If you were to ask three different people to define the term “sustainability,” there’s a good chance you would receive three different answers.
The Cambridge Dictionary defines sustainability as “the quality of being able to continue over a period of time, or the quality of causing little or no damage to the environment and therefore able to continue for a long time.”
Both of these descriptions match the sentiments expressed by the architects, builders, and manufacturers who design and construct buildings and building materials.
A new study conducted by the Farnsworth Group on behalf of BASF took a deep dive into sustainability in the construction industry, asking respondents what sustainability means to them, how they implement it in their operations, the challenges they face, and what they expect from their suppliers.
Who took the survey?
Survey respondents consisted of 12 manufacturers, 11 architects and 6 builders/remodelers from across the United States. Architects and builders had to have at least 3 years of experience in their trade and responsibility for products specified, purchased, or installed in their projects.
Each interview lasted about 45 minutes. Respondents were asked when sustainability was important to them, how and where sustainability is applied or implemented, what trends are being seen regarding sustainability, and what is desired or expected from suppliers going forward.
Where is sustainability important?
Most of the architects interviewed felt that sustainability is ingrained in how they design buildings and is part of the philosophy of architecture. Therefore, most did not have specific sustainability goals.
This stems from their view that good architecture is inherently sustainable: durability and longevity are both key attributes of good architecture, as the longer a building lasts, the more sustainable it is.
“The durability and longevity of products and the architecture they go into directly tie to waste and reducing waste,” says Matt Cloward, Industry Marketing Manager at BASF. “When an architect is designing a building, reducing the amount of material that has to be replaced over time is a strong contributor to the overall sustainability of the building.”
I think green architecture is a completely common-sense approach to doing architecture.
Another important consideration for architects when designing is the building’s energy efficiency and the incorporation of green design elements. Buildings account for nearly 40% of U.S. energy use and over two-thirds of all non-industrial secondary materials generated in the U.S., so it’s in the best interest of all stakeholders to minimize energy use wherever possible.
Some product and design choices for increasing energy efficiency include building orientation, passive solar design, insulation choices, and roofing design.
Builders and remodelers look at sustainability a bit differently. Like architects, durability is a high priority for them, but they also place a focus on recycling and repurposing materials to cut down on costs. They will also work to repair, renew, and restore existing items, such as metals and concrete, to avoid ripping out and replacing materials.
It’s important to note that unlike many consumer goods that are used once or a few times and thrown away, materials used in construction are designed to not break down or weaken.
“There's a lot of talk about recyclability and compostability in construction, but for the majority of the products that are going into a building, the goal for them is to not break down over time, which can appear to go against the consumer mindset of sustainability,” says Cloward.
What about manufacturers?
Sustainability may be even more crucial for manufacturers, as they have a unique responsibility to design, develop and provide the so-called building blocks that go into a construction project. Customers and consumers are increasingly demanding sustainable solutions such as reduced embodied carbon and emissions and more sustainable waste handling.
The study found that sustainability is infiltrating all aspects of decision-making at every level in manufacturing companies, and an increasing number of customers are requesting to see their sustainability strategies.
“Our customers are looking for things like lifecycle analysis on carbon reduction and moving toward a net zero carbon footprint, and manufacturers are receiving more pressure from consumers to provide transparency,” says Cloward. “That falls to us, as raw material suppliers, to be able to provide transparency and insight into those material building blocks.”
To go net zero is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions or ensure that any ongoing emissions are balanced by removals. In addition to designing more energy efficient buildings, this can be achieved by producing onsite carbon-free renewable energy or using high-quality carbon offsets to counterbalance the annual carbon emissions from building materials and operations.
As sustainability and durability become an increasing area of focus for manufacturers and their customers, new innovations are being developed for construction materials and processes.
“A continuing trend that we see going forward is a focus on low VOC products, particularly in indoor applications such as carpets and flooring, paints, adhesives and caulks and sealants,” says Cloward. “We are pushing the industry to be APEO-free in many of our categories, and that'll be a focus in 2022.”
Survey respondents also felt that government regulations will be a major driver of change, as right now many customers aren’t willing to pay a premium price for sustainable solutions. Certification like LEED and cradle-to-cradle are gaining traction around the world and are a driving force behind the implementation of sustainable solutions.
At the end of the day it's accomplishing what you're trying to do as a builder. You're trying to get the best you can and get the most lifespan out of the materials that you're using.
Carbon capture technology is another initiative that’s gaining interest, but its high price presents a barrier for customers, who often cite high prices as being a hindrance to adopting newer, more sustainable products in their operations.
Survey respondents are looking for suppliers to be transparent about the supply chain, raw materials, and the manufacturing process and expect them to remove red-listed materials from their portfolio.
These actions will improve partnerships and demonstrate that suppliers have the same commitment to sustainability that their customers do.
Caulks and sealants, for example, must offer exceptional durability and longevity to withstand mold, mildew, rot and water. While performance is the most important deciding factor for these products, manufacturers like BASF add value with quality APEO-free offerings with low VOC content.
Construction professionals also aim to use more sustainable flooring solutions, some of which may use recycled materials or offer improved durability to reduce maintenance needs. BASF’s ACRONAL line of binders can help to bring sustainability and performance to these applications.
Roofing and insulation are major contributors to a building’s energy efficiency, and quality materials can make a big difference in energy costs over time. Using high-performance insulation or reflective roof coatings can dramatically improve energy efficiency in these areas.
“We're trying to build products that will last longer to keep buildings safe, airtight and watertight for longer periods of time,” says Cloward. “There's an extremely strong element of sustainability in making sure that the products we use don't break down and degrade to make sure that those original systems are built with energy efficiency in mind, and that the building itself is able to maintain that level of efficiency and sustainability.”
Learn more about BASF’s commitment to sustainability