Redefining Sustainability

My company is currently in the process of restoring more than 1,600 window sashes for a large historic project in Buffalo, N.Y. As I recently walked through our plant and saw the thousands of windows in various stages of repair, I reflected upon how we were repairing windows that are more than 135-years old. This made me think about the current state of the construction industry and what our expectations are for the life of a building structure and the components that make up that structure. During the past 10 years, there has been a great deal of talk about green buildings and sustainability, but how many of these “green” commercial or residential buildings are designed or constructed to last for centuries? When will the life cycle of the structure and the construction materials themselves become factors in the sustainability criteria? It seems to me that more effort is placed on whether a material is recyclable than whether it can perform over the long haul. It is time that the design community, manufacturers and construction processes begin to consider the life of the building if we are truly going to incorporate sustainability in our industry.

Back in 1993, the U.S. Green Building Council developed the LEED green building rating system as a way to guide building owners to be environmentally accountable and to use resources responsibly. The LEED system has had a profound effect upon the design community by motivating advancements in energy efficiency, use of recyclable materials, incorporation of natural daylight and reuse of water. The LEED program made the word “sustainability” a household term over the past ten years, but has it truly redefined sustainable design? I would submit that LEED has been most successful in motivating changes in how structures consume natural resources and how the structure can be recycled at the end of its useful life. Very little emphasis has been put on designing a structure and using component materials that will last for many generations.

I like the definition of sustainability from author and professor Geir B. Asheim. “Sustainability is defined as a requirement of our generation to manage the resource base such that the average quality of life that we ensure ourselves can potentially be shared by all future generations.” I would submit that true sustainability in the construction industry implies that we construct edifices that can be used for many generations. It does not mean that we build a structure that has to have its major components replaced every 20 years.

Take windows for example. The major window manufacturers have developed designs that require the replacement of the entire window once the insulated glass seal has failed. Although the window is made of materials that can be recycled, it isn’t designed for multi-generational, long-term use. Changes in the glazing details that would facilitate glass replacement could dramatically extend the lifespan of these products. Other manufacturers use inexpensive materials such as vinyl for major structural members that have spurious life expectancy. Ask any window manufacturer for the life expectancy of their products and they will refer to their 10 year product and 20 year glass warranties. Is it unreasonable to expect a window to last for more than 20 years? I don’t think so.

Other products such as appliances, finishes, roofing, HVAC, lighting, siding, etc. also have very limited life expectancies. Some promote lifetime warranties that are so burdened with legalese they are rendered useless. By limiting the warranty to the original purchaser, prorating the warranty every year, and limiting exposure, the warranty actually protects the manufacturer more than the purchaser. American manufacturers have become more concerned with cutting costs than building better products. If manufacturers made changes in designs and the base materials used in fabrication, they could dramatically improve the expected years of service. Although many of the changes in materials will increase prices, there is a market for more durable products.

It’s time that the construction industry begins to take the life cycle of our new structures more seriously. We need to make advances in the quality of our construction designs and materials for the industry to truly become driven by sustainability. We should view our work as a testament for future generations rather than a disposable structure that will eventually be long forgotten.

This blog post first appeared on Re-View’s Window Review Blog.

Research Study Shows Certain Metal Roofs Can Last at Least 60 Years

The Metal Construction Association (MCA) has released new research findings that conclude that certain metal roof systems can last at least 60 years, meaning they do not require replacement during a commercial building’s service life.

“This study is a breakthrough for the metal construction industry because it finally provides third-party, scientific data that backs up the long held stance that 55 percent Al-Zn coated steel standing seam roofing systems are very durable, economic, and can be better for the environment,” said Scott Kriner, Technical Director, Metal Construction Association. Most non-metal roofing systems require one or more full replacements within a typical building’s 60-year service life, which is costly and often adds to the solid waste stream in landfills.

The study, sponsored by MCA and the ZAC Association, was conducted with oversight of three independent consulting firms which analyzed low-slope, unpainted 55% Al-Zn coated steel standing seam roofing, in a wide range of environments across the U.S.

This type of roof material is known by many trade names throughout the world, principally GALVALUME and Zincalume in the United States. It is very common on low rise commercial buildings such as warehouses, schools, distribution centers, shopping centers, exposition halls and other facilities. Experts estimate that the market size for this type of low slope roofing in the U.S. is over 350 million square feet.

The study incorporates the results of multiple field inspections, independent laboratory analyses of metallic corrosion of the roof panels, components and sealants, and includes assessment of all integral ancillary components that impact the end of roof service life.

