The increasing focus on carbon as an accepted metric by which sustainability is measured will drive building product manufacturers to new levels of technical innovation and transparency, expand our product choices, and widen the basis of information available to make credible selections. In fact, earlier this year, the 2030 Challenge for Products established the first carbon-metric goals for the industry, targeting a 50% reduction in the carbon footprint of products by the year 2030.

One of the manufacturers on the leading edge of low-carbon technology and transparency is CalStar Products, a Silicon Valley-based masonry product company with manufacturing facilities in Wisconsin. Using proprietary technology, ingredients, and processes, CalStar manufactures bricks and pavers using a fraction of the energy typically required, reducing carbon emissions by 85% for both products and embodied energy levels by 85% for its bricks and 50% for its pavers.

“When you think about a common clay brick, you dig clay out of the ground and put it in a kiln and fire it at about 2,000 degrees [Fahrenheit] for three or four days,” says Julie Rapoport, Ph.D., CalStar’s vice president of product management. That’s why masonry products traditionally are tagged with such large carbon footprints. From extracting raw materials to firing the kilns with fossil fuels, the production of masonry products consumes serious BTUs and emits high levels of carbon dioxide from start to finish.

“We don’t use clay, and we don’t fire kilns,” Rapoport says, “so we don’t have that same carbon dioxide and energy associated with our brick.”

Instead of clay or Portland cement, the company uses a specific fly ash as a binder, diverting the coal-fired power plant by-product from the landfill and encapsulating it safely into the bricks and pavers, a practice the EPA states is safe and environmentally beneficial. CalStar’s products contain 40% post-industrial recycled content.

But it’s the company’s curing process that’s truly revolutionary. “Our bricks and pavers are cured overnight in a high-humidity environment at 200 degrees [Fahrenheit],” Rapoport says, “so the energy consumed is far less than traditional kilns. And the only emission from our plant is water vapor. We’re already exceeding the 2030 Challenge goals now.”

CalStar reports the embodied energy of one of its bricks at only 1,000 BTUs. By contrast, the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s BEES database, the only available third-party data, lists the embodied energy contained in a typical fired clay brick at 8,800 BTUs. The Brick Industry Association, a clay brick manufacturer trade group that is pushing back against fly-ash based brick, cites a new informal survey by the National Brick Research Center that puts the embodied energy of clay bricks between 2,100 and 3,150 BTUs per brick.

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