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Minnesota State University, Mankato
Minnesota State University, Mankato

Resource Efficient Building Summary

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Resource Efficient Building

Reducing Materials Use, Toxicity and Waste in Design and Construction

Introduction to the Issues

Within your particular role in design or construction you already have some awareness of the wastefulness that occurs throughout the process of creating buildings. You may have even experienced the full cycle of paying ever increasing costs for construction materials only to marvel later at the sight of roll-off dump boxes brimming with construction waste. If you are wondering what can be done to stem this flow of wasted resources, then keep reading.

This guide spells out specific steps you can take to channel such concern into effective action: steps you can take individually, steps you can take with others and steps that you can encourage others to take on their own. This guide provides a starting point for reducing materials use, toxicity and waste in the design and construction of residential and light commercial buildings.

Construction and demolition wastes are gaining the increasing attention of state and local governments responsible for planning for solid waste disposal capacity. While concern for disposal capacity served as the impetus for this guide, it looks far beyond the waste stream to identify opportunities for reducing wastefulness throughout the construction process. What appears in the dump box is only a symptom of a much larger problem in design and construction - a lack of coordinated effort to use resources efficiently.

The approaches presented apply to new construction as well as to remodeling and restoration of existing buildings - from the very first stages of envisioning a building project, all the way through to final inspection. It attempts to draw connections between the many individuals involved in the building process and to articulate specific ways in which these individuals working together can reduce material use, toxicity and waste.

The ideas presented serve to challenge those design and construction practices which over-consume building materials, use toxic materials or create excess wastes. You are encouraged to read through the entire guide to gain greater understanding of the roles and opportunities presented. The guide intends to serve a wide audience, and yet maintain enough detail to get each segment of this audience started in resource efficient design and construction.

Implementation of these ideas hinges on many issues. Many of these issues are discussed in this guide. The guide should move you closer to the goal of implementing resource efficiency in design and construction by providing:

  • understanding of the roles of each player in the design and construction process,
  • knowledge of actions each player can take,
  • insights to serve as a catalysts for change,
  • tools to get started.

The guide is divided into six sections, each of which focuses on one of the target audiences. Each section contains a list of specific Actions You Can Take. The key issues covered include:

Section 1:Getting Started - Key Questions (7)
Section 2: Client Opportunities (14)
Section 3: Architecture and Design (31)
Section 4: Construction Practices (46)
Section 5: Plan Review, Permitting and Inspections (64)
Section 6: Supplier Opportunities (69)

Section 1 provides an overview of the big picture issues and decisions involved in the design and construction process through a series of key questions to ask yourself and others in designing and constructing buildings. The sections that follow are discussions aimed at specific audiences - namely clients, architects and designers, contractors and trades people, local government staff - plan reviewers, permiters, inspectors, and finally, suppliers of building materials.

The guide provides practical ideas to include in current building design and construction. Each section of the guide was drafted by professionals with working knowledge and practical experience in the design and construction trades. The authors attempted to strike a balance between introductory concepts and terminology used by the various audiences, so that the final result is tailored to each target audience while still being understandable to all readers. This guide has been written primarily for readers having a basic understanding of design and construction practices related to residential and light commercial building construction.

Source Reduction - A Definition

Source reduction is the underlying concept conveyed throughout this guide. While this term may have little practical meaning to those in design and construction, it was the starting point for researching this guide. It is a concept you should seek to incorporate into your everyday decision making.

Source reduction means reduction in material use, toxicity, material waste, and failure of building materials. Source reduction is most easily understood if you think far upstream from the wastes created to the point of selecting, purchasing and using materials which end up as waste.

By asking three simple questions you can to determine whether the actions you intend to take will achieve source reduction:

  • Does it allow the use of less material?
  • Does it use less toxic materials?
  • Does it reduce (or perhaps eliminate) waste at the source?

While the concept of reducing waste at the source may be fairly simple to grasp, it often requires you to re-think how - and why - you do what you do and to look for ways to improve on current practice. This guide provides ideas and examples for re-thinking your role in design and construction.

Resource Efficiency - A Definition

Resource efficiency is used in the title of this guide and throughout the text. Resource efficiency means achieving your design and construction needs using as few resources as possible. It includes re-examining your needs. It is a phrase which incorporates a much larger set of actions than does source reduction, as defined above.

Resource efficiency is a phrase which is gaining greater use in the design and construction community to describe the all-encompassing goals of energy efficiency, embodied energy efficiency, environmental protection, material efficiency, health and safety and affordability/competitiveness. Source reduction should be viewed as the first choice when considering options in designing and constructing resource efficient buildings. Each time you read the phrase resource efficiency - remember that source reduction is the first option. (Guide to Resource Efficient Building, Sustainable Building Collaborative, 1993).

