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Keeping you informed about TecEco sustainability projects.  Issue 59, 2006

New Book - Advanced Civil Infrastructure Materials

Science, Mechanics and Applications

Edited by H C Wu, Wayne State University, USA

H C Wu is an associate professor in the department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Wayne State University, USA. His research interest are advanced construction materials, structural mechanics and infrastructure retrofit and renewal.

Chapter on Sustainability of Materials Contributed by John Harrison

Even though I have refined many of my ideas since, including introducing the concept of moleconomics, I was pleased to be asked some three years ago now to provide the chapter on sustainable materials.

The book can be purchased on line at http://www.woodheadpublishing.com/en/book.aspx?bookID=815

Book Summary

The need for more durable and sustainable civil infrastructure has prompted research into a new generation of materials for the twenty first century. With contributions from some of the world's leading authorities, Advanced civil infrastructure materials sums up some of the most important of these developments in building materials.

The first chapter discusses advanced concrete for use in civil engineering, looking at the developments such as ultra high strength and high durability concretes, self compacting concrete, polymer modified and green concretes. Chapter 2 reviews advanced steel materials, components and systems, whilst chapter 3 describes developments in design using advanced cement composites. Building on this foundation, the following chapters consider the properties and applications of advanced fibre reinforced polymer composites, including the rehabilitation of civil structures.

Chapter 6 reviews the use of advances wood composites whilst the final chapter discusses key issues in the development of sustainable materials for the built environment.

With the distinguished international team of contributors Advanced civil infrastructure materials will be a standard reference for civil engineers and all those researching and using more sustainable, flexible and durable building materials.

The Problem of the Commons

Towards a Sustainability Charter

A draft by John Harrison (in his capacity as chair of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainable Materials in Construction (AASMIC). Any comments/improvements welcome. Contact john.harrison@DELETEtececo.com (Please delete the obvious in the window of your email program!)


A Sustainability Charter represents an opportunity to lay the foundations for a scheme that, if properly implemented, could deliver significant behavioral and technological change towards a more sustainable built environment.

Aristotle said “For that which is common to the greatest number has the least care bestowed upon it. Every one thinks chiefly of his own, hardly at all of the common interest; and only when he is himself concerned as an individual.” (Aristotle 350 BC)

The issue of looking after and therefore valuing the commons, first discussed by Plato, Aristotle’s teacher, continues as one of the main topics for debate amongst modern political philosophers and is far from resolved. A more recent book “The Tragedy of the Commons” by Garrett Hardin raised the problem in relation to the population debate. He argued that the "invisible hand" (laissez-faire) approach to resource problems does not always provide optimal solutions. In Hardin's hypothetical commons, the action of self-interested individuals cannot promote the public good (Hardin 1968).

As sustainability issues become more urgent, studied and understood by the masses a cultural drift in that direction is noticeable and a will to embrace improvements developing. The legal and institutional mechanisms are however lacking and a charter may help bring them about on a timelier basis matching the urgency of the problems.

Many proposed solutions involve enforcement of conservation measures by an authority, which may be an outside agency or selected by the users of common resources themselves, who all agree to cooperate to conserve them thereby acting more sustainably.
In this manner common resources have been licensed as for example in our Abalone fisheries, whereby the right to fish now carries with it high value.

Another frequently proposed variant solution is to convert each common into private property, giving the owner of each an incentive to enforce its sustainability. This is effectively what took place in the English enclosures of the commons.

Figure 1 – The Techno-Process (Harrison 2005)

The major problem today is not so much one of use but of degradation of the commons, on a global rather than village green scale. Underlying the vast 600 billion tonne flow of materials through our take-make-use-waste techno-process (see Figure 1), 70 % of which is the construction industry, are molecular flows that are damaging the planet such as too much CO2 in the air or heavy metals released to our common waters (See Figure 2).

