Volume 8, Issue 6 - June 2007

Eye on Energy

Think Green to Stay Out of the Red
by Arlene Zavocki Stewart

A few months ago, there was a lot of buzz when the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) released its long-awaited report on vinyl. Five years in the making, this groundbreaking report had the potential to turn the window industry on its ear. Would the hottest trend in construction shut down the fastest growing sector of the window market? 

Summary of findings: ďNo single material shows up as the best across all the human health and environmental impact categories, nor as the worst.Ē WHEW! A collective sigh of relief could be heard from stockholders across the country. So people stopped reading. That was a mistake because itís arguable that how these impacts were evaluated is far more important in the long-term than the actual results. It illustrates what the people who are driving the hottest trend in construction really care about, and thatís important, no matter what framing material you use. Two overriding, prophetic points were written on the proverbial wall and manufacturers ought to start thinking about them now. 

Prophetic point 1: Sales will be linked to how well other companies market their materials.
The USGBC report is rather unique in the world of windows. It reads like a materials safety data sheet or a medical paper, discussing parts-per-million-this, exposure-rates-that, and big-long-chemical-name the other thing. All this is for the purpose of determining three human health impacts and seven environmental impacts. 

The scary thing is that the report evaluated aspects of material production into which window manufacturers donít traditionally have any input. Manufacturers buy components, then assemble them. Typically, you ask the cost, what it does and can you get as many as you want when you want them. Then you sell the assembly for what it can do for your client. In a green market, you not only need to know what your product does, but also what went into it from the very start and whatís going to happen to it when your client is done with it. Thatís the data that those Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) APs are looking for to get those elusive credits. 

Right now, you may think that finding out all those details is far too complicated and no one really cares. That will last only until you lose the big sale to a company that quantified those details well enough to get their new client the credits. 

Prophetic point 2: The biggest way your company can improve the impacts will be through product energy performance. 
The seven environmental impacts mentioned above were assessed on a cradle-through-use basis with some end-of-life considerations. For windows, the usage period is 50 years, only a small slice of which is the creation of the components and the window itself. By far the largest segment is the time the window ďlivesĒ in the building. When you consider the individual impacts-acidification, eutrophication, eco-toxicity, smog formation, ozone depletion potentials, global climate change and fossil fuel depletion, you realize that they are all affected by emissions. Ergo, use efficient windows to reduce environmental impacts by reducing energy usage in buildings to reduce loads in power plants to reduce emissions. So, if you want to reduce the significance of someone elseís materials on environmental impacts (prophetic point 1), you need to increase your productís energy efficiency.

Thatís going to take a while to do, so you better start now. If you havenít been following the U.S. Department of Energyís activities to develop the next generation of efficient windows, you should be. These high-risk projects explore several new technologies to develop an affordable 0.10 U-factor window. Transparent insulating materials such as aerogels, vacuum windows and honeycombs, and multilayer low-conductance window systems are just some of the approaches being considered. Granted, these technologies arenít ready yet for prime time, but prime time will be here soon. 

Both of these points will require a paradigm shift. Donít be lulled into complacency by thinking that these changes wonít happen for another 20 years. Some companies are looking at these right now and they will start serving that growing core of environmental leaders who are getting green standards adopted city by city, state by state. Think green now to stay out of the red tomorrow. 

Arlene Zavocki Stewart is a member of the Efficient Windows Collaborative and an energy code advocate. She can be reached at azstewart@azsconsultinginc.com. The views and opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Government, nor do they represent the opinions of this magazine.


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