Feature Article

Stone, The Original Green Building Material

Stone is natural and durable, emits no VOCs, requires almost no maintenance, and provides a connection to the earth and our history.

Las Vegas Rock’s “meta-quartzite,” a locally quarried stone, is used as cladding on the LEED Gold Aria hotel in Las Vegas.

Photo: Las Vegas Rock

Stone was one of our first building materials. It has been used to construct everything from humble dwellings to our most iconic structures. As a building material, stone requires virtually no manufacturing and is so durable that stone structures built thousands of years ago are still used today—characteristics few contemporary “green” products can equal. Yet stone has been largely overlooked by the green building movement, while ephemeral products made of recycled plastic often carry green labels. Granted, stone has some significant environmental impacts, but they may not be as big as you think, and the stone industry has undertaken noteworthy sustainability efforts. This ancient building material may be more relevant than ever in today’s green building industry.

Dimension stone—stone that has been tooled, as opposed to crushed stone or aggregate—can be used as flooring, exterior cladding, solid surfaces, and walls as well as for landscaping and many other applications. Of the estimated 1.88 million tons (1.71 million metric tons) of dimension stone produced in the U.S. in 2011, 808,400 tons (735,000 metric tons) were used by the building industry, according the U.S. Geological Survey (for comparison, 95.6 millions tons of raw steel were produced in 2011, with 19.1 millions tons used in construction). Imports from Brazil, China, India, Italy, and other countries provide roughly half of the total U.S. supply, according to industry sources.

The data on stone are just estimates, however, mostly based on voluntary feedback from the industry or pulled from U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration records and other sources.

The truth is, the stone industry does not track data well, mostly because stone is surprisingly hard to track. Other manufactured building products have their chemical makeup and their production and sales data monitored and aggregated by manufacturers and trade associations and then used to get them certified “green” as a way of marketing to the green building community. Many stone quarries, on the other hand, are old-school mom-and-pop operations that have been quarrying for decades with almost no marketing and little trade-group representation. And tracking some stones’ path to market can be nearly impossible since both imported and domestic stone are often sent across the globe like a commodity to be cut and processed elsewhere. With a lack of baseline data, the stone industry has not been able to provide clear metrics and third-party documentation that are the basis for standards and green certifications used by competing industries.

Published March 29, 2013