Has sustainable construction hit the mainstream?


    Nearly 10 years ago while I was practicing structural engineering, I wrote a white paper on sustainable construction so that I—and eventually my firm—would better understand the terms and industry efforts. Believe it or not, I actually researched the topic at a local university library using microfiche. Oh my, how a lot can change in a few short years!

    In a nutshell, my research led me to the conclusion that sustainability within the field of structural engineering was comprised of straw bale and rammed earth construction. While elegant in their solutions, I could not conceive how these technologies were going to revolutionize the construction industry. Acres of homes were in the throes of being built to supply the largest housing boom our country had seen since the 1950s, and I could not imagine that many, if any, of the sustainable construction techniques that I’d uncovered were going to be employed on any type of large-scale development, residential or otherwise.

    As outdated as researching a topic on microfiche in a library is, so too is the notion that sustainable design is limited to straw bale or rammed earth construction. Currently, sustainability has penetrated most aspects of the AEC profession. Sustainable design techniques are being discussed and adopted for all types of building materials on a variety of projects. Green construction education opportunities and credentials are becoming as common as their technical counterparts. The topic is discussed commonly with designers and clients alike. And, rarely a month goes by that Structural Engineer does not discuss sustainability, sustainable design, or green construction.

    In fact, this month’s cover story, "Tall, gray, and green," by Martin R. Maingot, P.E., discusses the trend of sustainably designed, mid-rise concrete towers in the Pacific Northwest. The author discusses many techniques for attaining a sustainable design—such as reducing reinforcing tonnage and improving formwork efficiency—using traditional methods and materials, but in a more efficient way. (/?s= to learn more.

    In addition to contributed articles, green initiatives are constantly making headlines. This month, two news stories explain how two prominent organizations—the International Code Council and the Associated General Contractors of America—are implementing new programs to assist their constituents’ understanding of green building technologies, programs, and trends. See "(/?s=" and "(/?s=."

    A discussion of sustainable construction almost always includes mention of the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system. Not that I believe this to be the only way to achieve sustainability, but without question, the LEED rating system has thrust the movement of sustainable design into our profession’s spotlight and galvanized our call to action. The term LEED-certified connotates a conscience and concerted effort on the part of the project’s owners and design and construction team to achieve a level of performance that is above the ordinary. The term is frequently used in the mainstream media as well.

    What do you think? Have we reached the tipping point for the sustainable construction movement, where it is now a part of conventional design? If we have reached it, how do you know? If we haven’t, what indicators will confirm when we have? Please share your opinions with me at info@zweiggroup.com.