Redefining Sustainability

My company is currently in the process of restoring more than 1,600 window sashes for a large historic project in Buffalo, N.Y. As I recently walked through our plant and saw the thousands of windows in various stages of repair, I reflected upon how we were repairing windows that are more than 135-years old. This made me think about the current state of the construction industry and what our expectations are for the life of a building structure and the components that make up that structure. During the past 10 years, there has been a great deal of talk about green buildings and sustainability, but how many of these “green” commercial or residential buildings are designed or constructed to last for centuries? When will the life cycle of the structure and the construction materials themselves become factors in the sustainability criteria? It seems to me that more effort is placed on whether a material is recyclable than whether it can perform over the long haul. It is time that the design community, manufacturers and construction processes begin to consider the life of the building if we are truly going to incorporate sustainability in our industry.

Back in 1993, the U.S. Green Building Council developed the LEED green building rating system as a way to guide building owners to be environmentally accountable and to use resources responsibly. The LEED system has had a profound effect upon the design community by motivating advancements in energy efficiency, use of recyclable materials, incorporation of natural daylight and reuse of water. The LEED program made the word “sustainability” a household term over the past ten years, but has it truly redefined sustainable design? I would submit that LEED has been most successful in motivating changes in how structures consume natural resources and how the structure can be recycled at the end of its useful life. Very little emphasis has been put on designing a structure and using component materials that will last for many generations.

I like the definition of sustainability from author and professor Geir B. Asheim. “Sustainability is defined as a requirement of our generation to manage the resource base such that the average quality of life that we ensure ourselves can potentially be shared by all future generations.” I would submit that true sustainability in the construction industry implies that we construct edifices that can be used for many generations. It does not mean that we build a structure that has to have its major components replaced every 20 years.

Take windows for example. The major window manufacturers have developed designs that require the replacement of the entire window once the insulated glass seal has failed. Although the window is made of materials that can be recycled, it isn’t designed for multi-generational, long-term use. Changes in the glazing details that would facilitate glass replacement could dramatically extend the lifespan of these products. Other manufacturers use inexpensive materials such as vinyl for major structural members that have spurious life expectancy. Ask any window manufacturer for the life expectancy of their products and they will refer to their 10 year product and 20 year glass warranties. Is it unreasonable to expect a window to last for more than 20 years? I don’t think so.

Other products such as appliances, finishes, roofing, HVAC, lighting, siding, etc. also have very limited life expectancies. Some promote lifetime warranties that are so burdened with legalese they are rendered useless. By limiting the warranty to the original purchaser, prorating the warranty every year, and limiting exposure, the warranty actually protects the manufacturer more than the purchaser. American manufacturers have become more concerned with cutting costs than building better products. If manufacturers made changes in designs and the base materials used in fabrication, they could dramatically improve the expected years of service. Although many of the changes in materials will increase prices, there is a market for more durable products.

It’s time that the construction industry begins to take the life cycle of our new structures more seriously. We need to make advances in the quality of our construction designs and materials for the industry to truly become driven by sustainability. We should view our work as a testament for future generations rather than a disposable structure that will eventually be long forgotten.

This blog post first appeared on Re-View’s Window Review Blog.

About Brooks Gentleman

Brooks Gentleman is an owner of Kansas City, Mo.-based Re-View, a restorer of historic wood, steel and bronze windows.

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