Rethinking Our View of Buildings and Materials Will Help Propel Us Toward a More Sustainable Future

zero waste

In its landmark 2008 report, “Stop Trashing the Climate”, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, Washington, D.C., arrived at the conclusion that a zero-waste approach is one of the fastest, cheapest, and most effective strategies we can use to protect the climate and environment. “Implementing waste reduction and materials recovery strategies nationally are essential to put us on the path to stabilizing the climate by 2050,” the report stated.

For all the grand visions we may have of a sustainable future, we’re still a long way off from achieving a neutral environmental footprint. Is zero waste really an achievable goal given our disposable mentality in the Western world? If so, what obstacles stand in the way, and how can the architecture and construction industry meet increasingly stringent benchmarks in waste reduction and recycling?

retrofit spoke to several sustainable design experts to help put things into perspective and glean insight into how we can forge ahead on the road to zero waste.

retrofit: Let’s start by questioning the premise of zero waste—is it truly an achievable goal?

Brendan Owens, vice president, LEED Technical Development, U.S. Green Building Council, Washington: Zero waste? I actually don’t know enough about all the different supply chains and all the different material chains that exist. “Near zero”, I think, is a reasonable goal. But I don’t think it is just a question of living with the decisions that are made downstream in creative ways. I think we have to be intentional about what the upstream looks like, as well.

Rives Taylor, FAIA, LEED BD+C, principal, regional director of Sustainable Design, Gensler, Houston: For the world that is commercial interiors, a net-zero-waste approach is really far off. … It takes 30 years of a building’s life to finally meet [the cost of] what it took to build the building. Therefore, the focus may be less on what you do with the material, per se, though arguably design for loose fit/long life/design for disassembly all still come into the mix. As LEED version 4 rolls out, the focus on the carbon footprint is going to up the ante—even for interiors—and net-zero may be more likely than no waste at all.

Brendan O’Grady, AIA, designer, RTKL Associates, Dallas: To really achieve zero waste, there are other things we can be doing [besides recycling], which include repurposing entire building components and even the ultimate goal of the reuse of an entire building. I think in terms of being achieved, that is a bit further off than where we are today.

retrofit: Recycling has played a significant role in diverting waste from our landfills and moving us toward a more sustainable future. But does it go far enough?

RTKL Associates’ Washington, D.C., office is LEED Platinum. It achieved 95 percent diversion of construction and demolition debris, amounting to a mass of 15 tons.

RTKL Associates’ Washington, D.C., office is LEED Platinum. It achieved 95 percent diversion of construction and demolition debris, amounting to a mass of 15 tons. PHOTO: © Paul Warchol

Owens: From our perspective, the way we’ve crafted the Materials & Resources section of version 4 of the [LEED] rating system is heavily predicated on life-cycle assessment. Obviously a component of that is what you do with it after it’s done, but what we’re really trying to do is fix problems at the front end and make sure we’re aligning material decisions in as optimal way as possible, so we don’t end up using materials that are designed to last 100 or 1,000 years in a structure or an application that is designed to last for 10 or 30 years.

Taylor: Interiors present a particularly sticky problem: On the one hand, the materials we use on an interiors project are like the core and shell—imminently recyclable and recycled. It’s the back-side recycling that our contractors who are doing interiors work in dense cities with challenging and often older office buildings or even newer office buildings where freight elevators aren’t made for, shall we say, “bringing down materials” [that presents the biggest challenge]. … Some of the real transformational thinking is once material is in a building. Carpet has a 25,000-year life. We don’t need to throw it away just because someone’s [color] palette has changed.

O’Grady: A lot of the woods we’re using actually are reclaimed woods from other projects. We’re looking at floors from gymnasiums or wood from bleachers at different sporting venues because a lot of teak and some of the other hardwoods are really detrimental to the environment when they’re manufacturing it. We’d like to get reclaimed wood from other projects as much as possible. I think that is definitely serving a better purpose versus saying, “Well, this product has 10 percent or 20 percent or maybe 50 percent recycled content.”

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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