|Sustainability in the Buildings Industry
How ASTM Standards Are Addressing the Trend
by Ruth Heikkinen
Sustainability is all about a holistic approach to protecting
the environment. The buildings industry is thinking about sustainability,
and ASTM Committee E06 on Performance of Buildings is there to help.
What Does Sustainability Mean?
Thirty years ago, new environmental problems stemming from the
industrial revolution and the population explosion of the last
century became increasingly challenging, bringing about a new
era of environmental law in the United States and abroad. While
most early domestic statutes and international treaties addressed
environmental concerns one at a time (ocean dumping, air pollution,
endangered species, etc.), by the late 1980s it was clear that
this piecemeal approach to environmental protection had its limits.
That is, although science had clearly demonstrated that the complex
processes that determine the health of our environment are systemic
in nature and global in scale, the laws and institutions through
which we were attempting to manage these processes were far from
Confronted with the limitations of the one-problem-at-a-time approach,
governmental and industrial leaders around the world began to
consider a more holistic way of protecting the environment, which
became known as sustainable development. Recognizing that a
holistic approach would require new levels of international collaboration
on environmental issues, the United Nations hosted an Earth Summit
in June 1992 in Rio de Janiero, Brazil. The Earth Summit attracted
nearly all of the governments of the world, more than 100 of which
were represented by their heads of state, and resulted in two
landmark conventions on climate change and biodiversity. The 1992
summit also established sustainability as a goal leaders worldwide
supported and agreed to work toward achieving.
With this new environmental framework solidly in place, the challenge
became how to further define it so that industries and governments
could incorporate sustainable approaches to the varied types of
work they do. Lofty sustainability principles needed to be turned
into useful tools for different industries and communities. The
standards development work discussed in this article are two such
toolsgetting us a bit closer to making sustainability a reality
for the buildings industry.
What Does Sustainability Mean for the Buildings Industry?
Through mainstream news coverage, more Americans than ever are
aware of the effect energy shortages have on the costs of running
our homes and businesses. While less news coverage is applied
to the issue of the environmental costs of energy production,
those costs can also be substantialfrom fossil fuel-powered generating
plants contributions to global warming to the intransigent waste
disposal problem for the nuclear industry. While renewable sources
of power, like solar and wind, hold promise for producing energy
with fewer environmental impacts, the ability of those power sources
to contribute significantly to meeting our energy needs affordably
is likely many years away. In the meantime, efficiently using
energy in buildings through careful design and choice of building
materials could go a long way to minimizing the environmental
damage attributable to energy production. (1)
Energy use is not the only environmental concern related to the
built environment; water use (homes and offices in the United
States use an estimated 36 billion gallons [136,000,000 cubic
metres] of water per day (2)) and natural resource depletion are
others. In addition to the land required to dispose of the 136
million tons [123,000,000 metric tons] of building-related construction
and demolition debris generated per year in the United States,(3)
the amount of natural resources that are mined and harvested to
supply building materials are considerable.
The good news is that solutions to these problems can be found
in sustainable approaches to building and the industries involved
have begun to implement these solutions. The even better news
is that, properly designed, these solutions need not cost industry
or consumers more. In fact, sustainable approaches can both improve
productivity and open up new business opportunities by enabling
companies to make better use of the earths natural capitalnatural
resources and ecological systems that provide vital life-support
services to society and all living things. This natural capital,
often undervalued in todays marketplace, actually holds immense
Assessing Building ProductsASTM Standards
There are many features of a building that contribute to its sustainability,
and the products used in the building are key features. Other
features influencing sustainability include the overall efficiency
of the building, the impact the building has on both the habits
of the occupants and the microclimate. While there is ample opportunity
for ASTM to address these larger issues, the first two standards
to emerge from the three-year-old Subcommittee on Sustainability
(E06.71) of ASTM Committee E06 on Performance of Buildings address
terminology (E 2114, Standard Terminology for Sustainability Relative to the Performance
of Buildings) and selection of products used in buildings (E 2129, Standard Practice for Data Collection for Sustainability Assessment
of Building Products).