Figure 2 - Moleconomic Flows that are Damaging Underlay Materials Flows

The techno-process is characterised by causes and effects in different time and geographical scales. The causes take place essentially in market places and have a cost of “causing” and a value from having “caused” Unfortunately many of the effects or consequences of causing do not take place locally or in the same short time frame and are thus disassociated from market places and do not have a cost or value to individuals as Aristotle so astutely observed.

Causes on the global commons take place with the here and now benefit or loss being measured in market places but the long term consequence being ignored as not being condensable to present value.

We believe that a prime aim of the charter should be to enshrine principles that address the problem first enunciated by Aristotle.

Internalising external costs (accounting for externalities) is a huge problem not yet resolved by successive societies and the value of our “Natural Capital” remains unaccounted for and abused. The Easter Island and Norse Greenlanders are examples of societies that have collapsed through failure to properly value and conserve their natural capital and are documented by Jarrod Dimond in the popular book “Collapse” (Dimond 2005). The advantage of a charter should be that it takes a longer term view, survives successive governments and potentially enshrines fundamental postulates or principles that translate as legislative value or as means to deliver value in the natural capital not only of Australia but the world (as much of it is “common”) and thereby facilitate incorporation into our value exchange system that we call accounting.
By facilitating mechanisms that enshrine value for externalities a charter solves the problem of accounting for such costs to society as a whole first enunciated by Aristotle so long ago.

There remain questions as to whether a charter should spell out values, a process for arriving at the values required or act a mere guide to legislation that does so on a more flexible basis. We have not addressed this issue as it requires some thought but our initial view is that defining a process will more likely ensure that the process is actually carried out. Processes are also generally better than prescriptions as they are less adversarial and more flexible.

The Economics of Imperfect Markets and Innovation

Modern economic theory (evolutionary economics in particular) is based on the fact that change is the major driver of economic growth. This process, called creative destruction by Schumpeter (Schumpeter 1954), is whereby new innovation destroys old and less efficient process, is the drive engine of modern economies.

This explanation for growth, first espoused by Schumpeter, is more important today than ever as the level of sustainability in a society is economically related to the cultural demand for sustainability and the technology used.

Figure 3 - The Nexus of the Supply and Demand for more Sustainable Technologies

Innovative Steps and paradigm shifts

Throughout history, economic growth and the level of sustainability of a society has been connected to the level of innovation and cultural demand or acceptance of that innovation.

Through innovative change we not only grow our economies in the manner enunciated by Schumpeter but as demand shifts through cultural change, move towards greater sustainability through changes in the technological basis of our economies by a combination of innovative paradigm shifts and slower evolutionary development.

Examples of paradigm shifts include the invention of the bow and arrow, wheel, metals, glass and gunpowder whilst the development of cooking recipes, crops, breeds of cattle and sheep and many minor inventions are examples of slower, more evolutionary changes.

The need for innovation delivering greater sustainability has never been greater. Specific examples of recent innovation that are also more sustainable include the development of neon light globes, the recent breakthrough in solar technology and the materials that are being developed by TecEco including Eco-Cements and shear binders for robotics.

Figure 4 - Recent Paradigm Shifts in Technology

Figure 5 - Recent Paradigm Shifts in Technology (2)

Even many economists unfortunately do not understand that change and economic growth are compatible. Furthermore, Imperfect markets do not optimise sustainability, because larger established businesses based on older technologies have other means to maintain market share and are scared of innovation and sustainability. Countries (including the U.S. and Australia) that have not ratified the Kyoto protocol wrongly advocate that restricting carbon emissions would be a burden for their economies.

