We live in a world that is growing very conscious about sustainability. So as societies we encourage each other to recycle and think green. Cars are emitting less pollution and packaging is becoming more biodegradable. Buildings have recently started to attract the same attention.
This is a good thing because buildings are among the biggest contributors to energy use and carbon pollution. Roughly 40 percent of energy is consumed by buildings and the impact is undeniable: it has been estimated that US buildings emit as much carbon as the combined economies of the UK, France and Japan.
That’s a lot, so it is crucial that architects and builders create sites that are sustainable today and into the future. Since African countries are still catching up with energy generation, according to Kofi Annan’s African Progress Panel 2015 Report, this will have to be as carbon-neutral as possible. A world already at the brink of carbon overload cannot handle much more – but if Africa is to rise further, it cannot, not generate power. So the continent’s energy demands should be matched with sustainable practices such as lowering building carbon emissions.
At the very least, sustainability now impacts a building’s future value, while design elements affect its current liveability and appeal. Smart designers are always looking for that edge in their work – and when it comes to sustainability, glass has become their secret weapon.
It should be noted that glass was not always sustainable. Indeed, if you once matched glass to certain types of walls, it didn’t fare much better in terms of energy insulation. But this has changed: advances in double glazing, lamination and other treatments can turn glass into a great energy saver.
In addition to that, glass is very recyclable and is manufactured through highly efficient processes that require few chemicals and little water. Glass is transparent, chemically inert, strong, easily available and quite affordable – properties you won’t find in other widely-used building materials.
Let’s consider three good reasons why glass has become a favoured material for sustainable buildings:
- It saves energy through insulation: It has been shown as far back as the 1960s that glass can be a very good heat insulator. Technologies such as double glazing, inert gas insulation, lamination and infrared coating have given us many options on how glass can improve the thermal characteristics of a building. When combined with other systems such as solar and smart air-conditioning, glass has helped state-of-the-art buildings to become almost self-sustainable around heating and cooling.
- It is fully recyclable and an ample resource: Glass is made from sand, a resource that isn’t hard to find nor mine. In fact, our early ancestors often used natural glass as tools for cutting and other jobs. All you need is heat and you can start creating glass. Naturally, today’s glass is more sophisticated, but it still derives from the same basic resources. This makes it sustainable from the cradle onwards. Glass is also very recyclable – 50 to 80 percent of glass is recycled and 30 percent of raw glass material is from recycled glass – and it can be recycled again and again. This is not only good for cost but crucial for the demolishment stage of a building.
- It is good for lighting: Contrary to popular belief, humans were not ‘cave’ people. Caves are cold and dark. We rarely made a home in them. This tradition has continued: nobody enjoys working in a dark, isolated space. Artificial light has often been the remedy, but it has two drawbacks: it’s expensive to generate and it is a poor substitute for natural light. Glass brings the sunlight back in our lives, especially with modern glass facades that can manage light on numerous levels. This includes ceramic strips or dots, as well as coatings that only allow certain parts of the light spectrum to pass. These help reduce or increase the amount of light entering a building. Such innovations keep us more energised, blend the inside and outside world, and save money by taking advantage of the sun’s abundant light.
It should be added that not all glass can do this. Plain glazing is not enough to achieve sustainability. In fact, do it wrong and glass can become an environmental nightmare. But if you use the right glass for the right job, it outperforms other building materials. Over the long term glass is undeniably a friend of nature.
Every day new buildings prove this, not only creating beautiful spaces both in- and outside but reaping the rewards of energy savings through light and heat. At a time when caring about our environment and sustainability have never been more important, glass may just be an architect and builder’s new best friend.