The research team selected 14 building sites in five climate regions of various geographies in the continental United States, exhibiting a spectrum of climates related to heat and humidity including Hot-Dry, Hot-Humid, Cold-Dry, Cold-Humid, and Moderate-Acid. The precipitation acidity also varies considerably from one site to the next over this broad geography.

The research study concluded that the expected service life of an unpainted 55 percent Al-Zn coated steel standing seam roof constructed today in a wide range of environments using best practices can be expected to be in excess of 60 years, a value that equals the assumed building service life as described in the USGBC’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design building rating program, version 4.

In the study, the steel panel roofs experienced corrosion rates that conservatively project service lives well beyond the service life of most buildings. The range depends on the climate and the local precipitation pH.

The study also confirmed that these types of metal roofs resist corrosion even in “weak” spots, such as sheared edges and panel profile bends. Inspections showed an absence of significant red rust after up to 35 years, indicating exceptional corrosion resistance in areas susceptible to exhibiting the first signs of corrosion.

The study acknowledges that all roof systems require a regular maintenance program (at least annually) to clean off debris and to inspect the condition of the roof in order to achieve the kind of service lives shown in this study. While low-slope steel standing seam roof systems were projected to last up to 60 years, ancillary components (such as fasteners) may need to be replaced during the roof life, but this represents significantly less than 20% of a total roof replacement cost.

“We are planning to conduct more studies on different types of metal roofing, and in some cases we expect similar or even better results in terms of roof service life,” adds Kriner. “We think these studies will help to motivate building owners and architects to specify metal roofing more often.”

The report was authored by Ron Dutton, Ron Dutton Consulting Services LLC; Rob Haddock, Metal Roof Advisory Group; Chuck Howard, Metal Roof Consultants and Scott Kriner, Metal Construction Association. The report was also peer reviewed by Morrison Hershfield laboratory in Canada.

A Trade Association Brings Roofs to the Sustainability Discussion

Roofs, first and foremost, keep water and the elements out of a building. The roofing industry has done this quite well since the modernization of buildings began more than a century ago. Along the way, a number of trade associations—ARMA, ERA, MCA, NRCA, PIMA, SPFA, SPRI—have formed and evolved as materials and trends have changed. Each group provides excellent information relative to its mission and goals. Yet we know change keeps coming.

THE BYRON WHITE COURTHOUSE, DENVER, features a RoofPoint-certified high R-value (R-30) roof for energy savings. A dual-reinforced Derbigum modified bitumen membrane, 90-mil base sheet and a high-density coverboard were installed.

THE BYRON WHITE COURTHOUSE, DENVER, features a RoofPoint-certified high R-value (R-30) roof for energy savings. A dual-reinforced Derbigum modified bitumen membrane, 90-mil base sheet and a high-density coverboard were installed.

Since the turn of the century, the awareness and push for energy efficiency of buildings and the sustainability for materials and building design has grown substantially and has become an important topic in the public forum. Sustainability and environmentalism are universal topics.

Serving as a unified voice for issues involving roofing, energy and the environment, the Center for Environmental Innovation in Roofing was established in Washington, D.C., in 2008. The non-profit organization’s focus is to advocate and promote the use of environmentally friendly, high-performance roof systems, not just within the U.S., but in North America and globally. The center is a member-based association consisting of roofing manufacturers, roofing contractors, roofing consultants, raw-material suppliers and other trade groups within the roofing industry.

To promote the sustainability of roof systems, the center develops resources, products and educational information that can be used by the building industry to advance the longevity, durability and overall sustainability of roofs. Increased awareness of the importance of a building’s roof is critical to the center’s mission. The roof can be a large contributor to the energy efficiency of the building, a long-term asset and, increasingly, a location for energy production (solar, wind).


The center’s premier program is RoofPoint, a guideline for environmentally innovative nonresidential roofing. RoofPoint is used to evaluate new and replacement roofs for commercial and institutional buildings based on their environmental performance during the life cycle of the building the roof covers. This provides a useful measure for what constitutes a sustainable roof during design, construction, operation and decommissioning.

RoofPoint is primarily a rating system, and when certain minimums are met, a roof can become a RoofPoint Certified roof. Certificates and plaques noting RoofPoint certification can be awarded and used to validate a commitment to sustainability and the environment.

RoofPoint is based on current state-of-the-art processes and methods, remaining technology neutral. It does not rank or prioritize materials or systems; however, RoofPoint emphasizes energy efficiency and long-term performance and durability as overarching key attributes of a sustainable roof. Material recycling and reuse, VOCs, water capture and reuse, hygro-thermal analysis, and operations and maintenance are a few of the categories within RoofPoint.

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