Sustainability seems to be on everyone's mind these days. In our September issue, when we asked industry leaders for their vision of the future, several mentioned the impact that environmental concerns will bring. This prompted a long discussion at the most recent meeting of the Strategic Development Council, which looked at how the concrete industry should respond to this potential threat—or potential opportunity.
One point that was discussed is that first we need to look at whether concrete truly is a sustainable material. The concrete industry shouldn't merely jump on the bandwagon with every other material and product today, which all tout how sustainable they are with no evidence to back up the claim. Are there actually benefits that make concrete a material of the future? I can assure you that the steel guys and the wood guys, and even the asphalt guys, are getting together to try to show how environmentally friendly their industries have become. I could make an argument for just about anything being sustainable if I didn't have to back it up with facts.
So we need to take a hard-eyed look at ourselves, and not just try to convince each other. The industry should take stock of the real impact of concrete as a building material—warts and all. We need to consider the big ugly scars created by aggregate and limestone quarrying, the dust created by cement plants, the energy employed to make cement and ship materials, and the chemicals and related materials used in concrete production and construction. Afterward, we need to gauge the impact of their manufacture.
Of course, we must also look at the positive side: how essential concrete is to high-quality construction, how durable concrete structures are, the contribution of concrete's thermal mass to lowering heating and cooling costs, and even the uptake of CO2 by carbonating concrete (which Bernie Erlin says balances out the CO2 created by cement manufacturing). We should include the fact that concrete normally is manufactured close to where it's used, that we reclaim the quarries, and that we can produce nearly airtight buildings.
Then we need to assign actual values to all of these factors—including the good and the bad. Take this one step further and we can develop similarly unbiased analyses for other construction materials in order to make fair comparisons. Only then will we be able to effectively respond when the wood industry runs ads showing their pretty green trees growing next to the nasty smoke stacks of a cement plant. We've got a great story to tell—and I think we can show that concrete is indeed the material of the future—but it's our responsibility to prove it.