In the years after World War II, our nation became an economic superpower thanks in large part to our commitment to building the world’s best infrastructure. President Eisenhower worked with Congress to create the U.S. Interstate Highway System that connected cities all across the country, allowing people and goods to travel faster and safer.
Unfortunately, many of these roads are now 60 years old. And a highway system that was built for a country of 150 million Americans now tries to support 300 million. This has created many problems: congestion, decay and, in too many cases, fatal accidents. In fact America’s traffic and bad roads waste some 4.2 billion hours and 2.8 billion gallons of fuel a year – a substantial, yet preventable source of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
This year, Congress and the Obama administration are expected to renew the federal commitment to our nation’s infrastructure but new research suggests there may be even one more reason to invest.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Concrete Sustainability Hub, which has just released new research suggesting that a “life-cycle” approach in to engineering/constructing roads and buildings will help decrease carbon emissions and ensure that these investments last longer.
A life-cycle approach looks not just at how much it will cost financially and environmentally to build a road or building, but how much it will cost to maintain these structures over their lifetimes. Life-cycle also provides project designers and engineers with guidance on how to most efficiently and effectively conduct the construction process itself.
The research suggests that paving with concrete creates significantly higher fuel savings for passenger vehicles than paving with asphalt. And by varying scheduled maintenance work and lane closures, concrete roads can achieve considerable reductions in carbon emissions over the life of the road.
The research also found that it’s possible to build homes smarter, saving families money, while still protecting the environment. For buildings, concrete materials can realize substantial energy savings – up to 20 percent HVAC savings for residential structures made with Insulated Concrete Forms (ICFs) instead of wood and up to 5-6 percent each year for commercial concrete structures compared to steel. This is critical to helping cash-strapped families realize a lower cost of living. The operational energy savings realized over the life of concrete structures have the potential to lower families’ and business’ energy bills and to lower the life-cycle carbon emissions of homes and office buildings throughout the country.
Perhaps the biggest news to come out of MIT’s research? That it is possible to conduct a rigorous analysis using a time window – 50 years for pavements and 75 for buildings – that reflects real-world conditions. Furthermore, the vast majority of life-cycle carbon emissions are produced during the operational, or “use phase,” of projects – 90 percent for residential buildings and up to 85 percent for high-volume roads.
While the initial findings are promising, MIT plans on issuing another report later this year that will measure the economic cost of infrastructure materials. Finally, policymakers and industry leaders will have an environmentally and economically responsible roadmap to rebuild the roads and buildings that make up our infrastructure.
With our country’s population growing, we need our infrastructure to grow with it. And since it takes years to build roads and other structures, we need to get moving now.
With 35 percent of America’s major roads in “poor” or “mediocre” condition, Congress should begin work on a new transportation infrastructure program. And it should start by looking at this MIT report to make sure that we minimize the environmental and economic footprints of our infrastructure projects.
Tim Becken is Senior Vice President of Operations for Cemstone Products Company.