The building sector lags behind other industries when it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This is unsustainable, and the industry is under pressure from governments and citizens to change. Architects are increasingly demanding sustainable building products. Building product manufacturers need to determine their current carbon emissions and start to reduce their carbon footprint. This article will discuss how manufacturers can start to assess their carbon footprint and how to shift to sustainable processes and products.

The carbon footprint of building product manufacturers has a range of inputs, including the energy used for production processes, the supply chain, modes of delivery, the materials used, and any associated toxic hazards, as well as eventual demolition or disposal. Demolition can have severe negative environmental impacts as well as expose workers to dangerous waste. Stakeholders throughout the construction industry are gradually recognizing the need to shift to sustainable design and products and are working to implement change.

Manufacturers should meet the growing demand for sustainable building products. This may involve embracing circular business models that use existing materials or products as inputs and diversifying into resale, repair, or upgrade. Governments are increasingly providing incentives to reduce carbon emissions. The long-term benefits of shifting to sustainability will be profound.

Measuring Sustainability

Sustainable design takes into account the economic, social, and environmental impact of the product through its full life cycle. It aims to reduce emissions and the consumption of resources. This can be achieved through increased reuse or recycling of materials, alternative sourcing, the means of powering processes, and operating locally.

Building product manufacturers aiming to reduce carbon emissions need to determine where they currently are so they have a baseline from which to work. This begins by measuring carbon emissions through the manufacturing process and the supply chain. There are tools available to make this process easier such as the platform from aPriori. This is a platform for manufacturers to optimize for manufacturability and sustainability. The platform uses a life cycle inventory database and CAD analysis to help manufacturers determine the main contributors to carbon emissions and focus on how to make changes.

The Greenhouse Gas Protocol provides tools, guidance, and training for businesses, industry associations, and governments to manage carbon emissions including greenhouse gas accounting standards and calculation tools.

Designing Sustainable Building Products

Building product manufacturers looking to reduce carbon emissions should consider alternative materials, processes, designs, and material sources. Since the supply chain and transport of goods contribute to carbon emissions, locally sourced building materials are more sustainable. 

Alternative materials should be explored and analyzed for their potential benefits. Consider using recycled materials and implementing a recycling process. Large amounts of construction materials are not able to be recycled at local facilities. Determine how a building product can eventually be recycled when it reaches the end of its useful life. If recycled materials are not appropriate, explore sustainable materials such as sustainably harvested bamboo or concrete alternatives. Cork can be harvested sustainably as no trees need to be cut down in the production of cork as it is made from hand-peeling bark. Biocomposites are derived from plant, animal, fungal, or bacterial sources and can be used for construction applications.

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Longer-lasting materials reduce the need for replacement. Planned obsolescence forces consumers to keep purchasing, adds to waste, but increases sales. In the 1920s lightbulb manufacturers colluded and limited the lifespan of lightbulbs, planning the obsolescence of the lightbulbs to sell more. Products are deliberately designed poorly as manufacturers of consumer products have little incentive to design for durability. Building product manufacturers however are in a different position. The longevity of building products can be a major selling point, and the repairability and durability of buildings and their components are important to the design community specifying building products.

Manufacturing facilities can be optimized to reduce carbon emissions. How production processes are powered contributes to the carbon footprint of the products they produce. Renewable energy is becoming more abundant and available. Different types of renewable energy are viable in different locations and markets, so the best path forward for power depends on the location of manufacturing facilities.

Avoid Greenwashing with Certifications

Greenwashing is the mislabeling of products as sustainable when they are not. Products labeled as “eco-friendly” or “natural” without backing this up with research and data are greenwashed. Sustainability certification from reputable environmental organizations fights greenwashing. For example, the Forest Stewardship Council assesses forest management impacts and issues sustainability certification ensuring the relative eco-friendliness of products. Energy Star certified products must be 10% more energy efficient throughout their lifetime to receive certification. The US uses the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system to measure the sustainability of buildings. Since LEED is for buildings and not components or products, building product manufacturers cannot produce products that are LEED certified, but they can produce products that can contribute to the LEED rating a building receives.

Manufacturers of environmentally friendly building products can have their products promoted on CADdetails’ SpecGREEN to reach over 645,000 registered design professionals. Contact CADdetails now to inform more architects and designers about the environmental and construction benefits of your products.

In the meantime you can complete the following form to download a PDF about how the AEC community is adapting to sustainable trends in 2023 and gain insights into the AEC industry's approach to sustainability, as well as identifying areas where their products can align with these trends.

cover image Ⓒ by Iwona Castiello d'Antonio on Unsplash