Sustainability in The Construction Sector

Fostering circularity for building materials: Insights from the front lines with USGBC’s Wes Sullens. 

Jeremy Sigmon is currently pursuing his MSc in water science, policy, and management with the School of Geography and the Environment. He joined Oxford with 15 years of experience in the U.S. green building industry which is where he met green materials guru Wes Sullens, director at the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) for codes technical development and all things related to greener building materials.

There are cranes in the sky, heavy equipment moving earth, and people in hard hats in every direction. These tend to be universal indicators of development and progress. Far too often, however, these images of buildings and construction also signal a whole lot of waste.

Globally, the building construction industry is one of the most consumptive, expected to nearly double its waste between 2012 and 2025 to 2.2 billion tons annually. The many billions of tons of materials that aren’t wasted are put into the buildings where we spend – think about it – far more than three quarters of our time. Where we spend our time is also where we consume (and waste) energy, water, food, and more. Consequently, buildings are where 40% of global energy-related CO2 emissions are generated, and are increasingly the focus for many professionals who find hope in the soaring global green building marketplace that is working hard to slash these and many other impacts while enhancing the Triple-Bottom Line: economy, equity, and environment.

Wes Sullens

Wes Sullens is one of the United States’ leading experts in the circular economy as it connects with the wasteful, yet fast-changing buildings industry. Before his current post at USGBC, he led sustainable buildings and materials efforts for the aptly-named authority for East San Francisco Bay Area governments called StopWaste. I sat down with him to talk about building materials and what circular economy enthusiasts can learn from current events in the global green building market.

Jeremy Sigmon (JS): How is circular economy thinking finding its way into the building design and construction sector?

Wes Sullens (WS): In some ways, the circular economy has always been here, though not by the same name. Recycling, efficiency through waste reduction, and reduced consumption have always been at the top of the sustainability list. The power of the circular economy, however, is harnessing business forces to implement these environmental objectives. When the economics are done right, it can quickly attract the attention of upper level management at any business. This win-win for business and environment has been the engine behind the fast-growing green building industry, led by USGBC and its LEED certification program. I see real potential for the circular economy to unlock solutions to some of our biggest waste-related problems. 

Importantly, there are key factors that need to be considered in building materials selection, such as climate and health impacts, that look beyond traditional circular economy thinking. Leadership in materials procurement today carefully considers all of these factors: carbon intensity, impacts on human and environmental health, and the ability for materials to be cycled indefinitely.

Ellen MacArthur Foundation and C2C Outline of a Circular Economy
Ellen MacArthur Foundation and C2C Outline of a Circular Economy

JS: Those are important things to consider, but it’s quite a lot! What’s being done to assist professionals with the evaluation process?

WS: Product labeling schemes are a big help, facilitating a far better understanding of what products are made of and the weight of their impacts. Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) are a way to report lifecycle impacts from a product’s manufacture, use, and end of life stages. Health Product Declarations (HPDs) are reports that disclose the ingredients that make up a product.

It’s remarkable how little we know about even the most common building products and materials. Of course, we know if something is made from wood, plastic, or metal… but do we know where it came from or if the raw materials were procured sustainably? Were there harmful chemicals used during manufacturing that could be a problem in the supply chain, during installation, or in use? From a circular economy perspective, EPDs and HPDs help designers select for products and materials that can be cycled or cascaded into other uses once their current useful life is complete.

JS: Disclosing information doesn’t cut environmental and health impacts, does it? What’s the benefit?

WS: The promise of transparency is enabling better-informed decision making. Building designers have always been in the business of choosing between different designs and materials based on price, fitness, and quality. They want the most affordable material of the highest possible quality for the job at hand. Information on health and environment impacts offer another important dimension in this equation that has, until recently, been very opaque. Transparency on its own has led to improvements in building products. Manufacturers of products are now feeling pressure to use these labels, exposing potential inefficiencies and driving improvements.

The circular economy also benefits from transparency. With transparency, we can: select products based on lifecycle impacts; avoid additives that make materials less recyclable; and choose products made from reclaimed, rather than virgin sources. Without this kind of transparency, we’re in the dark!

JS: So, who’s doing this? Are there signs that it’s working?

WS: For a few years now, LEED has rewarded green building project teams that source building products and materials that carry one of these transparency labels. Uptake started slowly, but it’s been growing worldwide. The materials content in our newest version of LEED (LEED v4.1), which launched in March of 2019, has already attracted tremendous interest. LEED v4.1 rewards project teams that select products optimized for circularity, low-carbon, and less toxic ingredients. Manufacturers are redesigning products to excel in these three areas – one example is a new carpet product made from reclaimed fishing nets that were formerly polluting the oceans. Building owners are demanding these products, too. On their new flagship project in Silicon Valley, Google has undergone possibly the greatest scrutiny of material ingredient data of any project on the planet. These are tremendous market signals that are transforming the world of materials.

JS: What parting words of wisdom do you have for students of the circular economy and social enterprise?

WS: The ecological challenges facing our planet can seem daunting, but movements like green building and the circular economy have sparked imagination and innovation in the big, old, and often lagging construction industry. This is an exciting time and there are great, inspiring and really fun people working hard to find creative solutions. It’s time to look beyond the recycling bin… Join us!