Editorial: Your products are the Devil
In the coming world of embodied carbon, the commerical glass industry will face some stiff challenges.
August 31, 2023 By Patrick Flannery
The Architect’s Newspaper was kind enough to invite me and our brand manager, Leslie Osborne, to their recent Facades Plus conference in Toronto. Their CEO, Diana Darling, was a gracious host and the event was well-run and full of excellent people, exhibitors and information. I highly recommend it and nothing below should be interpreted as a criticism.
The education program was ably hosted by Anthony Fieldman of Dialog. The topics included facade construction and delivery, thermal breaking, retrofit concepts and advances in architectural materials. But really there was only one topic: the devastation to the planet caused by human carbon dioxide emissions and the urgent, nay, desperate need to immediately eliminate this scourge.
I bring you this warning from my time in a room with some high-profile architects and building engineers: glass and aluminum construction is now considered by top designers to be a terrible, almost immoral, crime against the environment. To the extent they have influence with government officials (a lot, I suspect), they will guide our future incentive structures toward minimizing if not eliminating the use of these fundamental building materials.
Yes, we’ve heard it all before. I’m just reporting what I heard in the room from guest after guest in session after session. Sustainable building was not just a concern or a priority to the speakers on stage, it was something more akin to a religion. Embodied carbon is the factor that makes glass and metal the new Satan of this religion. Architects remain concerned about the poor insulating properties of these materials that lead to buildings using more energy. They still bemoan our obsession with “glass boxes” and call for lower window-to-wall ratios. Our industry has had some success fending off these attacks with higher-performing products and pointing out that, in areas with non-emitting energy sources (hydroelectric, nuclear, wind, solar), buildings with electrical heating don’t contribute much to carbon dioxide emissions. But now the carbon dioxide emitted in the manufacture, shipping, installation, maintenance and disposal of building products has entered the collective consciousness. Pound-for-pound, glass, steel and aluminum have the highest embodied carbon among common building materials, exceeding even concrete. Facades Plus speakers showed slides of the kinds of buildings you will see in our Great Glazing pages as regrettable examples of the ongoing mistakes our construction industry is making.
Policy-makers are listening. Natural Resources Canada has expressed its goal to restrict the embodied carbon content of buildings by 2030 and to mandate zero-carbon buildings (operational and embodied) by 2050. Hard to see where we fit in to that plan.
Throughout the conference I had to resist the urge to stand up and say “Isn’t it you guys who are specifying these designs?” How much of this expressed rhetoric will actually be translated into reality is open to question, given the huge advantages of aluminum in terms of weight, cost and ease of fabrication, and the absolute necessity of glass for views and daylighting. •
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