Fortunately many processes have been forced to change because of their impact on the “common” environment. The result has usually been the substitution by more efficient processes, even on a purely economic basis (e.g. since the ban of CFCs, fridges have become more efficient, although manufacturers warned that nothing could effectively replace them). However the shift toward more efficient and sustainable technologies does not seem to always happen naturally and must be encouraged by public policies. This is explained, using an evolutionary framework, by Mulder & van den Bergh (Mulder and van den Bergh 2001) who emphasizes that:

“One of the most important insights of evolutionary thinking is that current systems are not necessarily optimal from an efficiency perspective, even if prices are “correct” …… (i.e. prices reflect externalities, are based on perfect competition, etc.). The reason is that systems can be locked-in, that is to say that they are the result of unique, historical, path-dependent processes. …… Present inefficient technologies may be locked in as a result of network externalities and sunk costs. Well-known examples are systems which require a significant amount of private and public investment and network support such as transport and infrastructure, energy generation and provision.”

AASMIC were formed to connect the supply and waste chains and stand for innovation, sustainability and materials. As an association we believe that more sustainable processes, practices and technologies should be started or assisted then driven by government policies. We believe that when initial barriers are overcome, these innovative changes should then be accompanied by economic growth.

Such proactive involvement by governments is believed to be the fastest way to improve Australian and for that matter global sustainability, assuming that the other alternatives such as culture shift that may lead us away from heavy consumerism, although occurring are not happening quickly enough and therefore not realistic in the short term. Besides, AASMIC have a strong view that sustainability will not happen because it is the right thing to do, only if forced by legislative and other change. In this we concur with Aristotle quoted above.

The challenge is to harness human behavior which underlay economic supply and demand phenomena. AASMIC believe this can occur through innovation. By changing the technical paradigm in favour of making, for example, carbon dioxide and other wastes resources new materials with lower take and waste impacts and more energy efficient performance will emerge.

The Failure of Globalisation to Address the Common Good

Globalisation implies that commerce will lead civilizations, that every activity, once released from government interference will find its own natural balances and that nation states would become irrelevant and the power of markets would determine the course of human events.

According to John Ralston Saul globalism is “an inevitable form of internationalism in which civilization is reformed from the perspective of economic leadership” and then argues that AIDs, the African debt, the return of fundamentalism and terrorism, and many other common problems are not disappearing in spite of a theoretical resulting rise in global prosperity (Saul 2005).

According to Karl Polanyi “the idea of a self-adjusting market implied a stark utopia” (Polyani 1944). Amongst other failures of globalism, the failure to address issues of the commons is paramount. Evidence of this is the collapse Saul (Saul 2005) refers to although there are of course many other reasons.

Globalism has lead many countries into the false belief that all will be solved in markets yet markets do not address common needs as clearly pointed out in this document. The way forward may be to maintain free trade but take into account social and sustainability values which is a process only starting to happen within the WTO. If nothing else the enunciation of a sustainability charter will reinforce this process of understanding that we live in one world and the capacity of that world to support us is rapidly diminishing.

Construction Materials and Sustainability

The construction industry is an industry with huge potential for improved sustainability.  Globally over 35% of total CO2 emissions and around 70% of all material flows are attributable to it. Cement production accounts for around 10% of global emissions (Pearce 1997) and concrete is the second most used substance on the planet after water.

Great strides have been made in design for lower lifetime energies, the next frontier will be the materials used in construction as they have such a profound effect on the overall performance of structures.

Clearly, more efficient methods of constructing our buildings and infrastructure need to be employed in future, but we must avoid being content doing the same thing more efficiently.  Becoming more efficient doesn't’t often change the paradigm we work from.  There are significant gains possible through rethinking what we are actually trying to achieve and by making fundamental changes towards becoming more effective – benefiting the environment, the economy and society generally.

Figure 6 - The Role of Materials for Sustainability

AASMIC are very interested in the role of materials for sustainability as they are everything between the take and waste and what we work with in the construction industry.

We have also demonstrated that underlying their flow are “moleconomic” flows that are damaging to the planet. To reduce the impact of these moleconomic flows we need new materials that require less energy to make them, that last much longer and that contribute properties that reduce lifetime energies. The key to the delivery of these more sustainable materials is to innovate.

