Rising to the Challenge of Prioritizing Sustainability

The Building Envelope Contractors (BEC) Conference always represents a good opportunity to take the pulse of a critical part of the commercial glass and glazing industry.

This year, I noticed a few things that I believe are indicative of some broader trends. The first is plenty of fresh faces and younger attendees from various stakeholder companies and organizations. This is encouraging as companies within our space get more invested in training, engagement and passing institutional knowledge to a new generation.

The second is a real, driving focus on sustainability across many of the panel discussions and presentations at the conference. That might not sound surprising on its face but considering that most of the BEC attendees are glazing contractors, such a focus is worth noting. Sustainability initiatives and conversations have typically been more predominant with the design and manufacturing community—less so on the installation side.

Such was the change at this year’s conference. It tells us a lot about the challenges and opportunities a broadening push for greater sustainability will have for all industry stakeholders going forward. As we move into the future, sustainability is no longer a niche concern—it’s everyone’s responsibility.

One topic of discussion at BEC revolved around Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs). An EPD transparently reports objective, comparable and third-party-verified data about a product’s environmental performance from a life cycle perspective.

Among the code and architectural communities, EPDs are gaining traction as a way to measure a new structure’s environmental impact by necessitating these declarations from building materials used throughout the project. As things are trending, codes and project specs may soon begin demanding such declarations at more individualized, product-specific levels.

This might be all well and good, but there are a few complicating factors. Using an EPD as a point of direct product comparison is frowned upon. That’s because EPDs typically rely on estimations of impacts. Therefore, the accuracy will differ for any particular product line and reported impact. EPDs are not meant to be comparative assertions and may not be comparable or have limited comparability.

Second, the necessity of EPDs at the individual component level would have some major business consequences for anyone going to market with proprietary products or formulations. An EPD necessarily involves the disclosure of a product’s composition—and no manufacturer divulges the specifics of what makes their product competitive.

The commercial glass and glazing industry will need to grapple with this in the coming years. An ongoing dialog with the architectural and code communities will be important. It will be incumbent upon glass and glazing professionals to collaborate and educate on the most effective ways we can help create more sustainable buildings.

And therein lies our opportunity. There is no shortage of ways commercial glass professionals can contribute to sustainable, high-performance commercial structures. We must continue to advocate for the important role that glass and glazing play in our built environments and push the envelope to deliver increasingly high-performance products.

As I said earlier, sustainability is everyone’s responsibility. If we embrace this challenge and continue to innovate, our continued collective success is inevitable.

Joe Erb is a national account manager for Quanex.