Going Green: Behind the Scenes
By Tom Inglesby
How can a mason contractor sell red (bricks) as being green? The industry has long pitched the durability of its products — brick, block, stone, even glass block and tile — but today's "green movement" is looking for much more than a material that will still be there in a hundred years or more. If the industry gets on the bandwagon now, the future profitability of its work will be assured. Better yet, getting in now means mason contractors will have a growing say in what constitutes "green."
In many cases, contractors emphasize masonry's durability and long-lasting qualities. Architects know this and consider it. But concrete — poured on site or shipped in as tilt-up panels — will also last a long time. We have to look beyond, or perhaps behind is a better direction, the obvious.
Most of you know about the LEED program, whether you participate or know architects who design for it. According to the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), "The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System is the nationally accepted benchmark for the design, construction and operation of high-performance green buildings. LEED gives building owners and operators the tools they need to have an immediate and measurable impact on their buildings' performance. LEED promotes a whole-building approach to sustainability by recognizing performance in five key areas of human and environmental health: sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection and indoor environmental quality."
Of course, the catch phrases for masonry specialists are "energy efficiency" and "materials selection." And the trade has several important partners in putting together the data necessary to prove how green masonry is. Among them are the Brick Industries Association (BIA), the National Concrete Masonry Association (NCMA) and various manufacturers they represent.
One of those manufacturers is SealTech Block, Canton, Ohio. The company makes a point of how green its CMUs are in advertising and online data sheets that emphasize the "certified green" status. The certification was by Scientific Certification Systems, a third-party laboratory. The certification is based on factors such as being water resistant and incorporating 10 percent recycled material. They also provide training in installation to maintain the "green-ness" of the product through proper mortar application and material handling.
On the MasonrySystems.org website, the BIA states, "Sometimes recycled and industrial waste aggregates, such as fly and incinerator ash and waste glass, are mixed with the clay and shale. In all cases, the high firing temperatures used in the manufacturing process render the bricks environmentally safe and user-friendly. Throughout this process, there is virtually no waste — virtually all of the mined clay is used in the manufacturing process."
These are important considerations, not often discussed when owners and even architects talk about "going green." There is a lot more about masonry that can be discussed than just its permanence.
Masonry can help the designer/architect in several areas of the criteria that might not be obvious at first glance. Patricia Hohmann, a principal in Hohmann & Barnard, Hauppauge, N.Y., explained. "The U.S. Green Building Council defines 'sustainable design' as the practices of design and construction that significantly reduce or eliminate the negative impact of buildings on the environment and occupants in six broad categories. One of those is sustainable site planning, and by using permeable concrete or brick masonry pavements or open cell concrete masonry pavers, masonry can contribute up to three points in this category.
"Another category is energy efficiency and renewable energy," she continued. "Here, masonry and brick are well-known as energy-efficient materials with insulating value and high-thermal mass. They can also be used in passive solar construction by utilizing their thermal lag to reduce peak energy loads, thus decreasing the size of the building HVAC system."
Of course, conservation of materials and resources is on masonry's side. "Brick's small unit size helps divert waste from landfills, and salvaged brick can be used in road construction or other buildings," Hohmann said. "Brick and other masonry are among the most commonly salvaged building materials. Numerous manufacturers make brick that incorporates recycled or industrial waste aggregates that are rendered harmless when the brick is fired. Raw materials of brick, clay and shale are abundant and always nearby, making brick available regionally, efficient to transport and distribute."
Diane Travis, technical director of the Rocky Mountain Masonry Institute, added a regional slant to that sentiment. "Bricks are basically made from clay and block is made from sand. Out here in Colorado, we have plenty of both. Dirt is not on the endangered species list. Although there is some energy consumed in manufacturing, the embodied energy for both brick and block is rather small compared with the amount of embodied energy needed to manufacture steel and glass."
In discussing the waste factor, Travis noted, "There is almost no waste with brick or block. They are relatively small and modular. If you have material left over, it can be used in another project. It almost never ends up in the landfill. Masonry does not burn or rust or rot. It does not dissolve when exposed to moisture."
"I know from personal experience that, in terms of selling it to owners or architects we often will decide to use masonry on a project because of durability, outside of the environmental consideration," he added. "But the particular masonry product we end up selecting, it will be one driven by environmental considerations. We'll decide on a product and then we'll pick a block based on its environmental characteristics. The final decision is driven by it being green.
"On the other hand, trying to sell inherent properties of a material often ends up being just 'green washing,'" he stated. "Like structural steel companies saying the steel in this project is 80 percent recycled. You can't buy steel without recycled content. It isn't that they've deliberately done something to improve the environmental performance."
Referring back to the LEED criteria, Hohmann calls attention to an important section where mason contractors can work closely with architects and designers. "The category is 'Innovation and Design Process,' where they recognize exceptional performance beyond the requirements in LEED or reward innovations in categories not specifically addressed by LEED," she said. "Possible areas where masonry can contribute include acoustic performance, life-cycle cost and durability, efficient use of materials with pre-stressed or reinforced masonry, and improved air quality by reducing the need for paint or interior coatings — thereby reducing volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and by reducing the possibility of mold growth. Masonry and brick incorporate design flexibility, durability and low maintenance, and its endless array of colors, shapes, textures and sizes set the standard for beauty and durability. It's a natural for today's new emphasis on sustainable design."
Still, the conversation on "green" usually comes back to the durability of masonry. As Travis said, "I think that the most impressive green fact about masonry is that it lasts a long, long time and it requires almost no maintenance. Masonry buildings are so long lasting that they often outlive their original use and are rehabbed into a second or even a third use.
"The thick, heavy walls of a masonry building give it inherent soundproofing," she noted. "When they want maximum sound rating between movie theaters in a multi-theater complex, they often use 12-inch concrete block walls, filling the core holes with sand. The heavy walls also give a masonry building 'heat capacity.' If you live in a climate with 30-degree temperature swings daily (like Denver), these heavy walls mean that you do not need as much insulation in the walls. Here, a heavy wall with R-10 or R-12 insulation will match the performance of a stud wall with R-19 insulation. Better insulation capacity means lower heat bills."
Indeed, masonry and brick's unsurpassed life cycle, exceptional energy efficiency, natural ingredients, minimal waste and countless recycling options are just a few of the properties that make masonry and brick the superb sustainable materials they have been for thousands of years.
And, as Travis noted, "I forgot to mention — masonry buildings look totally cool!"
About the Author
Tom Inglesby is a San Diego-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in numerous online and print publications. He is the winner of the Construction Writers Association's 2002 Boger Award for Special Reports.