BY DOUG MUCHER
It’s no longer accurate to label the movement toward more sustainable, environmentally positive building materials a trend. After all, the word “trend” implies something impermanent, a style with a short shelf life that will eventually be replaced by the next big thing.
Clearly, the development of greener alternatives to traditional building materials is an ongoing process, with no end in sight. Products that require fewer nonrenewable resources to manufacture, incorporate recycled content, and can in turn be recycled at the end of their useful lives are being used in every type of residential new construction, as well as remodeling of existing structures. And if they offer additional benefits in terms of improved performance and reduced maintenance requirements, so much the better.
Fence and railing may not be the first products you think of in this context, but they too can contribute to a community’s efforts to improve its environmental footprint – as well as its overall marketability.
The Problem with Wood
The perimeter and privacy fences found in many condo and HOA communities have traditionally been made of wood. The beauty of wood is undeniable, and a lot of older fences date back to a time when top-grade lumber was more readily available and concerns over dwindling timber resources not as acute.
Nowadays, though, the wood typically used in fence construction is of lower quality, and more prone to warp, fade and split after exposure to the elements. Such fences require extensive maintenance – power washing, painting or staining and application of sealant – every few years.
This work is costly and adds up to serious money over the life of a wood fence. Also, from an environmental perspective, the chemicals found in products used to wash, color and seal fence lumber can be problematic, leaching into the ground and potentially exposing workers and residents, especially children playing in common areas, to harmful side effects.
A Greener Alternative
It may seem counter-intuitive that vinyl – manufactured from polyvinyl chloride (PVC), a thermoplastic resin derived from petroleum – could be an environmentally responsible option for condo and HOA fences and railings. But a close look at the detailed Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) of vinyl fence and railing products makes a strong case.
CertainTeed was the first manufacturer to complete such an assessment for this product category. The LCA was published through the Building for Economic and Environmental Sustainability (BEES) program, which was designed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology to offer transparent and credible information on a product’s environmental and economic performance.
The assessment includes a cradle-to-grave, in-depth analysis of raw material acquisition, manufacturing, transportation and distribution, installation, maintenance, and end-of-life recycling and final disposal. This analysis shows that vinyl fence and railing products can be surprisingly green.
- From a raw material standpoint, some recycled PVC has a much lower carbon footprint (a measure of the total amount of greenhouse gases emitted, directly and indirectly, over the product’s lifespan) and embodied energy (the amount of primary energy consumed over its lifespan) than virgin PVC – 95 percent and 97 percent lower, respectively. Reduced usage of virgin PVC means reduced consumption of nonrenewable petroleum resources.
- Manufacturing fence and railing products with vinyl lessens the number of trees that must be harvested, as well as the related energy costs of processing and transporting raw lumber. Also, vinyl fence and railing products are designed to last for many years, much longer than similar products made of wood.
- Vinyl fence and railing can be cleaned with soap and water. No painting, staining or chemical treatments are required, completely eliminating the need to use these toxic materials in a community’s public spaces.
- Scrap material left over after installation can be recycled. And when the time finally comes to replace a PVC fence or railing system, the old material can be recycled in certain areas of the United States.
Significant time and resources were invested to document the positive environmental characteristics of vinyl: reduced pressure on timber resources, low (and low impact) maintenance requirements and recyclability. Some of these characteristics may apply to vinyl fence and railing products from other manufacturers, but none to date have taken the important step of codifying them in an LCA.
From a design standpoint, vinyl fence and railing have come a long way. Authentic wood grain textures, a variety of traditional and modern styles and striking color options that blend well with other exterior elements make these products an excellent choice for communities looking to stand out from the crowd.
Couple the “I can’t believe it’s not wood” aesthetics of vinyl fence with the money-saving benefits of greatly reduced maintenance, and you’ve got a strong selling point for prospective homebuyers. Manors at Fieldwood, a 71-unit townhome community in Princeton, New Jersey, chose vinyl to replace a cedar privacy fence because the authentic wood grain texture and natural color were a close facsimile of the original – and with an eye to saving money.
“We were spending almost $15,000 a year for repairs to the previous wood fences, which outweighed the cost of a new vinyl fence,” notes Ira Polly, president of the homeowner’s association, “so it’s going to significantly reduce future maintenance costs.”
Another advantage of vinyl fence and railing products is the contribution they can make to earning points within green building ratings systems like LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) and NGBS (National Green Building Standard). Though these rating systems are currently geared more to new construction, there are also elements that are relevant to retrofits of existing structures. Whether a community is adding new buildings or simply upgrading the existing, the ability to promote participation in these well-known green programs can be a strong selling point.
Marketing considerations aside, sustainable building materials like vinyl fence and railing are a wise choice for condominium and HOA communities for several reasons. Choosing these products demonstrates the board’s concern for the environment to owners and prospective residents, creating a more positive image for the community and encouraging dialogue on other ways to “live green.” Looking at the bigger picture, it’s important for everyone to do their part to minimize our impact on this beautiful planet we call home.
Doug Mucher is the marketing manager for CertainTeed Outdoor Living.