The construction industry is responsible for the highest consumption of resources; from raw materials to energy; it produces the highest quantity of waste of all industries [1, 2]. Due to the increasing scarcity of resources and the subsequent environmental burden, focus has been placed on ensuring construction materials are kept in closed, environmentally sustainable (and consistent) cycles. This applies to both new constructions as well as refurbishments. Indeed, the rise of easy to dismantle prefabs, urban mining and material banks are a sign of a changing mentality within the industry and are viable means to managing the anthropogenic waste of raw materials – the latter positioning buildings as a new form of material storage. Dynamically and flexibly designed buildings can be incorporated into a circular economy – where materials in buildings sustain their value. This will lead to waste reduction and the use of fewer virgin resources.
The key considerations which arise are: how we know and validate what can still be used (not all materials are reusable), to what extent (as complement elements, in parts or as single components) and what guidelines do we use to judge the efficacy and viability of reuse (environmental product declarations, product labels, or simulation tools). In addition, when is the optimal time? (on-site, planning phase or post construction). All of these important questions need to be answered in order to create a viable and pragmatic circular economy in our industry and work towards the goal to reduce the carbon footprint of buildings.
Across the globe, public and private agencies have already started collecting data on material use in buildings. Among the pioneers was Statsbygg, the Norwegian government’s building commissioner, property manager and developer. The data of almost 2,300 public buildings, in Norway and abroad, has been collected, stored and utilized in their facility management. As outlined in their mandate, the company has clear objectives in sight, “in addition to providing appropriate and functional spaces for the public sector, we also realise current political objectives regarding architecture, planning, preservation of heritage sites and environmental issues.”  This approach is unique in that it leverages practical knowledge of how well a building runs in order to establish new standards and avoid making the same mistakes in the future. This comparative strategy of design vs build data will eventually lead to better performing buildings.
Numerous material databases and tools have emerged in recent years, providing guides on sustainable products and systems. From the German ‘DGNB Navigator’ to ‘Better Materials’ by the GBCI and the ‘Green Guide’ from BRE, specifying ‘sustainable’ materials has become a mainstay in construction.
The Cradle-to-Cradle design principle from EPEA (part of Drees & Sommer) aims to ensure that the selected healthy materials used in the buildings are easy to disassemble, can be separated according to type and are fully regenerative. This turns buildings into durable and valuable raw material banks that release the resources again after the end of their service life, thus contributing to the value-retention of the real estate.
Madaster, founded by the Dutch architect Thomas Rau, is another key example of circular economy ideals put into practice. Madaster is an online registry for materials and products. On this digital platform, buildings are registered, including the materials and products that were used in their construction. Documenting, registering and archiving of the materials applied in buildings and construction objects makes their reuse easier, encourages smart design and eliminates waste. By doing so, each building becomes a reservoir of materials.
Both EPEA and Madaster utilize material passports that contain information about the quality, origins and location of materials and products used in the construction of buildings and other construction objects, providing insight into the material, circular and financial (salvage) value of these projects .
Historically, the construction industry has, of course, used data in every phase of a projects lifespan: early drawings with millimeter accurate scaled build sizes, material and product databases, performance values data, test results, calculations and warrantees. Admittedly, most paper records ended up stored in boxes in a dark and seldom visited room. It seems the modern digital databases have, in most cases, followed suit and end up stored in the recesses of the offices computer folders; nothing much has changed, except the demand for more accurate data at any given time. While BIM has gone some way in providing a solution, it is not what it could or should be – a continuous data flow across all stakeholders – from the material manufacturers to the end-consumer. Russell Cole, Director and Leader of Facades UK at Arup gave a thought-provoking presentation focused on these ideas, “Riding the data wave to deliver the golden thread and sustainable targets”. For him, making information on products, processes and the project readily accessible to project stakeholders is of paramount importance.
