A challenge often encountered when planning for a sustainable building is how to achieve those green goals while also ensuring a safe, well-performing structure. Building professionals have more options today than even a decade ago. This article addresses some of these challenges, and it is contributed by Owens Corning, a global leader in insulation, roofing, and fiberglass composite materials.
When it comes to commercial building, a persistent question endures: Do you build “green” or do you build to achieve desired performance? It’s the kind of question that keeps building scientists awake at night. But the good news is, it is indeed possible to achieve performance and sustainability through building science.
Achieving sustainability without compromising performance was the focus of a conversation presented by Owens Corning® at the American Institute of Architect’s Conference on Architecture, June 6, 2019 in Las Vegas. The “Innovation in Safe and Sustainable Building Design” spotlighted how building science is helping architects and other building professionals to design sustainable, high-performing buildings. Following are some key takeaways from the session:
Takeaway 1: Comfort, Safety, Health and Energy Are Key
Architects, contractors, building owners/facility management, and occupants all want commercial buildings that are durable, comfortable, safe, healthy, and energy efficient. To meet the market’s demand for such high-performing enclosures, Owens Corning has expanded its insulation portfolio. For example, in 2013, Owens Corning acquired Thermafiber®, bringing mineral wool to its insulation portfolio. In 2018, the company introduced the first formaldehyde-free perimeter fire containment system. Most recently, the acquisition of Foamglas, re-introduced cellular glass to the U.S. building community, delivering a high level of durability and redundancy for mission critical buildings.
Takeaway 2: Sustainability Includes Multiple Components
At Owens Corning, sustainability in commercial building enclosures is viewed through four critical areas.
First, and perhaps most obvious, sustainability is viewed from an energy perspective. To be sustainable, a building should conserve energy, use less water and optimize resources.
Second, sustainability should be viewed in context with the greater supply chain, including the materials used in building products. This includes removing red list items and thinking about the commercial building holistically, from sourcing materials pre-construction through occupancy.
Beyond avoiding potentially harmful products, thought should be given to how products can have a positive contribution on the environment. Owens Corning refers to this approach as improving the handprint of buildings. Hand-printing speaks to the net-positive effects of building products across the built environment
Finally, sustainability is evaluated in terms of the impact it has on employees and communities through initiatives like safety and wellness.
Takeaway 3: Sustainability Connects Building Science with Life Safety
While building codes provide a baseline threshold of performance, much of today’s innovative work is focused on moving beyond code to help develop the safest systems for buildings.
Given recent high-profile fires such as the 2017 Grenfell Tower fire in the United Kingdom, much work is focused on improving approaches to life safety in high-rise environments and giving occupants added time to evacuate a burning structure. Building science is driving new solutions for perimeter fire containment as part of a passive life safety system such as the first formaldehyde-free perimeter fire containment system introduced in 2018.
Additionally, in 2017 several Thermafiber products as well as engineering solutions for perimeter fire containment systems became the first insulating materials designated by the Department of Homeland Security’s SAFETY Act. Designated products and services provide building owners and professionals with liability protection in the unfortunate event of an act of terrorism on their structure.
Takeaway 4: One-Size-Fits-All Does Not Work in Today’s Environment
One of the biggest misperceptions in the market is a “one-size-fits-all” solution can be applied to life safety systems. Just as buildings are unique, so are the solutions for supporting life safety. Commercial buildings require teams of engineering specialists focused on custom assemblies for fire stopping. One World Trade Center is one example. Safety was the highest priority in specifying the perimeter fire containment system and literally demanded the team at Thermafiber to undertake a floor by floor approach.
Even on less high-profile buildings, it is important for commercial building professionals to consider safety from design phase through implementation. This extends not only to evaluating assemblies but considering engineering judgments.
How products relate to adjacent systems and the building’s climate also comes into play. For example, a solution recommended for a building in Florida is likely to have different loads than a building in Massachusetts. Architects and specifiers should consider temperature and moisture loads as these are critical to a building’s durability. While energy efficiency is very important, a building must be durable to be sustainable.
Takeaway 5: Sustainability is More than Energy Efficiency
As buildings use 40% of energy in the U.S.¹, energy efficiency is a critical consideration. Improving energy efficiency is not a matter of adding more insulation, but adding the right insulation solution for the building application and environment. Thus, the whole ecosystem of a building and its function as a system should be considered to drive the optimal outcome for owners and occupants. Thinking of buildings through the lens of integrated systems can help architects achieve a meaningful approach to energy efficiency and other key performance metrics. At the end of the day, it’s about ensuring that moisture, acoustics, thermal, and moisture mitigation systems work together as well in the 20th year of a building’s life as the first day. This philosophy drives thinking for designers, architects and ultimately building owners.
Takeaway 6: Sustainability Aligns with Safety, Community, and Codes
Sustainability efforts at Owens Corning include some unique aspects such as ensuring a safety culture. This culture is a key area of focus not only at manufacturing plants but on the job site working alongside contractors and trades. Community is another aspect of sustainability embraced at Owens Corning plants in the U.S. and around the globe as it partners with groups like Habitat for Humanity to address local market needs.
And of course, codes and standards also play a role. Building design is always evolving and introducing new challenges. A good example is meeting rebuilding standards set for healthcare facilities. LEED 4 does not allow any insulation products with added formaldehyde. Yet the International Building Code still calls for fire safety. That challenge inspired Thermafiber to engineer North America’s first formaldehyde-free perimeter fire containment system.
As the commercial building environment evolves, new challenges and questions will inevitably emerge surrounding sustainability and performance. And building science will no doubt help inform the answers.