With the construction industry facing continually rising materials costs, we talk to two people who are working with manufacturers and buyers to build sustainability into the future of architecture...with surprising financial implications.
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In this episode, Zach and Beth talk to Sydney Mainster, Director of Sustainability at the Durst Organization, and Amanda Kaminsky, Founder of Building Product Ecosystems, about how they’re working collaboratively with both manufacturers and developers to sustainably innovate the building materials sector.
The Challenges Facing Innovation in Building Materials
Change is hard in any industry. Whether it’s customers demanding new products that aren’t ready to go to market yet or manufacturers independently producing something new only to discover that no one wants to buy, it can often feel like new innovations are out of sync with supply and demand.
Building Product Ecosystems came from the recognition that, in order to make change in the building products industry, a multi-stakeholder group was needed so that supply and demand could work together to find sustainable solutions.
The organization is focused on innovation, looking at the full cycle of making, using and reusing building materials, and then optimizing that cycle. Their ultimate goal is to work with manufacturers, recyclers and governments to minimize negative impacts from the construction industry.
But a sustainable building product is only successful if it’s something builders and developers want to buy and use. Amanda and Sydney have spoken to a lot of manufacturers who get requests for innovative products, develop them and then discover the market doesn’t have enough demand to support this new innovation, particularly when it comes to scaling up.
Building Product Ecosystems helps solve this problem by working with Durst Group in New York City. Durst has built or manages 13 million square feet of commercial space and has over 2,400 apartments built or underway. That means they have a lot of pull in the city when it comes to choosing building materials.
What Does Sustainability in Building Products Mean?
When a teacher asked Amanda’s daughter what her mother did for a living, she said, “She takes trash out of the garbage.” And while that’s an oversimplification of what a group like Building Product Ecosystems does, it’s not too far from the truth.
The goal is to turn reclaimed resources into valuable commodities. Architects and builders are working hard to meet the demand for affordable and sustainable building products, and so both Building Product Ecosystems and Durst are very involved in understanding the ingredients that go into materials from the start.
But it’s not enough to produce a green product. While manufacturers can be transparent about what goes into their materials, the full cycle has to be considered. Sustainable products will only succeed if they can be scaled, and the only way to scale them is to show the care and quality control that has gone into their development.
One of BPE and Durst’s ongoing projects is to find alternative formulations for concrete. As a structural material, builders, architects and engineers want assurances about consistent quality. By having open conversations between all the stakeholders, they’re able to build trust in the overall quality of the product, even as production scales up.
Where Is the Intersection of Innovation and Sustainability?
According to Amanda and Sydney, sustainability requires innovation and creativity, but it doesn’t have to mean sacrifice. It’s a way to be creative AND make things better. If you take the mindset that what you’re doing is something better or improved or optimal, instead of being green for the sake of a trend or a customer requirement, it shifts the conversation.
In the beginning, when they started to focus on improvements and innovations, it started as an ask of the manufacturers. And while they were very earnestly responding, the group soon realized it was a bigger lift than just tweaking manufacturing. They had to reach out to construction sites, as they were the ones gathering debris, and collaborate with municipal solid waste.
Sustainability can get complex, but with a long vision and if you’re intent on expediting what can be expedited, rich improvements are possible. It’s a learning process for everyone involved, and Sydney and Amanda found it deepened relationships between owners and manufacturers and shifted the status quo.
As an example, Building Product Ecosystems is working on a project to incorporate glass pozzolan into concrete. This glass comes primarily from household recycling, where 70% of glass goes to landfill, because there’s no commercial demand. By changing the perspective, manufacturers can see this material as a resource, not a waste product.
While it may sound difficult to change material formulations, the challenges most often faced are often logistic problems—such as the fact glass is heavy and heavy materials are expensive to transport. By focusing on building localized networks for making/processing/reusing, they can make the loop tighter and easier.
Of course, not all recycled content is equal. At every phase of the innovation cycle, manufacturers and users need to look at their materials and ask themselves: What am I using? Is it better? What might come with it? How clean is it? Where am I sourcing it from? How do I get the best product? A sustainable product should also be the best product in order for adoption to work.
How Can Sustainability Lead to Profitability?
There’s a common misconception that sustainable products will be more expensive. We’ve already talked about how successful sustainable products will be widely adopted if manufacturers are transparent about their products and show that quality is not sacrificed with scalability.
But for a product like concrete with glass pozzolan, the manufacturing costs of using glass are not any more expensive than concrete made with cement and steel slag. And while the other alternative additive, fly ash from coal combustion, remains artificially deflated in price, both fly ash and slag are increasingly difficult to source in the United States, which adds additional transportation and shipping costs.
Developers are also concerned about cost and can empathize with product manufacturers’ concerns. By facilitating a multi-stakeholder conversation, Building Product Ecosystems and Durst can pinpoint the levers that might increase cost and identify ways to reduce it. What they often find though, is not an actual cost but, instead, a perception of expense that can eventually be disproved.
As an example, gypsum drywall is a fully recyclable material and often leads to significant construction waste from trim scraps. In order to recycle these scraps, they must be kept separate from other waste streams, and this kind of separation is perceived as labor-intensive and inconvenient for on-site workers.
In fact, in a pilot test at six Durst buildings, what builders found was that, since drywall is typically installed at a phase of the project when other waste is not being generated, it’s actually relatively easy to keep it separate. And they found, at another building, that separating drywall during demolition also incurs only nominal additional costs.
For Amanda and Sydney, the key is to have the conversation, remove the veil of assumptions and start looking at fact. In many cases, the perceived additional costs start to go away. In this way, manufacturers can offer a sustainable product at a competitive cost, knowing builders can install it with no additional expenses to impact their bottom line.
How Can I Successfully Market My Sustainable Product?
With this area of the building materials industry being relatively new, there isn’t yet a centralized way to list and promote new products. Right now, manufacturers will often try to reach their audience where people look for health and environmental declarations, in repositories like:
These portals can provide a lot of information, but it’s also easy to get overwhelmed, and many manufacturers find they have to provide the same information many times in different places in order to gain a comprehensive listing.
A portal like the Health Product Declaration Collaborative website allows for data transfer to other sites, and so it is becoming a popular central repository for sustainable products. The goal of sites like this are to make the growth and proliferation of sustainable building materials as streamlined and easy as possible.
Got a Question?
If you have questions about how to to leverage sustainability to grow your business, let us know! Shoot us an email at [email protected] with all of your questions.
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