Durability and Obsolecence

Three observations from the past week illustrate the challenge of marketing a building product's durability:

1. At Construct 2009, an educational session titled, "Evaluating Sustainable Products for Durability" stressed that product durability should be considered as part of a building's sustainability. This is well and good, but the consensus among attendees is that there is no good source for information on durability or the long-term performance or maintainability of products. More, very few of the design professionals attending ever ask for instructions from their clients about the expected longevity of a building.

2. I was part of the architectural team that designed the Terminal A building at San Jose, CA Airport. Like our colleagues at Construct 2009, the design team didn't discuss the expected longevityy of the building. If pressed, I might have opined that we should build for 50 to 75 year service life. In reality, the building is being gutted just two decades after construction as part of a substantial renovation. Despite our best planning, none of could have anticipated the explosive growth of Silicon Valley and the changing air traffic in the region, nor could we have anticipated the explosive demolition of the World Trade Center that so dramatically changed land-side operations of airports. How should one specify products for a building that might became functionally obsolete well before it wears out?

3. I recently saw what I consider to be perhaps the first really well-designed and affordably-priced LED desktop light fixture. However, the light emitting diodes -- the "lamps" in the jargon of lighting -- are set directly into a structural element of the fixture. Trying to be ecologically-mindful and to think through the total life-cycle use of the product before buying one, I asked the sales representative, "How can I re-lamp this when the LEDs burn it." His reply was, "The LEDs have an estimated service life of 40,000 hours. This means the fixture will last for 10 to 15 years of use. By then, it is a safe bet we will have even better, more efficient LEDs or other light sources. When that happens, just recycle this one for its metals and get yourself a new fixture." Upon examination, I could see that his fixture could be easily disassembled for recycling, and contained a minimum of non-recyclable components.

I will write more about the evolving calculus of product durability. Check back in the future and select the "Durablity" label for additional viewpoints on this topic.