Sustainability is often simply thought of as environmental protection, but it is a much broader concept. In 1987, the United Nations’ Brundtland Commission defined sustainable development in their report, “Our Common Future,” as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
The report identifies three pillars of sustainable development:
- Economic growth
- Environmental protection
- Social equality
Development in each of three pillars can be negatively correlated with each other, such that achieving sustainability in one area could have a negative impact on the others, if not considered together.
Because economic growth has been prioritized by countries over many years, this has resulted in, for example, non-sustainable resource extraction, pollution, deforestation, biodiversity loss, and uncontrolled greenhouse gas emissions across the globe. The Brundtland Commission recognized this unsustainable situation over 30 years ago, as well as the connection between poverty, international inequality, and global environmental problems.
The Brundtland sustainability definition is the source of the often-discussed triple bottom line of people, planet, profit.
In her book, Doughnut Economics, Kate Raworth creates a pictogram illustrating a sustainable “regenerative and distributive economy” as the ring of a doughnut (the piece you’d eat). The inner ring of the doughnut (the hole) defines the social foundation below which we should strive not to operate. This is the “social equality” pillar in the Brundtland definition, which identifies the need to provide people with access to housing, energy, water, food, heath, education, income and work, and provide societies with peace and justice, social equity, gender equality and political voice.
Outside of the doughnut is the upper limit of economic growth, operating above which irreversibly causes damage to Earth’s ecological systems. The doughnut itself is what she calls “the safe and just space for humanity” to operate and grow. This model recognizes that our expectations of economic growth need to be revised to stay within the doughnut.
These rather simple sustainability definitions have profound ramifications not only for how countries manage economic growth and public policies, but also when considering sustainable growth for the construction sector, and for the glazing industry.
Building construction and supply chain operations
To be sustainable – by definition – installation and supply chain operations must:
- Use no more natural resources than can be renewed;
- Have no impact on the surrounding eco-systems;
- Emit no greenhouse gases; and
- Do so with economic viability, supporting social equity.
This is a tough challenge, especially for energy-intensive glass and aluminum. We have until 2050 to innovate to achieve net-zero carbon, but we must start along the path now.
Innovation in building product design
To achieve sustainable manufacturing operations and support sustainable buildings, a different approach to designing products is needed. Until now, sustainability (other than creating energy-efficient building products) has not been a driver in building product design, which typically focuses on the four pillars of cost, performance/function, legal/regulatory and aesthetics.
Richard Braunstein, vice president of research and development at Oldcastle BuildingEnvelope®, asserts, “By adding sustainability as a critical fifth pillar, we add a framework to resolve critical design problems that have until recently been overlooked and, in some cases, put us in conflict with our natural environment.”
The Design for Environment (DfE) process includes four methods that will need to be used to create building products that are sustainable:
- Design for disassembly, which aims to extend the useful life of an assembly and maximize its value at the end of life.
- Design for remanufacturing, which captures the concept of re-use and involves creating products that can be taken back by the manufacturer, at which point the product is renewed to an “as new” or improved state.
- Design for recycling, which aims to get the most value out of an assembly at the end of life, ensuring reuse of base materials and inclusion of recycled material in the design.
- Dematerialization, which aims to reduce the amount of material and resources used in the product, but this cannot come at the expense of service life or performance.
Mic Patterson of the Façade Tectonics Institute has asserted many times that curtainwall system designs fail to anticipate the need for future maintenance, repair and retrofit to prevent obsolescence. For example, by putting the chicken head (containing the weather seal) in an inaccessible position, unitized curtainwalls are designed as systems that are extremely difficult to effectively maintain. They perform until they don’t, and when they don’t, the whole system needs to be taken down and replaced.
A fresh look at fenestration designs based on DfE could yield some tremendously important innovations and a step change in façade sustainability.
Adopting DfE for buildings
Just like for a building’s components, buildings themselves should also use the DfE framework to help them meet the Brundtland definition of sustainable. In addition to optimizing operational energy performance and using low-carbon materials, designs should minimize materials used; be easy to maintain, upgrade and adapt; and have plans for end-of-life disassembly and recycling.
Service life is king
Installed building envelope products must also deliver long-lasting energy and human comfort performance. Extending building lifetime is critical in reducing the embodied carbon expended in the production and replacement of buildings and their components. Building product service life is key and should be top of mind when considering design choices that may inadvertently trade off component lifetime with operational energy efficiency. With the move to electrification of heating systems and the greening of electrical grids, the influence of embodied carbon in envelope products and extending their replacement cycle will become even more important than their impact on operational energy use.
The elephant in the room
Taking a step back, one of the most important questions that needs to be asked is whether a building needs to be constructed at all.
David Ness, University of South Australia, argues that “growth in the built environment remains largely unquestioned” and is a “blind spot.” Using data from the 2019 Global Status Report for Buildings and Construction, he predicts that gains from improvements in material and building efficiency will not keep track with the scale of construction (and associated embodied and operational carbon emissions) that is expected over the next 40 years. Ness asserts that we must “turn our attention to previously overlooked options, such as “building nothing” or “building less,”” by “challenging the root cause of the need, exploring alternative approaches to meet desired outcomes, and maximizing the use of existing assets.” This requires a change in our understanding of “sufficiency.” In other words: how big is big enough?
In what seems to be a first for embodied carbon considerations, urban planners in London recently denied planning permission for a proposed new tower called the “Tulip.” They cited (amongst other reasons) the unsustainability of using “vast quantities of reinforced concrete and a lift shaft to transport visitors to as high a level as possible to enjoy a view.”
With the carbon invested in existing buildings already spent, it is much more sustainable to improve and upgrade existing buildings than to expend more carbon in creating new ones.
Achieving no environmental impact from construction is a tall order, with much innovation and changes in how we approach design and construction needed. We must operate within Raworth’s doughnut’s safe and just space to develop sustainably, which also means asking hard questions about whether new construction is necessary. All this is needed for a future on our planet in which our children and future generations can thrive. There are several decades between now and 2050 to track to net-zero emissions and do so equitably, but we must start making progress now.
Helen Sanders, PhD, is a general manager at Technoform North America. She has more than 25 years of experience in glass technology, market development and manufacturing, especially in functional coatings, insulating glass and thermal zone technology for fenestration. Sanders has a doctorate in surface science from the University of Cambridge, England.
She is an active member of many industry organizations and in codes and standards development. She is the founding president of the Façade Tectonics Institute (FTI) and is currently the immediate past president. She is a board member of the National Fenestration Rating Council (NFRC) and of the Fenestration and Glazing Industry Alliance (FGIA), co-chair of its Glass Products Council, and of its Innovation and Sustainability Steering Committees; and a technical liaison on the National Glass Association’s (NGA’s) Fabricating Committee. Sanders can be reached at email@example.com.