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For Sustainable Building Products and Materials, It Can’t be Business as Usual

A panel at the Metropolis Perspective: Sustainability symposium in Seattle attempted to answer the question, “What are the new building blocks of sustainability?”

Metropolis Perspective: Sustainability took place September 12 and 13 in Seattle. Photo courtesy Shadi Al; Seattle Pro Photography

“How much does your building weigh?” R. Buckminster Fuller once asked the architect Norman Foster. That chestnut crossed LMN Architects principal Scott Crawford’s mind on a recent project when he was evaluating the use of precast concrete beams versus composite fiberglass. Ninety-foot beams weighed 120 tons each in concrete versus a mere six tons in fiberglass. The weight difference, in turn, would impact the amount of material required for the foundation, a part of the building where there was no substitute for energy-intensive concrete.  

Despite the obvious energy savings, Crawford was stymied by a building code unfriendly to composites. “You have to fight to be able to use these things,” he told an audience of architects, designers, engineers, and contractors at the Seattle Public Library during the symposium Metropolis Perspective: Sustainability last week.

Crawford spoke on a panel titled “Material Strategies: What Are the New Building Blocks of Sustainability?,” where he was joined by NBBJ’s global sustainable practice leader, Margaret Montgomery, and the founding director of the Carbon Leadership Forum at the University of Washington, Kate Simonen. Representing manufacturers on the panel were Donald Agnelli, full line sales executive, Armstrong Ceilings, and Craig Casey, senior building science engineer, Lutron. 

Left to right: Avinash Rajagopal, editor in chief, Metropolis; Kate Simonen, founding director, University of Washington Carbon Leadership Forum; Scott Crawford, principal, LMN Architects; Donald Agnelli, full line sales executive, Armstrong Ceilings; Margaret Montgomery, global sustainable practice leader, NBBJ; and Craig Casey, senior building science engineer, Lutron. Photo courtesy Shadi Al, Seattle Pro Photography

In an era of doom and gloom about climate change, U.S. built-environment professionals do have something to celebrate: In December 2018, Architecture 2030 announced that the building sector has reduced its carbon emissions by 20.2 percent against 2005 levels even as the country has added some 30 billion square feet of building stock.

The bad news is that improvement still isn’t on track to meet the 50 percent reduction needed by 2030 in order for the building sector to do its part in keeping global warming below 1.5ºC.

“The reason in 10 years we have only been able to reduce 20 percent is because we are trying to squeeze a little bit more efficiency out of the way that we have always done things,” Crawford said. “We need a more radical shift not only in the building systems and materials that we are using, but in the ways we are approaching problems and trying to define what a solution looks like.”

For LMN, that shift means employing plug-ins for simulation software Revit to understand the energy implications of design decisions at the earliest stage. 

Another cutting-edge tool that may bend the trajectory for the buildings sector is the Embodied Carbon in Construction Calculator (EC3), an open-source tool under development by the University of Washington’s Carbon Leadership Forum with an expected release in November 2019. It contains a database of environmental product declarations that architects can factor into their decision-making process. But the data is provided by the manufacturers themselves and not necessarily consistent for comparative purposes. Carpet tiles, for example, are well accounted for in the database—other materials, not so much.

“It can be helpful for specification and procurement, but it’s not a miracle, just a facilitator,” cautions Simonen.

Still, every piece in the toolkit will help meet Montgomery’s mantra for the profession: “You can’t have great design without hyper-performance.”

Metropolis Perspective: Sustainability was held at the Seattle Public Library on September 13. Armstrong Ceilings, LightArt, Lutron, and Mohawk were platinum sponsors of the event. RSVP for our next Sustainability symposium in Los Angeles here.

You may also enjoy “The Paris Researcher Pioneering a New Way to Recycle Building Materials.”

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