Innovative Construction Materials and Technologies Modernize Our Building Stock and Reduce Our Environmental Footprint

Innovative construction materials

Last year, Popular Science made a rather startling statement when it announced the world’s most advanced building material is … wood. Yes, you read that correctly: The world’s oldest building material may, in fact, also be the most innovative in terms of reshaping the way we construct buildings.

We’re not talking about the stuff your great-great-grandfather’s log cabin was made of, however. The Popular Science article noted a highly engineered material called cross-laminated timber (CLT) is increasingly being used to build multi-story towers because of its strength, low cost, renewability and carbon-sequestration properties. Manufactured by gluing together massive panels up to a 1/2-foot thick that are as durable as steel, CLT is an innovative product relatively new to North America that harnesses the power of technology to improve the raw materials we have at our disposal and, as a result, design stronger, more efficient and sustainable buildings.

The Cité Verte project in Quebec City totals 800 residential units, including Bloc C, a building constructed entirely with crosslaminated timber.

The Cité Verte project in Quebec City totals 800 residential units, including Bloc C, a building constructed entirely with cross-laminated timber. PHOTO: STÉPHANE GROLEAU

Other technological advances have resulted in similar improvements to familiar building materials, such as “smart concrete,” which—when combined with additives, such as carbon fiber or even bacteria—can conduct electricity or generate “self-healing” properties when damaged. (View a video of concrete conducting electricity.) Similarly, dynamic glass products have been developed to change tints in response to sunlight levels with manufacturers promising energy-reduction savings up to 20 percent, according to a Government Technology article.

As the bar to improve the efficiency and health of commercial buildings continues to be raised, the quest for better building materials is in full swing (see “Trend Alert”, November-December 2014 issue, page 66), as evidenced by a number of recent initiatives to discover and cultivate new technologies by the public and private sectors.

GSA’s Green Proving Ground

With nearly 377 million square feet of space—approximately half of which is federally owned—in 8,700 assets housing more than 1 million employees, the Washington, D.C.-based U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) Public Building Service is one of the largest and most diversified real-estate organizations in the world. The agency is continually looking for ways to reduce operational costs and make its real-estate portfolio evermore environmentally efficient, according to Eleni Reed, chief greening officer for GSA’s Public Building Service.

“Our office is tasked with implementing sustainability practices in real-estate operations, so we work across Public Building Service business lines, including design, construction, leasing, facilities management and asset management, to implement the practices that are needed to meet the aggressive sustainability goals included in the GSA sustainability performance plan,” Reed says.

Driven by Executive Order 13514 signed in 2009 and EO 13693—Planning for Federal Sustainability in the Next Decade, which was signed in March, GSA has set out to significantly reduce its energy consumption and greenhouse-gas emissions and is already well on its way, having reduced its energy demands by more than 30 percent against a 2003 baseline across its portfolio, according to Reed. In fact, she notes GSA buildings are 39 percent more efficient than typical U.S. commercial buildings based on the latest data available.

To ensure it continues to meet these mandates, GSA launched in 2010 the Green Proving Ground (GPG), an innovative program to evaluate sustainable building technologies and provide recommendations on their deployment within GSA’s existing real-estate portfolio.

About the Author

Robert Nieminen
Robert Nieminen is a freelance writer; the former editor of Interiors & Sources magazine; and retrofit’s editor at large, specializing in interiors. Under his direction, Interiors & Sources was the recipient of several publishing awards, as well as a pioneer of sustainability reporting.

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