Industry Must Confront Challenges and Opportunities in Circular Economy

Industry Must Confront Challenges and Opportunities in Circular Economy

I attended my first American Institute of Architects (AIA) Conference in early June—definitely something to check off my A/E/C industry bucket list. What I love about trade shows, aside from seeing the latest in swag and which exhibits have the most coordinated outfits, is the undercurrent. What is on everyone’s mind? What is stopping them from achieving their goals?

Once you look past the trade show swag and sales pitches, important industry topics—driving architectural decision-making and manufacturing/product development—are revealed. Sustainability continues to reign as the theme of building industry trade shows, as it has for the last several years.

Sustainability continues to reign as the theme of building industry trade shows, as it has for the last several years.

However, the shift in tone I noticed was alive and well, as participants have gone from hopeful to demonstrably skeptical of sustainability messaging. Many attendees approached me expecting to hear a fluffy, green-washed story meant to make them feel appropriately warm and fuzzy. Instead, they were sold something—a brand, a product—probably unrelated to the pitch they just heard. This mirrors the public’s cynicism in a new, dismaying way.

When sustainability as an entry topic becomes “sus,” we know we’ve passed the point where just having conversations is enough. That was our start. The stakes and the expectations have been raised.

To be cliché (and reference my obsession with walkability), it’s not enough to talk the sustainability talk—we must walk the sustainability walk. Demonstrate stewardship. Demonstrate decarbonization in action. Take accountability. These are the latest, higher barriers to entry into meaningful conversations of environmental action and building industry partnerships.

As building product manufacturers, we are responsible for taking that next step.

As exhibitors, we saw and heard demand at AIA for products that bring the latest in performance in step with meaningful advancement to decarbonizing the built world. Our show focus, decarbonization with glass, was a robust topic for learning and exploration. We know we’re at a crossroads in building and design when styles like Brutalism could return—a fascinating concept discussed during BEC 2024 during the Standard and Code Update session.

The discussion at BEC 2024 on the new “eco-Brutalism” wasn’t particularly long, but it has loomed large in my mind since discussing it with a colleague months ago. The impact of not moving fast enough to bring sustainable solutions to market, particularly when it comes to glass, will influence our landscape for decades to come. Brutalism partly emerged due to cost and functional considerations but did not create a healthier building. The goal of a healthier building is at the crux of a future designed with glass.

As glass manufacturers, we are crusaders for building wellness. Time and again, access to daylight and all the benefits it brings behind four walls has been confirmed, and multiple types of building glass are made to foster this visibility. To construct a future where architects and designers are empowered to embrace glass and its benefits in design, manufacturers must take on the responsibility to create products that both reduce embodied carbon and meet enhanced performance demands.

Glaziers are juggling several opposing factors that can make it difficult to find and use paths and products that are better for the environment, from cost-cutting building owners to limited product availability and even the preferences of designers. Standards like LEED and WELL are cutting through those difficulties, as are regulations and building codes that mandate using sustainable products in construction projects. A business process management system must provide the right education, training and access to these products to ensure they are available when needed.

This year, some of the most inspiring conversations and demands for solutions at AIA centered on the circular economy. The building community acknowledges that the traditional linear model “take-make-use-dispose” is no longer viable and must be replaced by a circular economy that gives back as much as it takes. There are multiple facets to a circular economy model, including reduced dependency on resources, transforming a waste stream into secondary raw material, increasing product longevity and facilitating a product’s end-of-life recycling (i.e., easy dismantling, limiting toxic substances content).

Circularity is a whole industry conversation, and excluding these challenges rings false and potentially leaves solutions on the table.

Conversations with attendees unearthed several challenges in the developing circular economic system in the United States, including a limited pool of partners on both the manufacturing and end-of-life sides. We’ve seen first-hand the hope and success our European colleagues have demonstrated with programs like Glass Forever, where a challenge can be seen as a barrier or a call to action. All the enthusiasm for this topic points to a circular economy as a growing call to action for manufacturers and entrepreneurs. We look forward to continuing to take it head-on, along with so many other great takeaways from AIA 2024.

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