It follows that a charter should also define processes and mechanisms whereby more sustainable technologies, particularly new materials, are given the support necessary for commercialisation.

We recognise that drivers of change must be a combination of “stick” (legislated disincentives) and “carrot” (legislated incentives). In our previous submission several such stick and carrot possibilities were listed and will not be repeated in this document, however should be referred to by your committee. In this proposal, our attention will now focus on a specific suggestion that recognises the pressing need to connect the best intelligence on sustainability with developments at the construction site.

Energy and Sustainability

Because of power transmission losses, at some point, the generation of electricity on a decentralized basis is more efficient than generation from large power plants.

Unfortunately, sustainable energy other than from hydro so far does not suit large centralized power generation power plants and is therefore discredited by them further slowing their introduction.
Policies are therefore needed to encourage more sustainable generation of electricity such as a system of eco credits and debits as described herein.

A Sustainability Value System

There are many ways of incorporating long term external costs as present day values that are traded in real markets and we have presented several in our previous submission. Although we commend you to all of them, unfortunately as unpaid champions of sustainability we only have the time to address one in some detail.

Sustainability Auditing and “Eco Credits”

We mention earlier that we believe sustainability tools need to and will be broadened, and that there should be other measures than just the emissions of CO2.

We therefore propose that the Sustainability Charter include enabling clauses for the establishment by the Commission of a process of “Sustainability Assessment” to determine the allocation of broad based “Eco Credits” or “Eco-Debits”.

A Sustainability assessment process should be used to determine the overall environmental impact of a process or development, based on a wide range of factors.  The results of the assessment would then be used to determine the number of Eco Credits or Debits that are granted upon completion of the construction.  It differs from Environmental Impact Statements (EIS) in that it relates to any construction and the process should be much more simple and informal – codified yet flexible.

As there are already systems for determining he relative sustainability merits of structures what is proposed is a mechanism for putting a value on these ratings.

Initially the Sustainability Assessment Scheme may focus just on building construction as do current rating systems.  In time a broadening is envisaged to include landscaping, subdivisions, utilities etc.

Land Titles Offices

In many cases causes tend to be localised and could be considered with land whereas the effects tend to be regional or even global.
By localising the economic impact of global effects, costs and benefits can be incorporated as values in an economic system providing strong incentive or disincentive as required for making more sustainable decisions in what are short term markets
It is suggested that Eco Credits or Debits attach to the title of the land.  The formal registration of credits would be conducted via the respective State Land Titles Offices, similar to the way that a mortgage or covenant may be registered so that it attaches to the registered title, under the Torrens system.  The Eco Credit or Debits would be able to be:

Market trading of Eco Credits would be a useful way to establish a mechanism for charging developers of constructions with significant environmental impacts.  If a developer wants to build a resort in an environmentally sensitive area or with unsustainable technologies then, if it is to be approved, the developer can be required to purchase a certain number of Eco Credits as part of the approval conditions to meet the Debits he would be penalised with. This would tend to drive up the price of Eco Credits and thereby provide further incentive for more sustainable construction. The idea is to make the adoption of sustainable construction techniques the most cost effective way to build.

Determinations by the Sustainability Commission

The ambit of an Eco Credit/Debit ought to be as wide as possible, and flexibility should be built in to the system such that the definitions can expand.  The Sustainability Commission would have a role to play in establishing the system and in the ongoing determination of what factors can count towards Eco Credits and how such factors are measured.  People would be able to appear before the Commission seeking a determination on any matter in relation to the Sustainability Audit or Eco Credits and Debits.  Home owners and builders should be able to argue their case for more Eco Credits and developers of new construction materials and technologies should be able to petition the Commission requesting that their product be registered as a source of Eco Credits when used in construction.