E 2129 includes a questionnaire that can be used to query product
vendors about the environmental attributes of their products.
The intent of this standard is to facilitate communication between
manufacturers and purchasers of building products. Questions on
the questionnaire involve:
Inquiries about the materials used to make the product. Was
recycled material used? Does the product meet certain requirements
for content of carcinogens and smog-promoting volatile organic
Inquiries about the process used to manufacture the product.
Were steps taken to minimize the use of non-renewable energy during
the manufacturing process? Does manufacturing the product avoid
emitting harmful levels of toxic chemicals?
Inquiries about the operational performance of the installed
product. How long will the product last if properly maintained?
Do energy-using products meet efficiency recommendations of the
Inquiries about the products contribution to the health of
the indoor environment. How will the product contribute to the
acoustics and lighting of the space? Are there risks from installing
the product that could affect the health of workers?
Inquiries about corporate environmental policy. Does the manufacturer
have a written environmental policy? Does the manufacturer have
a program in place to facilitate recycling or reuse of the product
at the end of its life?
Addressing Challenges Presented by Alternative Building Materials
The sustainability subcommittee recently launched a new task group
that is in the process of drafting standards for earthen building
technologies. This task group is responding to the rapid growth
in interest in what is often called green building (see sidebar
3), which has created more widespread awareness of the challenges
involved in using alternative materials and methods of construction,
including earthen building technologies. People interested in
earthen building technologies often face obstacles because building
officials are less familiar with them than with conventional methods,
materials, and development practices. In some instances, because
of the lack of a large industrial base to fund research, testing,
and development, less testing and performance information is available
for building officials to use for their approvals. In many cases,
there are problematic provisions in the codes or standards regarding
these technologies. In other cases, it is the absence of code
provisions or the general structure of the codes themselves that
Adobe, one earthen building technology being addressed by this
new task group, is an ancient art. In fact, the walls of Jericho,
now located in modern Israel, are adobe structures built around
8300 B.C. While examples exist of adobe structures that are still
in use and functioning after hundreds of years, this traditional
construction method is used less and less in many parts of the
world, including the United States, because of the development
of newer building materials. Traditional construction methods,
like adobe construction, utilize indigenous materials and local
craft-based skills with the goal of creating extremely durable,
energy-efficient structures. Many of the newer construction methods
common in industrialized nations involve production processes
requiring considerable investments in land, feedstock materials,
energy, and water for often less durable and energy-efficient
buildings. For these reasons, in general, construction methods
that utilize indigenous materials and local craft-based skills
contribute more to sustainability than industrialized processes
As world population continues to rise and, along with it, the
need for basic shelter, it becomes increasingly important to facilitate
the adoption of construction techniques with lower life-cycle
environmental impacts. With the development of ASTM standards
for earthen building technologies, getting approval for constructing
such structures will be much easier, facilitating their use.
Invitation to Participate
By definition, sustainability is a holistic approach to improving
the quality of life on Earth for current and future generations.
In order to effectively pursue this lofty goal, it is important
that a wide variety of organizations, representing diverse interests
and industries, work together. So far, participants in the work
of the sustainability subcommittee have come from an impressively
wide range of interests, but there is always room for more involvement.
The more diverse the range of participants in this work, the better
the resulting standards will be.
To participate in the work of the ASTM Subcommittee on Sustainability,
please contact the Subcommittee Chair Dru Meadows (phone: 918/599-0011). //
1 According to the US EPAs EnergyStar program, powering the average
home in the United States produces twice as much greenhouse gas
per year as powering the average car.
2 USGS 1995 Estimated Water Use in the United States.
3 US EPA, Characterization of Building-Related Construction and
Demolition Debris in the U.S.
4 The Rocky Mountain Institutes Web site provides an excellent description of natural capital and case
studies on how companies are using this new business model.
Copyright 2001, ASTM