The Sustainable Value of Concrete
We explore the sustainable value of concrete within four broad values: stewardship of natural resources; stewardship of financial resources; safety and stability; and aesthetics.
Concrete’s contribution to these values derives from its unique properties. It is strong and durable, resistant to deterioration and damage. It buffers temperature, and it can be colored and placed to do this in a way that works with passive solar energy to heat or cool spaces. It buffers sound, providing respite in a crowded, noisy world. It is versatile, allowing a large range of shapes, textures, and structural approaches to create the function, look, and feel appropriate to the project. It is also versatile in the flexibility of component materials, a quality which both extends the range of performance properties – insulation, permeability, and strength – and allows variation in the resources used to produce it.
Stewardship of Nature’s Resources
Human enterprise rests within and depends upon the earth’s natural cycles of growth, decomposition, regeneration, dilution, assimilation, flow, circulation, and storage. We have always been a part of these cycles. Only recently have we recognized that the current scale of our population and pace of our economic activity have become a major force in these systems and risk disturbing them in ways that disturb us. Concentrations of potential toxins cause illness in humans, plants, and animals; reduced absorption of precipitation causes flooding; plastics end up in the ocean food chain; excess air-borne carbon alters the climate; material consumption disturbs delicately balanced habitats.
Because humans have been so successful, everything we do now matters, because everyone else is doing it too and the cumulative effect can tip the balance of these complex systems. One action might be just a drop in the bucket, but it takes only one drop, on top of all the others, for the bucket to overflow. The challenge then is to find a way to prosper within the balance of nature’s cycles. Be it an energy source, plastic, metals and minerals, wood, plants, animals, chemicals, water or any other ‘resource’ - stewardship means using less, getting the most use out of what we do use, and using everything at a pace and in forms that the economy and ecosystem can reabsorb and store or use again.
Concrete can play a vital role in the way we conserve and protect natural resources in the structures we create with it and the processes by which we produce it.
Adaptive reuse: durability allows revitalization/repurposing of structures.
Stewardship of Financial Resources
Money matters. Resource stewardship is also an economic activity. Individuals use money to meet their basic (and not so basic) needs of food, shelter, mobility, clothing, spirituality, recreation, and leisure. Companies use it to meet these needs. We want to get the most value, because money too is a finite resource. As oversimplified as this is, the fact is that we need to invest in new ways of doing things, whether that means investing in research, transforming social practices and behaviors, restoring or removing past mistakes, or implementing new technologies. A shift to sustainability requires recognizing the full cost of operating a home or business. The good news is that often an initial up- front cost increase results in greater value over time as well as new business opportunities. In the case of concrete, the length of service that results from its durability, the versatility of its design and applications, the speed of construction, and the in place performance all contribute to a return on the investment.
While the discussion of sustainability is often dominated by environmental concerns, when you scratch the surface it is really the desire for safety and stability, the protection of our lives and livelihoods, that drives sustainability. We are, in fact, identifying resiliency as a desired characteristic of our society, one focused on reducing risks and vulnerabilities. When we stop separating ourselves and see humans as part of nature, then the goal of sustainability becomes creating and maintaining our habitat in balance with the others. This requires environmental protection, but that includes our built environments and systems. Many of us deeply value and appreciate the natural environment for its intrinsic beauty, diversity, and intricacy. But we value most its ability to sustain us, to feed us, to provide the air and water we need, to provide the materials to shelter us from the extremes of nature itself.
Moreover, when we consider the growing debate between extreme weather and human-induced climate change, we begin to see the relationship. Resilience means we are more in control of our energy and food production, access to water supplies, and state of preparedness for disasters. Sustainability must now plan for the impact of climate change. Here, a disaster is a signal of the failure of a society to adapt to its new extreme environment.
Concrete lasts, and provides the shelter we need from these extremes. It allows us to get through disasters with less loss and less waste. It connects us to each other through transportation corridors, gathering places and monuments. Out built environment holds us together within the larger planetary ecosystems.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but humans have always striven to bring a sense of style and design to our structures. Quite aside from the basic functionality, the look and feel of a place influences how successfully it serves its purpose. If it fails to serve its purpose, then it is a waste. We desire spaces and places that provide respite from noise and the elements; that are smooth for ease of movement; that are porous to let through water, or solid to keep it out; that are stable to resist vibrations; that are large and curvaceous to convey a sense of grandeur and excitement; that are classical and monumental to convey a sense of permanence and stability….