A green economy without U.S. manufacturing?
When Washington University in St. Louis set out to build the “greenest” building in North America, the people involved never expected that the toughest obstacle would be the disappearance of manufacturing from the United States.
“On one level, we’ve all heard about the loss of manufacturing, but when you try to reduce your carbon footprint by eliminating unnecessary shipping, it really brings up that we aren’t making anything anymore,” says Daniel Hellmuth, principal in Hellmuth + Bicknese and architect of the Living Learning Center at Washington University’s Tyson Research Center.
When staff of the Tyson Research Center — the centerpiece for environmental research and education at Washington University — began planning for their new building, called the Living Learning Center, they decided they had to try and meet the most demanding sustainable building code out there. They accepted the Living Building Challenge from the Cascadia Region Green Building Council, the toughest green building standard in North America. No building has met the challenge yet, but the Living Learning Center is in the running to be the first.
The Living Building Challenge sets up 16 requirements that must be met in the construction and operation of a building for the building to qualify as a “living building.” Those requirements cover everything from site selection and construction waste to materials used and energy and water use. The building can’t be built in a flood plain or other fragile environment, for example. It must generate enough of its own electricity so that when in use for one full year it uses zero net energy from the electric grid or gas lines. It must collect and purify enough water on its own that it uses zero net water, and it must produce zero wastewater (sewage).
Tyson Research Center attempts to meet the energy and water requirements of the Living Building Challenge by generating electricity with a rooftop photovoltaic array, replacing traditional flush toilets with composting toilets to eliminate wastewater, and collecting and purifying rainwater to make water for drinking.
“The technology is all there, there just has to be a commitment to use it,” Hellmuth says.
What isn’t all there is a domestic manufacturing base.
“The offshoring of manufacturing in the last decade is probably as big an event as the industrial revolution,” says Craig Meyer, president of the Society of Industrial and Office Realtors and part of the Los Angeles office of the Jones Lang Lasalle commercial real estate company. It has certainly reshaped the industrial real estate market and redefined industrial real estate as primarily warehouses and distribution centers for products shipped into the United States from overseas.
Offshoring, however, runs counter to the demands of a green economy. In order to reduce greenhouse gases from unnecessary shipping and transportation, the Living Building Challenge sets up mileage limits for the transportation of materials from their place of manufacture. The heavier an item is, the closer it has to be made to the building site to minimize carbon pollution. Metal items, for example, have to be made within 250 miles of the building site. Medium weight items, such as wood for framing, siding, or trim, have to come from within 500 miles of the building site.
Smith said that the project team for the Living Learning Center found that complying with the material requirements of the Living Building Challenge for locally made and non-toxic building components was the hardest part of the Living Building Challenge. In fact, they couldn’t do it. They had to get exemptions for many building components. “Ceiling fans aren’t made in this country anymore,” Hellmuth says. Neither are light fixtures, Smith added. “Every light fixture we looked at had some part made in China,” he says. Indeed, “we found that there are a lot of components in building systems that are not made in this country anymore,” Hellmuth says.
And when products aren’t made locally, local distributors often did not know what was in them. The Living Building Challenge has a “red list” of materials it does not allow in products used in buildings designed to meet the challenge. Those materials, including lead, mercury, and PVCs, are banned because of their toxic effects on humans or the environment. “When we asked a lot of distributors if there were any of these materials in their products, they wouldn’t know,” Smith says. Ultimately, the project team had to employ someone to vet products for point of origin and freedom from red-listed toxins.
The so-called “toxic Chinese drywall scandal” illustrates problems that can arise from ignorance of product contents. The scandal, affecting anywhere from 100,000 to 3 million home built or renovated between 2004 and 2007, involves drywall, imported from China, that was contaminated with strontium sulfide and other toxic compounds. The strontium sulfide would react with hydrogen in the air to corrode metal and eat through wiring while giving off a rotten egg smell. Homeowners have laid the blame for numerous health problems on the drywall. A class action lawsuit is seeking billions of dollars in damages from home builders, drywall contractors and distributors, and the drywall manufacturers. Some home builders, such as Miami-based Lennar Homes, are in turn suing the Chinese drywall makers.
The heaviest use of contaminated Chinese drywall was along the Gulf Coast, but according to the Chinese Drywall Complaint Center, toxic Chinese drywall also has been identified in California, Oregon, Washington, Wyoming, Nevada, Arizona, Iowa, Missouri, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, and Connecticut.
The problem with materials is bigger than just a few parts. Panos Kouvelis, professor of operations and manufacturing management at Washington University, says that when regional manufacturers lose business, it affects a whole chain of companies. “When sweaters were made in the United States, manufacturers bought their fiber and supplies from North American companies. The manufacturers were here and so was their supply chain,” he says. After the Asian financial crisis of the 1990s, retailers stopped ordering sweaters from North American manufacturers and placed all their orders with Asian manufacturers. “Quite naturally, Asian manufacturers didn’t buy their fiber from American companies; they bought it from companies close to them.” So, when retailers stopped buying sweaters from North American manufacturers, it not only knocked sweater-making plants out of business, but also knocked out the factories that made acrylic fibers and other supplies for sweater factories.
That cascading effect shows up in the numbers. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, one-third of the manufacturing jobs that existed in the United States 10 years ago have disappeared. During the same time, the country’s trade deficit in manufactured goods more than doubled.
The loss of capabilities to make products is just the start. Also lost, in addition to the knowledge of what is in products, are the capabilities to manage production, to know what technology can do, and even the capability to develop better, more environmentally-sustainable technologies. When, for example, SSM Health Care decided to build a model hospital in Fenton, Mo. — as an exemplar of how to deliver hospital care efficiently and effectively — they found they had to go to Asia for some of the most energy efficient building systems. The highly energy efficient boilers they selected for heating the hospital “are pretty new in the United States, but they’ve been used in the Far East for some time,” says Mark Bengard, senior vice president for Murphy Co., the mechanical contractor that helped SSM select and install the system.
Environmentalists realizing that U.S. cannot have a green economy, much less become a leader in green technology, if country does not have an adequate manufacturing base. They hope that carbon policies that include the cost of carbon pollution into the cost of transportation will begin to change that. “Part of a healthy green economy is to start making things on a local level again,” Hellmuth says. If so, the push for a new green economy could help revive the old manufacturing economy. — Peter Downs (firstname.lastname@example.org)