The Value Proposition of Adhesives and Sealants in High-performance Buildings

Posted on 11/10/2014 12:26:09 PM By Ujjval Vyas

I have been interested professionally and personally in the built environment my whole adult life, focusing in the last 10 years on building performance and related policy issues.  I’ve also been lucky in my career to interact with the full range of disciplines involved in the A/E/C industry and I am always surprised how much there is still to learn. I would never have thought that interacting over the last few years with The Adhesive and Sealant Council would have caused me to rethink a core necessity of high-performing and durable buildings.  Maybe my eureka moment is something already understood by most practitioners and manufacturers in this area, but I now have a new perspective on the importance and implications of adhesives and sealants in building performance and policy. 

            The most valuable attribute of high-performance buildings is durability.  I define durability as a cost/benefit analysis to ascertain the total cost of ownership and risk exposure over the relevant time period for the owner.  Note that this is not a life-cycle analysis for individual products, assemblies, or systems in a built asset, although these may be of import in the aggregate to determine durability.  Too much attention is focused on life-cycle analysis and not enough on the overall durability of the asset.  

            The durability of any system is only as good as the durability of its weakest operational link.  Atul Gawande’s best-selling book, The Checklist Manifesto (an essay on the same topic can be found here), provides a superb account of the problem of the weakest operational link in situations where multi-system complexity and high risk come together.  In The Checklist Manifesto, Gawande shows how the simple practice of crafting prioritized action lists, combined with accountability mechanisms can help prevent the worst outcomes.  Gawande, a surgeon, writer, and healthcare policy innovator draws his examples from medicine and other fields such as airline safety.  He doesn’t discuss buildings directly, but his concepts definitely apply.  

            In 2008, I was the primary author of the National Institute of Building Sciences’ document that defined a high-performance building.  I now see that the definition in our report could have been much more meaningful if we had placed more importance on durability and approached the complex problem of building performance from the perspective of the weakest operational link.

            What does all this have to do with adhesives and sealants?  Adhesives and sealants are the limiting reagent for the durability of virtually all built assets.  Adhesives and sealants are the “weakest operational link” in the building envelope—and many other places.  The building envelope is the source of the greatest risk to owners and insurers of losses associated with building and business performance.  This class of materials has the singular job of keeping the outside out and the inside in; acting as the translator between materials to turn individual products into assemblies and systems; and, ultimately, allowing many of the marriages that make a modern building asset function.

            Unfortunately, owners and insurers, along with their building design proxies—the architects—know very little about the dynamic and rapidly changing chemistry and technology in this arena.  In fact, virtually all decisions for the selection of adhesives and sealants are left to far less visible practitioners of the design profession:  the specifiers.  A roof, a flooring material, or the aluminum in a curtain wall assembly may have a service life of 30 years, but if the adhesives or sealants needed to integrate these elements have a service life of five to seven years, without their proper maintenance and replacement, the longer service life of the other parts of the assembly or system will be compromised or lost. 

            Proper and detailed understanding of adhesives and sealants is the prerequisite for a high-performing building—both economically and environmentally—and yet, the message from manufacturers and suppliers has been inadequate in stressing this more universal value, in my opinion.  This is especially true in terms of getting the message to the correct audience.  ASTM has been working on defining the proper measurement for durability of adhesives and sealants for quite some time, and more recently, NIST has taken on the task of creating an apparatus, the Sphere to provide valid testing outcomes for service life predictions of adhesives and sealants.  But all this activity is of little use if the real decision-makers, the owning parties and bearers of risk, don’t understand the core issue of addressing their weakest operational link.  The proper specification of adhesives and sealants should be on the checklist for a building asset the way making sure the ailerons aren’t damaged is in a pilot’s pre-flight visual check.  The same holds true for the operational cycle of a building:  low prioritization of adhesive and sealant maintenance must be changed to account for their position as weakest operational links.

            Larger policy discussions of high-performance buildings need to include a more robust discussion of the real value of adhesives and sealants. Manufacturers and suppliers could help owners, both public and private, to see that proper adhesive and sealant selection and maintenance must be high on the checklist of priorities to avoid major risks for their built assets—from preconstruction through long-term operation.  Such prudence benefits both their business and the environment.  Regulatory and code officials should be similarly educated.  And NGOs and eco-label entities need to learn that demonizing adhesives and sealants can only result in a decrease in overall durability of high-performance buildings.

            In the 1970s, a famous Monsanto ad proclaimed,  “Without chemicals, life itself would be impossible.”  Without adhesives and sealants, high-performance buildings would be impossible, too. 

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