Celebrating on Friday, April 22nd, Earth Day’s theme this year — “Invest in our planet” — is one that will continue to resonate, and drives home an important mission.

Sustainable practices and products in the building product industry are valuable investments for our habitable future. What’s more, these products — and practices — demonstrate that human flourishing and economic prosperity… aren’t mutually exclusive terms.

When an individual adopts such personal disciplines as driving fewer miles — or reducing consumption of single-use containers — they immediately save money in the process. Similarly, when a brand adopts policies that encourage recycling and reuse, their business recognizes savings on overhead and becomes even more profitable.

A Path to Building Better

Conserving resources — while certainly an important goal — is just one step along our collective path towards building a sustainable future. And, though it’s true that individual actions, when combined into collective habits, make a difference –meaningful emission reductions… won’t come from carpooling alone. The great strides for our channel will continue to originate from developing sustainable building products and innovative processes.

The exciting news is that this fundamental shift in how building products are made — and how structures are built — is already well underway.

Technologies that were previously relegated to “early adopters” have entered the mainstream. And once fringe ideas — such as generating electricity from the sun and harvesting the power of wind — grow less expensive and become more widespread every year. The success of these two technologies has even paved the way for more novel approaches to power creation… from harnessing the tides and ocean waves to more efficient capture of geothermal heat.

And these movements toward a more sustainable, “greener” future don’t have to evoke a sense of deprivation. Or result in economic stagnation. Rather, they point toward a prosperous future in every sense.

Whether it’s using new materials, preserving resources or lessening impacts… alternative approaches are becoming “status quo” for progressive building product brands. This new path toward prosperity — in the building products industry — should inspire us all to further consider these types of developments. And to seek new ways to evolve into these emerging income streams.

Smart Building Design

Turning on the light with the help of an Amazon Echo, Google Nest or any other smart speaker/smart bulb combination is often the introduction to living in a smart home. But smart building extends beyond residential applications. In fact, smart building design features automation systems as a vital phase of commercial construction. These systems control lighting, heating and cooling, ventilation, water use and security… helping structures become even more energy-efficient.

Zero-net-energy buildings take automation an important step further. The total amount of energy used by these structures is equal to the amount of energy generated onsite or nearby. Combinations of solar arrays, wind turbines and banks of batteries cover electricity needs. While insulation systems, solar and geothermal energy maximize HVAC systems. Passive solar design collects heat from the sun. And retains it in materials that store thermal mass.

Yes, building design is changing the ways the built environment leverages energy. Whether it’s through greater efficiency — or energy produced onsite — smart building design represents a new frontier.

Recycled Construction Materials

Buildings are being designed to conserve resources. And the materials used in construction are changing too. Newly developed, recycled building materials work well — and can cost less than new materials — while at the same time, helping to mitigate waste.

Branding strategies are poised to create unique selling opportunities based on the innovative use of these materials.

For example, ceiling tiles that can be made from slag wool from the steel industry, newspaper, glass and even sugar cane. Sheep’s wool, cotton from recycled clothing, straw bales and hemp fiber provide new sources for effective insulation solutions. Recycled rubber, tires, vinyl and PVC plastic are transformed into flooring. Reclaimed pavement, shredded roof shingles, ground tire rubber and steel slag become cost-effective materials, when combined into hot mix asphalt. And recycled glass can find new design life in terrazzo floors and tile.

Clearly, there’s still a lot of value left in what was once merely a waste stream.

Concrete and Cement

One of the most ubiquitous construction materials is concrete. Typically, it’s made from limestone, marl, sand and clay. These raw materials are crushed and put into a kiln — to be turned into cement. The cement is mixed with aggregates and water to make concrete.

Other raw materials — including recycled waste diverted from landfills — can make their way into concrete mixes and actually improve the product. A promising alternative additive is fly ash… a byproduct of coal combustion that is usually dumped into landfills. Simply adding in fly ash as a filler… reduces the amount of quarried minerals needed to make concrete. That saves money and time. While finding a new use for what would be a hazardous waste product.

But cement and concrete have an emissions problem. For every metric ton of cement produced, an equal amount of CO2 is released into the atmosphere. Every year, more than four billion metric tons of cement are produced… accounting for some eight percent of global carbon dioxide emissions. To put that in context — if the cement industry were a country — it would be the third-largest emitter of CO2 in the world.

A new cement called Solidia addresses that problem. Solidia’s manufacturing process not only releases less CO2, but the product also absorbs CO2 from the atmosphere as it cures. Using concrete made from Solidia cement can reduce the amount of CO2 emitted by a significant 70 percent over traditional concrete.

Engineered Wood and Sustainable Forestry

Engineered wood contains different wood types that are bound — or fixed together — as an alternative to solid expanses of wood from a single source. Entire buildings are being built using this material, due to its cost-effectiveness and sustainability. In fact, the U.S.’s tallest engineered timber building is set to complete this year in Milwaukee. The floors and walls are made from cross-laminated timber… a form of engineered wood, also known as CLT.

The environmental benefits are impressive. Global carbon emissions could be reduced significantly if more buildings were constructed this way.

Meanwhile, the use of responsibly sourced wood from sustainably managed forests… will allow for better absorption of carbon emissions to help keep the air clean for generations to come, while also providing necessary havens for wildlife.

Cool Roofs and High-Efficiency Windows

A heat island is the name for a phenomena where buildings absorb heat from the sun during the day and radiate it back out at night. This “heat island effect” can actually impact the weather in urban areas. As periods of high heat increase in frequency and severity, these heat islands can contribute to human suffering and increased costs for cooling.

Cool roofs use specially designed tiles and reflective paints engineered to minimize this effect and help buildings — and their neighborhoods — stay cooler.

Another solution gaining traction is green roofs. Grass, plants, flowers, bushes and other greenery is grown on the roofing material. Stormwater is absorbed into the soil, making it easier to manage than on a bare roof. Heating and cooling costs are reduced, and air quality is improved.

High-efficiency windows go beyond R-values when they are coated with a metallic oxide that blocks the sun’s rays, keeping spaces cooler in the summer. While retaining valuable heat inside during the winter.

Water Conservation

While focusing on reducing emissions and redirecting waste streams, it’s easy to overlook water conservation. Drought and water scarcity are growing problems. During the last two decades, California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana have experienced their driest decades on record.

There are simple ways to reduce the amount of water that a building — and its users — consume. Rainwater harvesting, water-efficient plumbing fixtures, rain gardens, xeriscaping and greywater reclamation methods… are all designed to conserve water.

A Winning Approach

The advantages of these types of novel approaches extend beyond the associated environmental benefits. In many cases, these new directions can help to lower costs and lead to tax benefits. And, importantly… are likely to boost a company’s brand reputation. ESG programs are on the rise, and more building product companies are implementing these directives as part of their corporate social responsibility initiatives.

Additionally, sales and marketing alignment opportunities often begin in the research and development department. And why not? Developing products that fit into a sustainable framework makes sense from an environmental… and economic perspective also.

Let’s not wait for another Earth Day to explore ways to grow and nurture a successful branding strategy. Send an email to sk@kleberandassociates.com to get the conversation started.