The construction sector as a whole has lagged other sectors in embracing environmentally conscious improvements. That’s no surprise, as the old ways have more or less gotten the job done, and anything that might result in callbacks will face slow adoption in the industry. As a legacy endeavor of homo sapiens, construction has a lot of institutional inertia, comparable to agriculture. It’s improving, but it’s taking time.
But as Norman Borlaug and the Green Revolution of the 20th century embraced technology to explode food production and avert famine, construction may be on the cusp of its moment now. Global climate change and commitments to lower CO2 emissions are placing demands on the construction industry to reduce emissions.
For masonry, the 800-lb gorilla is the production of portland cement, which is estimated to contribute 8% of global CO2 emissions yearly. Numerous approaches to reducing CO2 production are being tested and are in use, albeit on a small scale, right now, including material substitution, kiln improvement, and carbon capture.
One promising option is called the K-Briq. This product is a straight-up replacement for standard clay bricks, which have been under scrutiny mainly for their manufacturing methods that require mining for clay and kiln firing that generates heat, CO2, pollutants, and uses huge quantities of fossil fuels and wood.
A K-Briq uses a mixture of crushed construction and demolition waste such as old bricks, plasterboard, gravel, and sand. With a binder added, the mixture is pressed into molds and hardens without kiln firing. According to the inventor, the bricks use only 10% of the energy and produce only 10% of the CO2 of conventional bricks, while producing no waste.
This type of product makes sense and fits with mandates for lessening CO2 production and construction waste. If it can reach appropriate scale, it could tick a lot of boxes for a green brick.
Another masonry product that may be ready to take off is the SolaBlock. This wall system consists of proprietary but standard-sized CMU paired with photovoltaic solar panels that are installed vertically. Though solar panels are typically used on roof arrays and in solar farms, the SolaBlock system produces 50-70% of a traditional tilted array, the company claims.
The blocks are standard sized so masons can install them like any other CMU, so any wall normally made of concrete block can be made with SolaBlock. Because solar panels need to be oriented optimally toward the sun to produce maximum output, the SolaBlock system is a tradeoff. And because the sun’s position in the sky changes throughout the year, roof-mounted solar panels are a tradeoff too.
But in areas that receive snow, the performance gap between the SolaBlock system and standard roof-mounted or horizontal panels shrinks. Vertical panels do not become covered with snow, so they can continue producing electricity after a snowstorm. Roof-mounted panels, in contrast, will need to be cleared of snow, unless the wind and sun do the job. Vertical panels also benefit from snow’s reflectivity, so they can even see a bump in production during the winter.
The company envisions the system used extensively anywhere there’s an unobstructed expanse of wall that could produce electricity. That could be a huge amount of energy in office parks, retail developments, highway retaining walls, and so on.
We all know that no solution can solve 100% of problems 100% of the time, so these products will have to be proven in their niches. Both of these products, however, promise a solution to a pressing problem, at a reasonable cost, with very little learning curve for the workforce. That’s a good place to start in addressing the environmental demands of construction today with green technology.