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Low-Carb Construction Matters

To date, sustainability efforts in construction have been directed at the pre-building phase. Various green building rating systems have worked to change the face of the built environment in exponential fashion. Owners of buildings have been wooed by the marketing edge of what a green building offers, including increased rent per square foot, longer term leases, lower operating costs. Design issues during the pre-building phase focus on energy conservation through both passive systems approaches such as siting a building to take advance of natural light and active systems approaches that involve mechanical components that are responsive to the sun.

It is the combined effort, cross functionally, of getting back to basics, thinking with simple minds for simple men and women, innovation with what we have available and critical looks at currently wasteful and inefficient processes, that will work to heal the wounds. But relax, it is no one person’s blunder that has put us here. None of us, until most recently, realized what was happening or the role that our collective efforts had played in the environmental illness.

Let’s take a journey through the impacts that building materials have on the environment. (Carry-on’s only on this journey – there is a lower carbon footprint associated with traveling lighter and who can argue with money saved by not paying for checked baggage!)

What do the numbers 40 billion, 5 metric tons and 30% have in common? These are all numbers associate with the manufacturing of building materials per YEAR; the first is the dollar amount spent on construction materials per year, the second is the CO2e associated with the manufacturing of those materials and the third is the percentage of the raw materials extracted for use in manufacturing those materials.

Does it seem unbelievable that the vast majority of building materials come from just a few sources? And of those sources even fewer are considered renewable? As an eighteen year veteran of construction and green building practices, I was not fully aware of this reality. Minerals such as gypsum and aluminum are finite. Limestone, iron ore, clay and other rock extraction processes are equipment intensive. Equipment used for these intense mining operations has little emissions regulation at this time and leaves environmental plunder in its wake: strip mining, abandoned quarries, logged forests. Hydroelectric plants that power aluminum processing machinery has literally changed the face of the planet and disrupted ecosystems forever. Harvesting of wood cuts the major support of the globe’s natural carbon cycle. Interestingly petroleum by-products are in literally almost every product we use today. We surround ourselves with chemicals in our homes and at the office everyday.  However, admitting there is a problem is the first step to recovery. Make no mistake there is no proposal out there for every one to chain themselves to the nearest trees. In order to change our behaviors and break our habits, new paths have to be uncovered that bring results with far less destruction to us and don’t obliterate our natural resources. Leveraging the great minds of the world should be central to redefining the way that things are made and how “technological food”, to quote a William McDonough Cradle to Cradle term, can be the raw material for products.

Think about your own personal health for a brief moment. As humans, we recharge through very simple means, sleep being one of the most regenerative healing tools of our bodies. Simply drinking more water can increase your own personal quality of life in a variety of ways. In what ways can you think of that we let the “earth” body rest and regenerate? What simple pieces feed the earth and inspire regenerative processes?  Sun and water and time to rest work on humans in the natural environment. This is simplistic and right there in front of us all. There is an environmentalist that states in his recent publication that if behaviors do not change we will be unable to be saved by our machines. Complex, heavily mechanical and computer driven responses to a natural world is not the long term solution to our global issues. There is no single overarching answer to undo what has been done over the last several decades.

Addressing environmental issues in the actual construction process is a relatively untouched body of carbon emission contribution, especially in the US. Unless you are a general contractor that self performs work, the construction process contribution to green house gas emissions lies largely in the supply chain of specialty contractors, 96% of a true general contractor’s corporate operations. How then does a general contractor work to address an area of environmental concern both ecologically and economically when they do not directly control the operations?  Is influence enough? I leave you a few simple thoughts until next time.  A body that is in motion remains in motion until that motion is influenced/disrupted. Wouldn’t it follow that a company on a treadmill will remain on the treadmill until influenced to change direction?

For you construction nerds who find materials and how things are made incredibly interesting I recommend this read that offer more information on global resources:   “It’s All for Sale” by James Ridgeway.

Kim Pexton is Director of Sustainable Construction for HITT Contracting Inc., dedicated to bringing the ECO back in eco-nomics; through relatable analogies and information for making informed, well balanced ecologic and economic business decisions.

Kim Pexton
Kim Pexton is Director of Sustainable Construction for HITT Contracting Inc., dedicated to bringing the ECO back in eco-nomics; through relatable analogies and information for making informed, well balanced ecologic and economic business decisions.
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3 thoughts on “Low-Carb Construction Matters

  1. Great article Kim. It is about time that everyone realizes the impact of building materials on the earth, our health and our economy.

  2. However, when you consider the environmental footprint of building design, construction, and operation, it is the building’s operations over its life span that accounts for up to 90% of the total footprint i.e., energy, water, and waste.

    Your article is another example where A/E/C veterans are shifting awareness from the durability and efficient operations of a building to the materials. Don’t offer too much credit for those rating systems as their product’s performance is still questionable. And this is exactly why I have concern with the USGBCs proposed LCA credit, or during discussions with USACE architects that only need to design a buildign to a 25-yr life.

    As a mfg of various construction products, we are faced with many dynamic environmental regulations, as well as industry and public demands such as GHG reporting, REACH, RoHS, CDP, WDP, and SEC carbon disclosure, among many others. A responsbile company takes-on these challenges, at a significant cost, to continue delivering products to the market, and the ones you need for construction. In most cases, there is a direct connection in the price of a product to it’s
    quality, durability, and its companies sustinability efforts. Therefore, when you as a GC or construction manager, value-engineer those products having a higher cost, remember, you are most likely increasing the environmental footprint of that project because of your decisions to choose less quality, less responsilbe products and companies.

    Are you aware of that reality?

    So, therefore, when GCs are consistently sending 100% of their C&D waste to recyling facilities, and when architects are consistently designing 100% of their projects for a century of excellence, and when engineers are consistently calculating zero water/ zero energy buidlings, then feel free to place pressure on material suppliers.

  3. Whoa whoa whoa…what if plastic products actually save more than three times
    the energy needed to make and use them…try documented cases of saving 233
    times? Not a misprint, two hundred and thirty-three times. See the McKinsey
    and Company study on this…http://www.americanchemistry.com/s_acc/bin.asp?
    CID=206&DID=9859&DOC=FILE.PDF .

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