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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 systemic.

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 tools–getting 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 substantial—from 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 earth’s natural capital—natural resources and ecological systems that provide vital life-support services to society and all living things. This natural capital, often undervalued in today’s marketplace, actually holds immense economic value.(4)

Assessing Building Products—ASTM 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 compounds?
• 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 federal government?
• Inquiries about the product’s 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 prove problematic.

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 and methods.

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 EPA’s 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 Institute’s Web site provides an excellent description of natural capital and case studies on how companies are using this new business model.

Copyright 2001, ASTM

Ruth Heikkinen is a member of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Environmentally Preferable Purchasing Team, focusing on building products and services. She has been involved in ASTM Subcommittee E06.71 on Sustainability since its inception.

Sidebar 1

In 1987, the World Commission on the Environment and Development (also referred to as the Brundtland Commission), published Our Common Future, which included the definition of sustainable development that has been widely adopted in a number of documents, including ASTM’s new Standard Terminology for Sustainability Relative to the Performance of Buildings (E 2114): “a form of development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Sidebar 2

Who Will Use the Data Collection Standard?

Building industry professionals who possess a broad, general understanding of sustainability issues relative to the performance of buildings will. These professionals may include planners, developers, architects, engineers, interior designers, contractors, building owners, and representatives of financial organizations, building materials and product manufacturers, and government agencies. While the standard provides a useful tool for these audiences, it cannot replace education or experience and should be used in conjunction with professional judgment.

Sidebar 3

What Are “Green” Buildings?

Often used as a synonym for “sustainable” building, a green building is defined by ASTM standard E 2114 as “a building that provides the specified building performance requirements while minimizing disturbance to and improving the functioning of local, regional, and global ecosystems both during and after its construction and specified service life.”

Sidebar 4

Do you have experiences with green building you’d like to share?

The first comprehensive effort to gather information about barriers to alternative building technologies is currently under way, led by ASTM member David Eisenberg, vice chair of E06.71 and his organization, the Development Center for Appropriate Technology. The goal of this survey, accessible online by visiting the DCAT Web site,, is to provide information that will help assess and prioritize the barriers that need the most attention. Expected results from this survey include a range of activities and actions such as specific code change proposals, the development or modification of standards, additional focused educational efforts and support for specific research, and testing and development programs to bridge the gaps in knowledge or information revealed by the survey.

Builders, architects, building officials, landscape architects, materials manufacturers, engineers, and all those interested in green building are invited to participate in this survey. The expected data collection period is through Aug. 31.