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Materials for Sustainable Sites: A Complete Guide to the Evaluation, Selection, and Use of Sustainable Construction Materials

By Meg Calkins. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, 2008, 464 pages, $80.

Reviewed by David Sokol

The market in sustainable materials is one of the few business arenas weathering the current economic downturn—even experiencing growth despite it. Naturally, manufacturers and marketers have opened the tap on new eco products as well as claims of greenness. Yet such increasing options only underscores that the calculus of choosing the best materials for a project is difficult, and perhaps more important, relative. “Portland cement concrete may appear to be a ‘green’ material for those with durability or regionally produced materials as a priority, whereas it might be rejected by those who are concerned about the global warming impacts of material manufacture or high embodied energy materials. Composite lumber…seems like a good alternative to wood lumber for those concerned with the ecological impacts of clear-cutting forestry practices, but it may be rejected for its mixed material composition by those concerned with the closed-loop recyclability of materials.”

Materials for Sustainable Sites: A Complete Guide to the Evaluation, Selection, and Use of Sustainable Construction Materials
Image courtesy John Wiley & Sons
Materials for Sustainable Sites: A Complete Guide to the Evaluation, Selection, and Use of Sustainable Construction Materials
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So writes Calkins near the start of Materials for Sustainable Sites, a text specifically targeted to site applications but which can be referred to in selecting construction materials. It is divided into two parts: the first is ostensibly devoted to honing a technique for specifying materials responsibly, and resources available to help that approach; the second explores nine different materials, steps being taken to reduce their ecological footprints, and notes to consider when specifying these fundaments. Calkins acknowledges that most designers are not equipped to perform an all-out lifecycle analysis of every material they source. And she repeatedly uses the phrase “near impossible” to describe the task of formulating a best-of list of materials for every situation. (Again, thanks to that theory of relativity.) Although Materials for Sustainable Sites does not offer sustainability’s version of a nutrition label, it does provide a thorough lesson in thinking like one. An online continuing education course based on the book launched on Wiley’s continuing professional education website this fall.

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