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EUROPEAN SCENE: Sustaining the sustainability

Sustaining the sustainability


September 17, 2008
By John Roper

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Working with words you sometimes get a bit picky about how they are being used. Sometimes you get the feeling a word is in danger of being usurped rather than used, like when it is taken over by a particular group and turned into jargon. Lately, wherever I look, I keep coming across the word sustainable.

Working with words you sometimes get a bit picky about how they are being used. Sometimes you get the feeling a word is in danger of being usurped rather than used, like when it is taken over by a particular group and turned into jargon. Lately, wherever I look, I keep coming across the word sustainable. It may be a world phenomenon but in the U.K. everything now has to be “sustainable”: windows, houses, energy, everything.

My Oxford dictionary gives sustainable as: “adjective. Able to be maintained at a certain rate or level.”

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That could be fair enough; as far as building materials are concerned you could apply that as a rule. But, and here, for me, is the difficulty, how far back in the raw materials chain do you go? Cut down a tree and you can plant another. Eventually you will have more viable timber. Vinyl is a bit more of a problem. The planet has loads of salt – one of the main ingredients – but oil, another important ingredient, is not being replaced at anything like a sustainable rate, if at all. Aluminum is better off. Bauxite, from which it is refined, is the second most common mineral we have on the planet, though there may be an issue with what mining it does to the environment and the supply is not actually infinite.

Many of the arguments about sustainability seem to hang on the recyclability of the materials in question. Aluminum: 99 per cent recycling, better than mining and uses less energy than the original refining. Vinyl has a pretty good yield too and recycling has to be better than using up raw materials. Timber, go plant another tree.

Then there is the issue of sustainable buildings. Clearly they are sustainable, you only have to look at some of the centuries-old piles beloved of English Heritage, an organization that is sharply against new and prefers that broken bits be mended before worn-out bits are replaced. But these buildings are not the issue here. The eco-warriors have moved on and are looking for buildings to supply their own power. Photovoltaic and other renewable sources emit little carbon.

However, you have to take into account the carbon emitted by putting up the building in the first place and manufacturing the building materials as well – including manufacturing the renewable energy generator. Modern buildings are conceived with a “life” so there is an issue with the recyclability of the components and the carbon emitted when it is eventually demolished.

This is not criteria you could apply to those ancient listed buildings I mentioned or even the Victorian era or 1930s and beyond. There are thousands of these houses, which probably make up the majority of the housing stock in the U.K. The existing stock is something that will have to be addressed if the government is serious about sus-tainability and not just about taking away even more of our money just to sustain itself. (You have to wonder why this eco-stuff is all sticks and no carrots.) It seems to me that there is an official blindness going on here.

These days to sell a house in the U.K. you have to produce, among other things, a certificate showing the energy efficiency of the property (another new service to create more paperwork, parting us from our cash and producing nothing useful in the process). My property, not untypical of its period or the locality in which I live, is constructed from nine-inch brick. Solid brick: they did not use cavities in the early 1930s but the buildings were built to last. In spite of double-glazing and roof insulation I am sure it will not be high up the energy-efficiency scale. Interestingly the government does not seem to want to address the problem of such old buildings. I guess they see it as having to put money in rather than take money away.

 Which leads me to the sustainability of our replacement window industry. I have previously expressed the view that an industry set up to manufacture and install an individual building component is an anomaly. There are precedents of which the window industry is just one example, central heating also had its day. However you get to a point where the job is done and it is back to making building components for the heroes. A friend of mine who works for a housing association, a privately owned provider of social housing, reckons the current problems faced by, mainly, the vinyl manufacturers are just a blip for the U.K.’s replacement window industry.

Given the big pressure to reduce carbon emissions from buildings he reckons we will all be driven to replace our windows with more efficient versions. He is about to spend around $1.4 million of his $6 million building budget on upgrading the vinyl windows in the association’s estate. He reckons everyone will need to do the same over the next few years. Mind you, he replaced all of the windows in his own house four years ago – with hardwood. 

*John Roper is the editor for The Installer, The Fabricator, The Conservatory Installer and Glass Works magazine published in the U.K. His comments reflect his opinions from the U.K. and may not be applicable in Canada.


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