Bridging the Sustainable Materials Knowledge Gap

In the Feb. 16 New York Times op-ed “Time to Panic,” journalist David Wallace-Wells declares, “It is OK, finally, to freak out” about our impending environmental catastrophe. Based on a thorough three-year review of climate science conducted in preparation for his newly released book, The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming (Tim Duggan Books, 2019), Wallace-Wells contends, “I know the science is true, I know the threat is all-encompassing, and I know its effects, should emissions continue unabated, will be terrifying.”

Given that buildings consume nearly half of all resources, architects should recognize their contributing role in shaping the present and future climate. As building operations have become more efficient, the focus has shifted to materials—particularly those employed for new construction. So, has the green building movement prepared the architectural community for the thorny material decisions necessary to improve our future environmental circumstances?

Unfortunately, no. Despite measurable advances made regarding ecological awareness, the growth of sustainability programs, and the increased adoption of quantitative tools, we have only just begun to comprehend the environmental impacts of materials. In fact, the day-to-day material decisions made by the design and construction community are guesses at best. As a result, the standard recommendation is to “do the best you can”—and that advice is no longer adequate.

The AIA Materials Matter initiative aims to confront this knowledge gap head-on. The traveling lecture series with material experts hosted by AIA components around the country recently came to Denver, where I participated in the first session, “Healthy Planet: Materials + the Environment.” During the presentations and ensuing conversations, a number of priority issues emerged regarding the next steps in sustainable material practices.

On the subject of material environmental performance, a prime concern is embodied carbon. Tim Rehder, a senior environmental scientist for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), discussed the significance of embodied carbon in materials, noting that 70 billion tons of materials are extracted annually, enough to fill a coal train of sufficient length to encircle the Earth 225 times at the equator. While LEED and other green programs offer material credits for life cycle impact reduction, more must be done to reduce this immense quantity of resources.

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