News Brief

Building Materials in the Context of Sustainable Development

Detailed Environmental Assessments of Structural Building Materials

Building Materials in the Context of Sustainable Development, nine research reports available from Forintek Canada Corp., 800 Montreal Road, Ottawa, ON K1G 3Z5, Canada; 613/744-0963, 613/744-0903 (fax). Complete sets: CDN$600 for universities and nonprofits, CDN$900 for businesses and government agencies, individual reports range from CDN$30 to CDN$260.

One of the biggest obstacles to meaningful comparisons of environmental impacts across a range of different construction materials has been the lack of comparable research founded on common assumptions. With the release of the Phase II reports from the Sustainable Materials Project sponsored by Natural Resources Canada, that obstacle is beginning to disappear. For this project Forintek Canada Corp. (the R&D organization of Canada’s forest industries) and Wayne B. Trusty & Associates Ltd. have coordinated comprehensive environmental assessments of the manufacture of structural building products from wood, steel, and concrete using a common set of research guidelines. The project’s eventual goal (at Phase IV) is to have a software package allowing users to easily compare alternate structural assemblies for their environmental impacts. With the completion of Phase II and the publication of this series of reports, the information they have compiled is available to others interested in this type of research.

Altogether nine reports are available, three of which provide actual energy, resource and emission values for the manufacture of wood, steel, and concrete building products. The three reports were compiled by organizations representing the respective industries in Canada. The other reports contain supporting information and assessments of the less quantifiable environmental impacts.

Supporting numerical information came from the Environmental Research Group at the University of British Columbia’s School of Architecture in the form of structural input tables and energy and emissions from on-site building construction. Information not yet quantified is contained in

Ecological Carrying Capacity Effects of Building Materials Extraction by Dr. R. Paehlke, and

The State of Demolition Waste Recycling in Canada by Kalin & Associates Inc. The team plans to attach numbers to the information in these latter reports so that the information, admittedly subjective, can be incorporated in the computer models.

EBN reviewed only the report entitled

Phase II Summary Report and Research Guidelines, which contains summaries of the other reports and an illustrated description of the forthcoming software package (due out in September 1994). In addition, the research guidelines in Appendix A offer insights into the assumptions and compromises entailed in the project.

From the summaries of the other reports, it’s clear that the level of detail and depth of analysis they contain is impressive. Energy and raw material inputs are carefully quantified, and the emissions data are broken down into useful categories. Some of the information is still undergoing revision, however, according to Jamie Meil at Forintek. After seeing the comparative information, researchers from the steel and concrete industries feel that their products were hurt by the decision to base the information on typical current technology rather than best available. A supplemental report is now being prepared that will incorporate more information from small-scale steel mills, for example. These mills were largely excluded from the original study, but they are responsible for much of the recycled steel use in the Canadian industry.

While in general the data appears to be reliable, there are reminders that this information is coming from industry groups rather than independent observers. The controversial practice of burning hazardous waste in cement kilns is presented as a positive step that is hampered by “a lack of understanding by the general public,” for example. Nevertheless, as a cross-industry comparison of building materials, this project represents an enormous step forward.

Published March 1, 1994

(1994, March 1). Building Materials in the Context of Sustainable Development. Retrieved from

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