Green is the new black in the construction industry. Driven by consumer demand and government mandate, the percent of new buildings in the U.S. that incorporate green features reached the one-third mark in 2015, and is expected to continue to grow into the foreseeable future. Globally, green construction is, if anything, showing an even higher growth curve.
There’s good logic behind all the excitement. In the minds of many managers and construction professionals, “sustainability” is no longer the hyped buzzword of five years ago, but a smart strategy to maximize the value, beauty and functionality of commercial and residential structures alike.
Green building comprises a number of factors, including design, mechanical systems and occupant education. However, the success of all of these hinges on the proper selection and deployment of materials. Defining a sustainable material can be a challenging task because sustainability has so many variables. A material that can be classed as “green” in one application may fail to do so in another. For instance, local stone can be described as sustainable because it minimizes the energy used in distribution, but shipping the very same stone across the world erases this benefit.
Perhaps the easiest way to define sustainable building materials is in terms of the benefits they confer on the project in question. When assessing a material for its sustainability value, keep the following benefits in mind. These will help you judge how appropriate the material is for your needs.
Energy efficiency – Most buildings will consume far more resources in their operation then they will in construction. Materials that help keep energy use to a minimum while maintaining a high level of comfort, functionality and aesthetic appeal are valuable additions to a green building project. For example, a highly insulating material that doubles as an air sealant will greatly reduce heating and cooling costs, and pay for itself many times over the life of the structure.
Low-embodied energy – In addition to the material’s performance, consider the amount of energy it takes to produce and deliver to the job site. If you can, research this aspect of any material you are sourcing. For example, did you know that new steel uses 3.5 times more energy to produce than recycled steel?
Waste reduction – The more we can do with less, the better for the environment. Choosing materials that use resources economically makes for a more sustainable structure. Perforated metal is a good example. A perforated sheet of metal uses significantly less material while maintaining — and often improving — its functionality.
Durability – A material’s energy footprint decreases the longer it is in service. Durable materials also save significant maintenance and replacement costs. When selecting materials, look not only for the innate life expectancy of the material, but for quality. Defects or shoddy manufacturing will decrease a material’s useful life and thus increase its environmental impact and associated costs.
Non-toxic – Remember that health is an important aspect of sustainability. That goes not just for the health of the planet, but for a building’s occupants as well. Materials that support good indoor air quality (for example, non-VOC paint, or natural timber or metal in lieu of materials that contain formaldehyde or other noxious chemicals) can definitely be considered sustainable choices.
Responsible disposal – One of the basic tenets of sustainability is to take the entire life cycle of a structure into account. No building material lasts forever. Selecting materials that can be responsibly recycled (such as aluminum) or returned to the earth with minimal harm (such as natural wood or clay) will help keep your building green.
Ideally, the materials selected for your green building project will work in harmony with each other and with the mechanical, human and design elements of the structure to reduce its environmental footprint while fully meeting the needs of the occupants. In many cases, this can be accomplished with little to no additional cost. In fact, green building features have been shown repeatedly to increase ROI as well as occupant health and enjoyment. Why choose otherwise?