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September 2008

Appropriate Durability

Considering durability in our selection of materials is a fundamental design practice. Usually, we match the level of use with the amount of needed durability for the desired useful life. An obvious example is commercial carpet versus residential carpet. Higher volumes of traffic require more durability and a higher price tag usually follows. In this regard, durability becomes an investment. The up front higher cost is returned in the value received for a longer useful life. In general terms we consider higher durability to be synonymous with higher quality and as long as we can afford it, we're willing to pay for it.

But, in design we don't just match necessary durability with functional needs. We often use durability standards as a minimum and ignore durability that may exceed need. Granite counter tops are a perfect example of this. People who can afford it choose granite counters for personal preference or status seeking reasons not because they need it to last hundreds of years. Granite countertops provide unnecessary durability. But, just as HVAC professionals are expected to right size heating and cooling systems, we need to embrace the appropriate durability of our material selections.

The decision making process that allows us to use granite for a kitchen counters is based on the old "bottom line" kind of thinking where monetary economics dominate. But, when we add triple bottom line considerations to the process and truly embrace an ethic of sustainability we need to ask additional questions: Is it even remotely possible that the granite will stay in service for its entire useful life? Sure, it's possible to keep using that slab of granite for a variety of uses throughout time. If we apply the reuse rationale, does that make it a sustainable practice or a compromise we're willing to accept? What about embodied energy? We can figure the embodied energy required to blast it from the earth, ship it to be cut and polished, delivered and installed. How does that embodied energy compare with alternative countertop solutions? Additionally, we can ask, does granite have value if we leave it in the earth? Are we ready to embrace the renewed belief that the earth has an inherit value? If so, what then is the cost of using this irreplaceable resource and forever altering the earth? In terms of social equity issues, how are people in the process from raw material extraction to installation treated? Do they receive a living wage? Sustainably responsible decision making requires us to ask more than, is it durable enough and can we afford it? We also need to ask, what are all the costs?

I'm thinking also about another factor in the life cycle of granite and marble products. As an interior design student I visited a workshop where I witnessed first hand a dumpster full of granite and marble slabs. These incredibly beautiful pieces of the earth were destined for a landfill. The owners of the shop used to set them out for people to freely take. But, it wasn't worth their time to perform the little cutting and polishing jobs people requested so, the give away ended and the dumpsters are routinely filled with left over pieces and hauled away. I'm sure that scenario is common practice around the country. Can we justify such waste?

Granite used for countertops is just one example of inappropriate durability with sustainably irresponsible costs. Plastics are a man made material designed to last "forever" and priced for use by the masses. In interior design, plastics in the form of vinyl were embraced for their durability and low cost. We don't use vinyl for status seeking or personal preference. We certainly don't love our vinyl products like we love materials from nature. But, we've allowed ourselves to overlook the lifecycle issues regarding vinyl in return for their low price tag and hyper durability. Still, they are too durable for our uses. The vinyl floor I bought along with my house is now pulling away at the edges and sorely outdated but it hasn't worn out. And the "lasts forever" feature means an afterlife with sustainability concerns: it literally would last forever if put in a landfill. Worse still are the lifecycle costs to human health and the environment which are well documented in research regarding PVC.

It's time for us to use Life Cycle thinking in all our material selection processes. We may have to change our idea of what is status and educate our clients about the full impact of each material. We may need to re-align our personal preferences with our ethic of sustainability. After all, what we love about granite for example is it's natural properties. Yet, the use of it comes with a high price to the natural world. And vinyl is something we don't even love. Surely we can give that up for other materials with appropriate durability and reasonable price tags. When selecting materials, our ethic of sustainability means we need to balance life cycle impacts and choose products with appropriate durability.

Joyfully, Sue Norman
Sue Norman, Managing Editor
Associate IIDA
Allied Member ASID