Sustainability Picks Up Steam
Sustainable operating practices — which have roots in the business strategies of many European construction materials companies — are making their way into the ideology and operations of their North American counterparts.
For example, Lafarge North America Inc.’s various business units have taken a cue from their global parent company, with each business unit forming a sustainable construction committee. Each committee represents all its product lines, including aggregates, ready-mix, asphalt, cement, pre-cast concrete, and gypsum within that business unit, says Ted Matson, Lafarge North America Inc.’s director of marketing for aggregates in western Canada.
“During the last two years, we came up with a marketing plan that primarily identifies risks and opportunities that are related to sustainability,” he explains. “Here in western Canada, almost all of the newly designed buildings have some sustainable construction dimension to them. There’s an increased awareness of it internally within our own organization and, at the same time, externally within the construction industry.”
One of the risks includes a negative perception related to the risk of embodied energy (from CO2) in the materials. At the same time, product lifespan and durability offer opportunities, particularly as they relate to a building industry that is increasingly seeking green construction materials. “The big issue is life-cycle cost, so, as a building material, the life-cycle energy requirements from a product like concrete, with aggregates and cement in it, can be proven to be a lot better than other building materials,” he says. “That’s a point where we have an opportunity.”
Each group identifies its correlating risks and opportunities, then develops an action plan to address them by product type and customer segment. For example, the product segments now have a response to British Columbia’s Wood First initiative, which promotes wood as a more sustainable construction material. “We have identified specific actions for our specific products to counter their arguments,” Matson points out, noting advantages in terms of both durability and fire safety.
Reducing environmental impact
In addition to considering the marketing aspects, the committees are also reviewing their operating practices from a sustainability and environmental impact viewpoint. “We’re identifying a lot of current practices that need to be understood and promoted as items that help us in terms of sustainable construction,” Matson says.
For example, the committee has looked at calculations for embodied energy, which plays a significant role in LEED certification. When it comes to those calculations, transportation of aggregates — on average — produces significantly higher CO2 emissions than does the production of aggregates. “Locating our sites in proximity to the market is something we’ve always done from a cost point of view,” he says. “We’ve always thought it would lower our trucking costs, but we also need to think about it and promote it in terms of the sustainable construction. We’re trying to recognize efficiencies within our operations that we already do and communicate them in terms of sustainable construction.”
BoDean Co., Inc. switched to solar power for its main office in 2007. Previously, it overcame the challenge of installing panels on its steep terrain (see below) and became the first solar-powered quarry in the United States.
Another focus area of Lafarge’s sustainability effort targets energy savings that can be achieved during the production process. A new initiative focuses on making sure the plants don’t operate without product flow. “Every time that our plants are running, we want to make sure they are crushing or conveying material,” says Laurent Villanueva, director of marketing, Lafarge North America Inc.’s Eastern Canada Aggregates. “We want to optimize output and minimize environmental impact.”
Likewise, the company is training its mobile equipment operators to run their equipment efficiently and avoid idling during downtime or lunch breaks. “That’s behavior that we see, and we think it’s time to change it by making sure people are aware of the environmental impact,” Villanueva says.
In addition to monitoring fuel usage, the company is also trying to flatten peaks in electrical power demand to reduce the needs of the electrical grid. “If you have high peaks of electricity, it’s difficult for the electricity supplier because they have to have the capacity to meet those peaks,” he points out.