Eli Meir Kaplan

By 2020 the rapid pace of change in residential design and construction will transform building products and performance. A sustained focus on both energy and water will transform building science from the sidelines to a leading role for both practitioners and manufacturers. Products will be integrated into systems as a matter of course, and Vision 2020 builders and manufacturers will be as resilient as the homes they design and build to the demands of both a new economic and environmental climate.

Seemingly everywhere we look we see the forces of change challenging the building industry. And whether they relate to the economy, environment, health, demographics, or even globalization, these forces have already influenced our direction and pace, and they will continue driving us forward as manufacturers who respond to the challenge gain competitive advantages in critical emerging markets seeking greener and healthier products.


Ozone depletion: As the pressure to make greener building materials continues, it’s important to recognize the extraordinary effort that the industry went to over the past 20 years to eliminate ozone-depleting substances from refrigerants and foam insulation. When the reality of ozone depletion became clear, manufacturers stepped up to the plate and invested hundreds of millions of dollars to retool their manufacturing processes to eliminate chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) by 1995 and most hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) by 2010. This accomplishment was huge and should be celebrated.

Global warming potential: But climate scientists tell us that we need to replicate our successes in phasing out ozone-depleting substances with phasing out greenhouse gases. This will be much harder. To use the example of extruded polystyrene (XPS) and spray polyurethane foam (SPF) insulation, the second-generation blowing agents, HCFCs, were far less potent greenhouse gases than the first-generation blowing agents, CFCs, but third-generation blowing agents, hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), saw little improvement from a global warming standpoint. With closed-cell SPF, the blowing agent used in most products today is actually worse than the HCFC that it replaced. Fourth-generation blowing agents, which are likely to be hydrofluoroolefins (HFOs), will solve the problems of both ozone depletion and global warming potential in building materials.

Indoor air quality: We spend 90% of our time indoors, and there is growing concern that the rising incidence of asthma, autism, behavioral problems, and certain cancers may be tied to chemicals we expose ourselves and our children to in our homes.

Among the chemicals of greatest concern today are halogenated flame retardants (used in foam insulation, cushioning, and synthetic fabrics) and Bisphenol A (used as a plasticizer in many vinyl building products). But with thousands of new chemicals entering the market every year, who knows what the next concern will be. Wise manufacturers are tracking these issues and responding with healthier alternatives.

Transparency: Many manufacturers now produce Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) that divulge what’s in their products and communicate what the environmental impacts of those constituents may be. This transparency, relatively new in American manufacturing, may be followed by a more specific Health Product Declaration (HPD), the format of which is now being developed. By 2020 transparency will be the rule, not the exception, in building product manufacturing.

Energy efficiency: Reducing energy consumption is still at the heart of the green building movement, and it will remain a top priority in 2020. By then, ultra-low-energy homes will largely be standard practice, and the challenge will largely reside with existing homes. Achieving dramatic reductions in energy use of existing homes is much more daunting and complex than new homes. But there are huge profits to be realized by manufacturers of integrated products and systems, which guide architects, remodelers, and their clients in deep energy retrofitting

Water footprints: As important as energy efficiency is, according to many experts, water may actually become a bigger challenge in the coming decades. Climate change is altering precipitation patterns, and while there is expected to be higher precipitation worldwide, some regions, such as the American West, are expected to experience increased drought.

Manufacturers have responded with a wide range of top-performing water-conserving products. For instance, some 1.5-gpm showerheads provide nearly as satisfying a shower as industry-standard models using 2.5 gpm. Dual-flush, pressure-assist, and vacuum-assist toilets are available that work as well as—or better than—some of the old 3.5-gpm toilets because manufacturers redesigned these products from the ground up. And the quietest luxury residential dishwasher on the market is also the stingiest in water and energy use.

These sorts of innovations will continue. By 2020 today’s most water-efficient products will be standard practice, and we’ll see a new generation of leading-edge products, both inside and outside the home. In a systems approach to water efficiency, teams of manufacturers will be offering water bill guarantees on packages of water-efficient products, just as some have already offered energy bill guarantees for space conditioning both new and existing homes.

Just as fixtures and appliances will continue the trend of becoming more and more water efficient, manufacturers throughout the building products industry will also continue making dramatic strides in reducing water use in their manufacturing.

We have a long way to go, but industrial-sector water consumption is on the way down. Vision 2020 manufacturers will save money in production while improving their environmental footprint.