For example, an architect might specify that an eight-inch-thick, poured concrete foundation contain a certain amount of fly ash in the mix. Or the architect might specify that the concrete contain fly ash in the mix and that the wall thickness be reduced to six inches. While both ideas are considered to be resource efficient, only the latter idea - reducing the materials used by reducing the wall thickness - is source reduction.

Source reduction can result in a domino effect that may not be immediately clear. In addition to reducing the amount of concrete used, you are now able to reduce the overall size of the building without reducing the square footage. Materials use is reduced in each subsequent step of the construction process by reducing the wall thickness and constructing a building with a smaller footprint but equivalent square footage. Smaller buildings result in the use of less materials - less framing material, less wiring, less sheathing, less insulation, less siding, less drywall, less paint, etc.

The importance of this distinction lies simply in understanding that the best approach to resource efficient design and construction is through source reduction. Reuse of materials and recycling of materials are important next steps, but they should follow efforts at source reduction.

As you read this guide, and later as you apply the lessons learned from it, remember that the phrase resource efficiency means giving first thought to source reduction options.

Walk - Don't Run

Implementing the ideas presented in this guide is often complicated by the fact that the design and construction community is only just beginning to recognize that they have a role in creating solutions - and that by providing such solutions they can improve their final product and achieve business goals. You will likely have to invest additional time and effort to educate yourself, as well as others with whom you interact. This educational process will include identifying available options and the impact of these options on the design and construction process. Avoid the temptation to do everything on each project.

First, set achievable goals. Clarify what these goals are and how they might affect the design and construction of your project. Then, explain these goals and what they mean to others involved in your design and construction process. Often the simple step of explaining what you are trying to do will convince others to support your efforts in implementation.

The emerging nature of these issues means that as you implement suggested actions you will have to educate others with whom you work. Clear and effective communication has proven to be a critical step in implementing resource efficiency in design and construction. This guide should serve as a means of communicating the concept of resource efficiency to the key players involved in your design and construction process.

Money Talks

The authors recognize that reduction in cost will be a primary driver for changing design and construction practices. While the interrelated impacts of decision making in the design and construction process often make it difficult to isolate cost from benefit, it is clear that as new practices and technologies are adopted, cost savings will accrue. Some of these costs savings are long-term, such as decreased utility and building maintenance costs, while others are short term, such as labor saved in the design and construction process.

For example, as a client, you might seek to build a smaller structure. However, the builder might maintain that the costs involved in setting up to build mean that it is cost-effective from a labor perspective to build it bigger. And as material use is reduced, suppliers may see a reduction in total sales - an outcome suppliers likely won't desire. Getting their support for your ideas might prove to be challenging.

Yet some construction material suppliers and contractors are recognizing the growing awareness among clients, designers and builders of the issues presented here. Your suppliers and contractors can serve as key resources in identifying available options. Making them aware of your goals will allow them the opportunity to retain and service your account with greater awareness of resource efficient building techniques, and perhaps win the accounts of others who share your goals of resource efficiency.

While the authors do not presume that such conflicts encountered will be easily resolved, we have presented information which will inform each player in the design and construction process of the opportunities available and the benefits gained. Presented here are questions and ideas which each player in the design and construction process should begin to ask of themselves and of each other as they design and construct buildings.

This guide provides only a starting point. It is up to each player in the design and construction process to implement the actions suggested and to continue to look for specific ways to eliminate waste - be creative and open minded.

What this Guide Doesn't Cover

The guide is not comprehensive. Significant audiences and issues not addressed in detail within this guide are property management and maintenance, as well as real estate agents and selling practices. These audiences possess a great degree of leverage in changing design and construction practices, yet there is precious little attention paid in current written resources which specifically address their information needs. While they are not a target audience of this guide, the guide does provide a starting point for raising awareness with both of these audiences.

Also, the guide does not address major construction projects such as large commercial building construction or road construction. However, many of the source reduction ideas and opportunities presented here still apply to these areas of construction.

Finally, a distinction should be made between source reduction and recycling: recycling is not source reduction. This guide does not comprehensively address the issues involved in recycling of materials from construction sites. This guide focuses on source reduction - that is eliminating wastes and toxicity at the source. Recycling involves managing wastes after they are created. Reference materials for information on recycling are given in the bibliography.

Guide Summary Provided by the Minnesota Department of Environmental Assistance