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Sustainable Building Colorado Style

Innovative solutions for building resilient structures

Colorado is home to many companies dedicated to providing sustainable materials for builders. We spoke with three local companies about their products and the environmental benefits they offer.

Colorado Earth

Colorado Earth designs, manufactures and builds resilient structures using locally produced low-embodied carbon masonry. A structural block that is manufactured at its Brighton facility is fireproof, soundproof, bugproof, bulletproof, breathable, biodegradable, mold resistant and offers the environmental benefits of local production.

The company’s EcoBlox are made using overburden material from a nearby quarry. The combination of thermal mass and insulation reduces energy consumption costs by leveling out peak demand loads. 

Colorado Earth offers a regional solution to building supply chain concerns, says owner and operator Lisa Morey. Morey references Smithsonian magazine, which reported that there will be sophisticated buildings made of mud in the next 40 years.

“Until now, wood is fault-tolerant for fast and cheap construction, and use of trees at scale has been cheap and available for America,” Morey says. “With climate change in full force now, the weaknesses of the traditional wood frame are becoming clear and unacceptable.”

Wildfires and hurricanes are causing people to lose their homes and businesses. These threats require new solutions, Morey says.

“Furthermore, trees produce oxygen and nitrogen, and the world needs a lot more now than it did in the 1800s,” she says.

RELATED: Building for the Future

Conventional building materials, such as concrete, steel and lumber, require more embodied carbon in the manufacturing process, Morey says. Clay-based, non-fired compressed earth block masonry is growing in interest in the United States and represents a modern descendent of the adobe brick.

“The compaction of earth improves the strength but also promotes environmental, social and economic benefits,” Morey says. “These blocks are better than traditional ‘red’ bricks because they offer a structural wall system without the need for the high-embodied energy firing process.”

The engineering and testing process is designed to carefully mix natural additives that improve strength, longevity, sound isolation and thermal mass—all desirable features in a house.

“Our buildings cut operational energy use through the reduction in peak load demands,” Morey says. “This in turn will reduce the sizing of HVAC equipment and lower the number of solar panels needed.”

Morey notes that the Marshall Fire in Superior is a reminder of what fires can do to community structures.

“People choosing to rebuild need to be aware of the choices and options when it comes to rebuilding,” she says. “When the EcoBlox are subject to fire, the face turns to a ceramic finish, leaving them stronger than before. Furthermore, the thicker walls provide a greater acoustic protection from outside noises and strong winds.”

The company’s team builds a double wall with a cavity between for insulation. The combination of high thermal capacity via the thermal mass of the EcoBlox and low heat losses, such as low U-values, and using thermal insulation means the structures have a higher time constant, Morey says.

“This translates to higher thermal resilience, such as the ability for a building to remain inhabitable in case of extreme events, such as long-lasting power outages,” she says.

Colorado Earth’s primary market is custom single-family residential construction, although other markets are suitable, Morey says.

Green Roofs Colorado

Green Roofs Colorado is a green roof design, installation and maintenance company that provides green roofs for a variety of sectors, including commercial, residential, institutional, universities and hospitals.

Founder Andy Creath says a typical membrane roof may last 15 to 20 years while a green roof can last up to 50 to 60 years due to impact limitations of UV radiation as well as hail damage. Other benefits include keeping old membrane roof material out of the landfill every 20 years, lowering a building’s cooling costs and providing clean air through carbon sequestration.

Additional benefits for urban areas are increased habitat and biodiversity for plant and animal life, a heat island effect reduction, food production—which limits the distance food travels from farm to table—and stormwater detention.

Limiting environmental degradation and improving aesthetics are other benefits. A soft benefit is faster healing rates when green roofs are installed outside patients’ rooms in hospitals.

“Some of the biggest insurance claims in Colorado have been based on hail and rooftops,” Creath says. “With green roofs, we just replace a couple of plants instead of having to replace the entire roof.”

Solar panels paired with green roofs help the green roofs grow better, Creath says, and solar works 15 to 20 percent more efficiently when paired with a green roof.

Alpen High Performance Products

Alpen High Performance Products manufactures windows, doors and glass designed for optimal insulation and thermal efficiency.

The company was the first to use thin glass in architectural applications and the first in North America to offer a National Fenestration Rating Council (NFRC)-rated R-10 window as well as the dual certified PHI and PHIU window, says Brian Cornwell, the company’s marketing manager. 

Alpen’s environmentally tuned glazing is designed to offer optimal winter warmth, summer sun blocking, maximum daylight and pristine glass clarity.

 “Sustainability is everything to Alpen,” Cornwell says. The company’s ThinGlass is six times lighter than traditional 1/8-inch glass and has a carbon footprint that’s six times lower.

“Our fiberglass frames are made from silica—sand—of the most abundant natural resources on the planet,” he says. “Our uPVC frames are recyclable up to 10 times and with the potential for a 35-year lifespan, that is essentially a 350-year life cycle of a single high-performance window.”

Alpen was the first U.S. window products company to be Living Building Challenge-certified for its water-based coatings, which don’t off-gas, Cornwell says.

While sustainable building practices are trending in a positive direction, there are still challenges to overcome.

Cornwell notes the adoption of ThinGlass by major window manufacturers “is moving at a snail’s pace” due to existing building codes, but he’s seeing stricter building energy codes and an increased seriousness about high-performance building products.

Colorado Earth’s Morey says current energy codes need to be inclusive of how thermal mass behaves.

“Energy compliance should not rely solely on thermal resistance values, but also on how much thermal resistance may be required when there is inclusion of thermal storage,” she says.

Sand and gravel shortages paired with the need for resiliency, reduced embodied carbon in building materials, supply chain, maintaining air quality, maintenance, and labor shortages means sustainably produced thermal mass masonry blocks or EcoBlox will address the need to diversify the use of cement-based products, Morey says.

Educating builders, developers, architects, designers, municipal officials and the general public on the benefits of alternative building products is a priority for those in the sustainable building materials business. Advocating for green building policies is another priority.

As an example, Green Roofs Colorado’s Creath references Denver’s Green Buildings Ordinance that went into effect in 2018, requiring developers and property owners to select from a menu of strategies for more sustainable development, which collectively seek to increase green space, improve water and stormwater management, increase the use of solar and other renewable energies, foster the design of more energy-efficient buildings and increase adoption of national green building programs, such as LEED.

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Author

  • Carol Brzozowski

    Carol Brzozowski is an award-winning journalist whose work has been published in more than 200 media outlets. Her specialities include construction and building, stormwater mitigation, erosion control, water efficiency, distributed energy and women in construction.

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