Supporting architects and consulting engineers during the design phases, Saint-Gobain provides product related data through its freely accessible and easy to use glass specification tool CalumenLive . The platform provides data on the spectral, energy, thermal and acoustic performances of glass. With the next update users will also be able to determine carbon footprint figures based on verified EPDs included in the tool. For more in-depth information or detailed calculations, please get in contact with our specification team.  The support team can present recommendations on the right glass composition for your project, backed by technical data and also provide physico realistic renderings using the Saint-Gobain GlassPro platform. GlassPro is an interactive software which simulates a realistic image of different glazing products on facades of buildings. The visualization can be done under different angles, various lighting conditions (overcast or sunny), several interior design settings (with or without white/grey blinds), and urban or rural environments. This cutting-edge technology is the fruit of 10 years of thorough research and continuous improvement of physics-oriented 3D modelling, with real glass samples as a starting point to render the physical characteristics of coated glass products. The result is accurate predictive imaging and daylight simulation matching the real world.
More issues arise between the tender to the construction phase of a project. Concepts and designs are taken, changed and ‘improved’ in the name of efficiency, savings and pragmatism; often, all efforts to ensure a final goal: to keep the delivery date of a project. In principle, there is nothing wrong with this. However, it is these redesigns and changes that make tracking and collecting product and project data complicated and time-consuming. Coming back to Russell Cole’s presentation, would it not be more efficient to provide data WITH the product?
The current use of attached delivery papers and even NFC tags are subject to their own plights – lost or made dirty in the chaos of construction sites or even removed with product cleaning, these ‘old-school’ methods are just inefficient in the age of digitalization and BIG data. The resulting ‘post processing’ and gathering of all project data by sheer manpower and the comparative analysis of the design vs build data off-site is not only time and budget-consuming, but subject to human error.
With iWin®, Saint-Gobain now offers a digital service that enables its clients and their customers the ability to track the glazing units before delivery, on the construction site, after installation, and during its usage. Each insulating glass unit is equipped with a RFID transponder with a unique identification number (ID) that can be read with commercial RFID readers. This ID is stored in a database where clients can retrieve information and data about the product (for example glass build-up or coating) and order and shipping details. iWin® becomes the link between the digital (the data) and its analog counterpart (the product) – a product-integrated, digital delivery bill.
The database can be accessed via a web browser, an app or directly via an API, so that the information is accessible from anywhere, at any time. Customer have access to a detailed overview of each project and the status of their corresponding orders. Clients are also able to edit information themselves: technical details of the frame and façade, installation manuals and plans, reducing the amount of paper on construction sites. In addition, the targeted upload of product data supplied by iWin®. The database can be accessed via a web browser, an app or directly via an API, so that the information is accessible from anywhere, at any time. Customer have access to a detailed overview of each project and the status of their corresponding orders. Clients are also able to edit information themselves: technical details of the frame and façade, installation manuals and plans, reducing the amount of paper on construction sites. In addition, the targeted upload of product data supplied by iWin®.
Glass with the ability to store and access data and a global database linked to glass units is the missing piece of the puzzle towards the digitalization of the construction industry. With iWin®, it is possible, for the first time, to clearly identify building components now and for years to come – a digital footprint that makes documentation accessible, accurate and efficient for all involved. This digital anchor allows us to track an analogue product during its entire life cycle and most importantly access its data – A bridge between the digital and real world.
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This article was originally published in IGS Magazines Winter 2021 Issue: Read the full Magazine here for more thought-leadership from those spearheading the industry
Educated as an architect and urban planner at the RWTH Aachen University in Germany, Andreas Bittis was editor for ARCH+ and a freelance journalist for various architectural magazines on and offline. Consequently he worked in several architectural practices; Rhinescheme (Beijing) ingenhoven architects, (Dusseldorf, Sydney, Singapore) and Eller + Eller Architekten (Dusseldorf, Berlin, Moscow) to name a few, as project manager in different domains. With this background he joined Saint-Gobain Building Glass in 2012 as Architectural Specification Manager working not only on advising architects and façade consultants but also on topics like Sustainability and BIM. In 2015 he joined the German marketing team as Product Manager for all coated glass and Market Manager for the glass façade projects. Most recently, Andreas joined the Business Unit Façade as Market Manager in Paris