Material Matters

Material Matters

USGBC Platinum members are rising to the challenge of designing and making products that last.


By Amanda Sawit

What do the Palace of Versailles and Denver International Airport have in common? Glass.

Specifically glass produced by Saint-Gobain, which was founded more than 350 years ago when King Louis XIV commissioned it to produce glass for the iconic Hall of Mirrors. Today, the multi-national manufacturer has a diverse product portfolio (including the fiberglass used in Denver’s airport), and remains committed to making materials that stand the test of time, and sometimes, the forces of nature.

Saint-Gobain’s Sheerfill ® Fiberglass Architectural Membrane is a great example of durability by design. Denver International Airport is evidence of how a “fabric” could be used for the most abused surface in one of the hardest temperature-swing/UV light expose environments of any major airport in the U.S. Credit: Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics

Out of all the elements in the building envelope, roofs, windows and doors are likely your suspected points of vulnerability, and you’d be right. Breaches during extreme weather events have given rise to rapid progress in terms of resiliency, in both product design and total lifecycle.

“Buildings and structures are designed primarily to withstand external loads, i.e. wind, snow and rain. When any of the external fenestration fails, the building is rapidly pressurized and begins to fail, usually catastrophically,” says Kurt Roeper, director for Codes, Standards and Industry Affairs for ASSA ABLOY, which designs and manufactures a veritable spread of door opening equipment and hardware.

But to balance durability with sustainability is no small feat, and manufacturers have taken the lead in designing and developing materials that can help make buildings – which account for nearly 40 percent of energy consumption in the U.S. – more regenerative and resilient to climate change.

“Resilience isn’t a box to check off,” says Martin Grohman, sustainability director at GAF. “You could think you’re ready for anything but there’s always something unanticipated.”

GAF’s LEED-certified global headquarters in Parsippany, New Jersey, features a roof system that exceeds even the FEMA wind speeds, essentially future-proofing a critical part of their resilient building envelope. Credit: GAF

GAF, one of the largest roofing manufacturers in North America, knows first-hand the disruption and cost associated with extreme weather events. In building its new global headquarters in New Jersey, GAF prioritized continuous operations and emergency preparedness after experiencing power outages, high winds, flooding and other consequences during Hurricanes Sandy and Irene. This led GAF to employ resilience strategies to achieve Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification for its new location.

Other natural disasters over the years have reshaped building codes in the U.S. Following Hurricane Andrew in 1992, the South Florida Building Code was among the first to incorporate design, testing and certification standards to withstand hurricane force winds and associated debris impacts. As code requirements quickly changed for hurricane-prone areas, they gradually spread throughout other exposed regions of the country.

“The building codes have made significant advances in the provisions available to design for natural disasters . . . and the building products industry has followed with innovative solutions to meet these design challenges,” says Roeper.

According to Lucas Hamilton, who spent 20 years working as a forensic expert in construction deficit litigation before joining CertainTeed/Saint-Gobain’s building science applications team, the three greatest pressures on a building over time are relevance (whether it meets occupants’ needs), degradation and operating expenses.

ASSA ABLOY’s energy efficient hollow metal doors help to reduce thermal and air leakage. Credit: ASSA ABLOY

ASSA ABLOY’s energy efficient hollow metal doors help to reduce thermal and air leakage. Credit: ASSA ABLOY

To ensure durability, says Hamilton, designers should look for methods and materials that create environmentally appropriate building envelopes that eliminate the need for outside energy to achieve functionality and comfort. Creating constructible systems that control moisture and heat-flow management – thereby balancing wet and dry potentials – is the goal.

One thing that plays a role in that equation: insulation. “Thermal resilience is [an] important design concept,” adds Grohman, noting that in the event of a downed grid many buildings can become uninhabitable. Good insulation can help maintain a livable indoor environment when there’s no electricity, whether the weather is hot or cold. “That’s an area where resilient design and sustainability overlap. Energy efficiency is a resilience strategy,” he adds.

Roeper notes that the openings industry has achieved significant reductions in power consumption on some of the most common electronic access control solutions. “Regenerative products can be found in unlikely solutions,” he says, pointing to examples like an onboard battery pack that charges through use and energy efficient power door operators.

In addition to design, equally important are the manufacturing practices that ensure longevity and durability across the product’s life cycle, from growth phase of renewable materials, raw material extraction, manufacturing, use, and end-of-life management. Even the most mundane material products are often the result of levels-deep supply chains, and every product-related decision touches on a complex, interconnected global chain that has environmental, social and economic consequences.

One way that companies are managing the impacts of their products is through reuse. “Manufacturers can build on the ecosystem of commodity-recycled materials,” says Grohman, noting GAF’s use of blast furnace slag, a by-product of the steel manufacturing process, in its shingles (like the Glenwood® premium line.)

CertainTeed/ Saint-Gobain created a take back program for residing houses that uses recycled materials to create a greener version of vinyl siding. “Not only can we reduce the environmental impacts of a material in such a manner, by adding the building science and building performance perspective we can also create products and systems that are more durable,” says Hamilton. “Warranty periods are getting longer and longer – proof of the success of our efforts.”

Attributing and quantifying value to resilient design, construction and products remains one of the biggest challenges for the buildings industry. But resilience, working in tandem with sustainability, offers a high level of assurance that developers and owners are making an effort to reduce their environmental impacts and contributions to greenhouse gas emissions – and that the building continues remains a safe, functional and comfortable place for inhabitants for years to come.

“Being as ready as possible, having a plan and testing it, has real value that can be measured,” adds Grohman. “What does it cost for your business to be closed for even 24 hours? What if that interruption lasts longer? Data shows that one dollar invested in resilience planning now saves as much as fifteen dollars in response. That translates to real value for resilient design.”