HildaWeges, courtesy Adobe

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.

The Netherlands, for example, now requires the submission of an embodied greenhouse gas emissions estimate for all permit applications of new office and residential buildings over 100 square meters—or approximately 1076 square feet—in size. Notably, according to a Forestry Innovation Investment report, a “building’s total environmental profile (of which embodied carbon is one element) will have an upper limit, based on standardized weighting factors,” based on a national Environmental Product Declaration (EPD) database. Several other countries also maintain national EPD databases, suggesting a future multinational effort toward monitoring resource consumption.

Amanda Hong, an EPA sustainable materials management expert continued this discussion in describing the vast amount of materials that comprise construction and demolition (C&D) waste and the need for need for design for disassembly (DfD) practices to combat this issue. In 2015 alone, the United States' C&D waste totaled 548 million tons—more than two times the amount of municipal solid waste generated in the same time frame. More than 90 percent of C&D debris comes from the demolition of structures; the rest is from construction. In our discussion, the Materials Matter audience agreed that DfD methods have been conspicuously absent from most green building programs, including LEED (LEED applicants typically submit DfD practices for innovation credits).

Another fundamental issue is material toxicity. In their Materials Matter presentation, local sustainable design consultants Steve Brauneis and Lauren McNeil outlined the fundamental challenge of determining the human and environmental health of materials in the U.S. Of the 84,000 chemicals registered in this country, only 200 have been tested for potential threats to human health, and a mere five are now partly regulated. Emphasizing the political and economic hurdles to controlling poisonous substances in the U.S., McNeil reminded the audience that there is still no comprehensive ban on asbestos—despite the material’s demonstrated, potent carcinogenicity. Most environmental protection declarations are used today as transparency mechanisms, merely declaring the contents of a product; in the future, they should serve as tools for restricting the use of harmful materials.

One of the most significant ideas discussed at the Materials Matter event was the establishment of a true cost for making evaluations. We considered the concept of negative externality, defined by Investopedia as a “negative consequence of an economic activity experienced by unrelated third parties.” The environment is one such third party, and traditional economics does not include the real costs of human activity on the natural world. McNeil, who has a background in environmental economics, shared the story of biologist T. M. Das’ attempts to establish a true cost. In 1979, Das, a professor at the University of Calcutta, endeavored to estimate the actual value of a tree—perhaps the first venture to do so. He approximated a tree’s value over its lifecycle at a staggering $1,776,000, based on its provision of clean air, water, fertile soil, erosion control, and shelter for animals. Surprisingly, Das regarded the physical biomass of the tree—lumber or fruit for example—as only 0.3 percent of its actual worth. Although Das’ figures have been called into question, his effort demonstrates the fundamental importance of developing a reliable method of establishing a true environmental cost—the ultimate, and thus far missing, tool for making informed environmental decisions.

“That climate change demands expertise, and faith in it, at precisely the moment when public confidence in expertise is collapsing is one of its many paradoxes,” Wallace-Wells writes. Now, more than ever before, we need expertise to illuminate the path toward holistic environmental responsibility. Without a clear strategy forward, our “do the best you can” approach will only leave us fumbling around in the dark.

Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website twice a month. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of The American Institute of Architects.