The Sustainability of Block

Words: Robert Thomas" width="530" height="298" border="0" alt="What does green, LEED, and sustainability mean for the concrete masonry industry?">
What does green, LEED, and sustainability mean for the concrete masonry industry?

A funny thing happened on the way to a sustainable built environment. While the visionaries for a more environmentally conscious approach to constructing our communities of the future charted a focused course toward clearly defined objectives, those of us boldly attempting to follow the magnificently paved yellow-brick road before us suddenly found ourselves at an abrupt impasse. While there was no direct barrier set in our way, thwarting further progress along our journey, we found ourselves mired in the realization that before us was now one of those road signs pointing to many different destinations along many different paths. And, while each sign clearly indicated that the destination for each path was a place called “sustainability,” we were left with the vague impression that none of them led to the exact same place.

While perhaps not the creator of this movement, certainly the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) deserves tremendous credit for significantly raising a collective national consciousness of the impact that construction decisions made today will have on our communities and civilizations of tomorrow. More specifically, perhaps, the USGBC can be credited with encouraging a mindset of systematic evaluation of the long-term, ultimate, societal impact of all of the many design decisions that accompany the design of the structures we inhabit at rest, at work, and at play. The creation of the rating systems provided a straightforward evaluation approach for those that previously lacked either the ability to define their own sustainability goals or to clearly communicate those objectives and benefits for building owners. The bricks in the yellow-brick road were, thus, embossed with the acronym LEED.

However, we realize now that LEED is not the only path available, nor is there a single embraced concept of our ultimate destination. In fact, many have followed the LEED path for too long, and in a direction it was never intended to go. A recent study by the National Institute of Building Sciences reports rising concerns that many of our frequently used rating and certification systems may yield a negative impact on the building design and construction community. Their “Report on Building Rating and Certification in the U.S. Building Community” highlights some of the unintentional consequences of these rating systems, perhaps most notably, in their misapplication in the form of requirements rather than guidance.

LEED has not been a friend to the masonry industry and does not encourage users to take environmental advantages of what masonry materials have to offer. But, LEED has not proven to be an enemy or an insurmountable roadblock for masonry, either. LEED certifications can be achieved as readily using masonry materials as any other building systems. Masonry magazine has profiled many such success stories in previous issues.

Fortunately, we are not alone at the crossroads. While LEED has seen an unprecedented growth as a market driver, with a projected 9,000 registered commercial projects projected for 2009, only 10 percent of all construction each year is registered, and only 1 percent certified. The designers and owners of the other 90 percent and even some of those participating in the LEED registration program also are seeking the right path to do the right thing.

What does all this mean for the concrete masonry industry? It means that we need to do the following:

Reframe the Issue

Is masonry really sustainable, or are we simply drinking our own Kool-Aid and greenwashing ourselves into believing what we want? I believe that our motivated passion has simply enabled us to look beyond the framework that some of our rating systems have inadvertently created. Our challenge is to provide a new framework upon which others can view us and the role that masonry materials provide for society.

Longevity and durability. These attributions are of masonry’s greatest assets. Those structures that last longer, require less maintenance, and can be adapted for reuse cast a smaller shadow on the environment. While we get no credit for this attribute in many rating systems, we are fortunate that our customers recognize this value in our products. Moreover, many architects consider this characteristic to be one of the most critical elements of a definition of sustainability.

Resource efficiency. Concrete masonry materials are manufactured using some of the most abundant materials found on earth. While those materials may not be renewable, the manner in which they are collected, transported short distances, incorporated into manufactured products with relatively little energy, and disposed of provide minimal negative impact on the environment, compared to other construction materials.

Safety and protection. While most environmental rating systems include occupant health and comfort, they frequently ignore the safety and protection of those inhabitants, leaving that task to building codes. However, those codes provide minimum life-safety standards. Concrete masonry structures go above and beyond other building systems in providing improved fire safety, shelter from hurricanes, tornadoes and earthquakes, and protection from blasts and bullets.

Operational continuity. The safety and protection provided by concrete masonry also benefits communities by enabling them to return to normal operations faster. Fires that are contained in their location of origin enable buildings to re-open sooner. Communities with hardened shelters enable residents to find safe haven and faster returns to their homes.

Byproducts reduction. Concrete masonry products are capable of incorporating materials that have been recycled from other industries and from consumers. Units themselves can be easily transformed into raw materials for new units or aggregates for other purposes.

Aesthetics. The variety of shapes, colors, textures and patterns available in concrete masonry products provide innovative and inviting structures, resulting in attractive communities.

These attributes are well recognized, but need to be framed into the context of sustainability.

Sell Ourselves

Nothing really sells itself, right? To reframe the picture of sustainability will take some work on the part of the masonry industry. While the masonry industry often has been referred to as “fragmented,” we have the opportunity to approach much of the sustainability initiative together.

This is where Vision 2020 comes in. The National Concrete Masonry Association and the Mason Contractors Association of America have united to establish a new vision to promote the role masonry products can have in helping to achieve sustainable communities. We are inviting other national masonry organizations to join us in this effort. Since individual communities have the power to influence their own destinies, much of the message delivery will have to be implemented at the local level. Therefore, many regional masonry promotion groups are joining in the effort to provide community leaders and planners with strategies intended to achieve environmentally friendly neighborhoods that attract residents and development. Masonry communities will improve property values, increase tax revenues, and benefit townships for generations.

Decision-makers come in many forms, be they town officials, school boards, architects or government agencies. The challenge is ours to demonstrate to them that the attributes that masonry has long possessed are what have been needed all along to achieve sustainable solutions. The key to our success will be in selling masonry as a system, and not just a product.

Influence Standards

Want further evidence that the path to sustainable construction is no longer an obvious contiguous path? Consider the plethora of organizations promulgating standards and guides associated with providing guidance or requirements for evaluating decisions. To name a few, if only in acronym speak: ASTM, ASHRAE, IGCC, SSBCI, NAHB, GBI, etc. Many of the standards created by these organizations are competing for the opportunity to influence design and construction decisions. But, all have the possibility of becoming relevant, and the potential to alter the fate of the masonry industry.

We have long recognized the impact that material standards, design methods, and building codes can have in creating competitive advantages and disadvantages. We need to realize that the organizations referenced are creating new standards that will equally influence our fates. And, in the rapidly evolving Information Age, these organizations are redefining standards development processes to facilitate faster completion and implementation. The result: too many battle fronts to face, and too few resources to fight the battles. The masonry industry is lucky to have a few dedicated souls feverishly working, both independently and collectively, through the Masonry Alliance for Codes and Standards to affect the outcome. I appeal to the masonry industry to continue to invest in this fight before most of it is over. The progress of the Green Movement waits not for the recession to end.


Yes, it is hard to improve on a system that has proven its worth during the last 10,000 years. However, we need to collectively accept that an evolution of our masonry system, its delivery, and its presentation are needed to remain competitive and viable. Recessions provide both opportunity and incentive to reorganize, refocus and prepare. Innovation in our products, our design and construction methods, our associations, and our approach to the game are all critical to our long-term success. Take some time to consider where your contribution can be.
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