geographic surroundings, how to best mitigate potential impacts, and promote sustainability in construction.

There are many different types of regulations in place that serve to protect the environment and ensure that every construction project accounts for potential environmental impacts. While these may seem difficult to navigate, there are a few techniques you can follow to allow your project to protect and preserve nature and wildlife on construction sites while still delivering a high-quality building. Today, we’ll be exploring what kind of disturbances are possible as well as the techniques you can use to avoid them.

Defining Onsite Impacts vs. Offsite Impacts 

Onsite impacts to wildlife are directly correlated to the activities that are done on a construction site. According to The United States Environmental Protection Agency, “Action Areas” are defined as “all areas to be affected directly or indirectly by the federal action and not merely the immediate area involved in the action.” These action areas include the following:

  • Areas on a site where excavation, site development, or other ground disturbance activities occur
  • Any areas where stormwater flows, including into a ditch, swale, or gully that leads to open or receiving waters

Additional onsite impacts also include road construction, soil contamination, waste management, clearing of vegetation, excavation practices, and energy usage.

Offsite impacts are less direct, but still create a chain reaction of environmental impacts. A few include:

  • Air, land, and water pollution
  • Light pollution
  • Noise disturbances
  • Subsequent building such as road construction, service towers, etc.

Mitigation Strategies

There are a number of strategies and techniques to follow to minimize the impact of construction projects on the environment.

1. Site Logistics

Planning site logistics before a project takes place can help project teams identify areas where protected species of wildlife may reside. Site logistics can be thought of as the foundation that sets up an efficient and safe construction site and involve factors such as material storage, traffic and equipment access, and waste management.

Considering these factors in advance creates a smoother process for dealing with wildlife preservation by planning for construction waste relocation, eliminating any need for rework, and lowering the carbon footprint of a construction project.

Site logistics are a large factor when preserving wildlife, especially when near a wetland. Joe York, General Superintendent at Perlo, explains that building near wetlands requires intensive planning of wastewater management. Project teams are unable to discharge any water from the site due to the proximity of wetland areas and ensuring that the wildlife inside the wetland areas is not affected. Teams are required to plan for factors such as erosion control, turbidity levels, and pH levels by utilizing silt fences and other special equipment to treat turbidity and pH levels from site modifications such as cement treatment.

2. Special Building Features

Special construction features can greatly benefit both the environment and project teams by allowing teams to adapt to geographic needs and save a project time and money in the long run. One way to do this is by incorporating concrete features that protect wildlife, such as concrete benches.

One recently completed Perlo project, Marrion Elementary School, utilized this tactic in a significant way. The erection of the brand-new elementary school was a huge turning point for the local community. A large factor in this project was preserving the school’s “tree of life”, a historic community landmark located on the front of the campus. While there were many ways to accomplish this, project teams ultimately built a concrete bench around the tree and took great lengths not to damage the tree or its roots. The bench now stands to protect the entire tree and encourages students to learn about the history of the community.

3. Using Landscaping to Your Advantage

Although natural habitats are being impacted as urban development continues to rise, construction teams can use landscaping to their advantage, leaving a lasting positive effect on the site in question. One recent Perlo project in Eureka, California ran into difficulty when having to preserve a specific “weed of interest”. Project teams were not allowed to tamper with the specified weed, and therefore had to find innovative ways work around it.

Soft landscaping is a term used to “describe the process of working with natural materials and other landscape elements that do not involve construction.” These elements often include turf, trees, hedges, shrubs, and other natural landscaping features, and can serve to increase biodiversity, create a habitat for wildlife to rely on, and minimize erosion. Additionally, grasses, shrubs, and trees are immensely effective at converting CO2 to oxygen, lessening the impact of emissions on construction sites.

Trees also have the ability to stabilize ground conditions with their root systems and provide shade for wildlife, on top of acting as a “sponge” to absorb groundwater and slow the movement of rainwater. This is a major reason why many construction sites require that trees and their roots aren’t disturbed during building.

4. Develop Designated Animal Crossing Routes

One way to preserve wildlife is by utilizing barriers along curbs, which can help small animals avoid falling in sewer grates, provide a hiding spot from high-traffic areas, and allow them to continue their path safely and without disturbance.

Many animals migrate long distances and must cross dangerous roadways. One study even shows that roads affect roughly 20% of the land area in the United States. With subsequent construction such as building or expanding roadways, creating a clear path to safety for wildlife is essential, especially in areas where wildlife is less accustomed to traffic. “In the United States alone, these collisions were estimated to cause 211 human fatalities, 29,000 human injuries and over $1 billion in property damage annually,” says the US Department of Transportation.

5. LEED Certification and Using Renewable Energy

Renewable energy is defined as “energy produced from sources like the sun and wind that are naturally replenished and do not run out.” Using renewable energy reduces a number of threats to the environment, from avoiding toxic wastewater to minimizing waste onsite by salvaging building materials.

Many projects now strive for LEED certification, a distinction gained by maintaining open spaces and protecting natural habitat, building structures that minimize or eliminate harmful chemicals for users of the building, providing access to fresh air and natural light, and more. One large factor in receiving LEED certification is reducing light pollution. Whether aimed to illuminate a façade or reflected off a surface, light can greatly affect wildlife such as sea turtles, which are impacted by the artificial “glow”. Solutions to this issue vary by project, but generally include creating a “shield” to block the light, eliminating fixtures with little or no glare control, and eliminating unnecessary light fixtures.

Final Thoughts

With careful planning and innovative building strategies, construction can allow wildlife and humans to coexist peacefully. As the construction industry continues to grow, it is important to take steps toward reducing the impact that construction has on wildlife, their habitats, and the environment as a whole.