The range of factors that would attract Eco Credits or Debits could be very broad.  They would include an assessment of the source of the materials used, their embodied energies, embodied water and any Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions that result from their manufacture and transport to the construction site.  Use of waste materials would be viewed positively, as would aesthetic factors such as sensitivity to the surrounding natural environment.  The correct management of storm water and grey water, use of solar-passive design techniques, insulation, renewable energy systems and native plants are further examples of factors that would attract Eco Credits or Debits.

Measurement by Designers

The actual measurement of the factors of a construction that count towards Eco Credits could be undertaken by architects, building designers or other authorised contract assessors.

Auditing by Inspectors

The system should be as insulated as possible against graft. The auditing of assessments could be undertaken by municipal council building inspectors or some other government agency.  As municipal councils already undertake routine inspections and assessments of new constructions they would be well placed to do the job.

National Database

The collation of this information into a National Database will provide very useful and detailed metrics of the construction industry.  Once a picture of the sustainability of the industry is constructed the data can be analysed in detail to identify areas for improvement and refinement.  Areas that are identified as in need of improvement can be ascribed a higher rate of Eco Credits.
The database will also be a useful resource for the administrators of the system to determine what each factor is worth in terms of Eco Credits at the time of the assessment.
Software tools could be designed that would hook into the designer’s CAD software and calculate the number and value of the Eco Credits or Debits that relate to the factors registered within the system.


The term “factors” is the suitably vague term used to describe the properties that count towards the allocation of Eco Credits or Debit for a project.  Rather than using “products” as the primary measure, the term “factors” can include the way that different products are used.  Solar-passive heating is a simple example, where standard construction products can be used in a way that dramatically lowers the heating and lighting requirements of the building.  Naturally, once a standard product has an Eco Credit/Debit rating then that rating can be used by the designer in the assessment.


The Sustainability Commission in parallel with a establishing a value system would need to consider the establishment of a trading system so the value attached to Eco Credits or Debits can be realized in the marketplace. We consider that Debits as well as credits are required otherwise trading cannot occur.

Advantages of a Sustainability Value System

Information Leveraging

The promotion of sustainable materials in construction is hampered to a large extent by a lack of information. The people making the purchasing decisions within the housing market are generally uneducated about the environmental impacts of their decisions.

The environmental situation that we are faced with today, particularly with reference to global warming, requires high quality decision making.  We simply cannot afford to leave decisions with large cumulative environmental impacts in the hands of non-experts without any form of guidance.

The classical conception of a market with an “invisible hand” has broken down with respect to sustainability in construction because of our failure to account for the externalisation of costs to the environment.  The generation of wastes that are not correctly re-integrated into natural systems has been free when it should have been a cost.  The result is that the “invisible hand” has been “blind,” as well as invisible; having no idea as to what activities to avoid, because it can not see the cost.

We need to discover new ways of incorporating those costs into our accounting systems.  Costs are very useful – people prefer to avoid them.  They much prefer benefits.

By framing the Sustainability Auditing Scheme primarily in terms of benefits and costs – Eco Credits and Debits – we can structure the economics of the construction industry in a way that takes advantage of the best information that we have about the hidden and distributed costs of environmental impacts.

Self-interest Leveraging

The idea of Eco Credits and Debits is also designed to harness the motivational power of tax avoidance.  The theory is:  if people were to direct as much effort towards sustainability as they do towards minimising their taxation bill then the problem would vanish.


The Sustainability Commission will make determinations in relation to the Scheme in much the same way that a court makes its decisions, based on rules of precedent to ensure a balance between certainty and flexibility.  Owners, builders and construction technology vendors will have the ability to seek determinations from the Commission as to their eligibility to register with the Scheme.  Legal representation ought to be permissible only on appeal, in order to keep the determinations short and informal.
The system should be as flexible as possible so it can be readily adapted to an international system should one be adopted.

Recycling of Government Instrumentalities

The proposed Sustainability Auditing Scheme takes care to avoid the sort of unnecessary duplication of roles that has plagued the Australian federal system in the past.  Whilst we see the role of the Sustainability Commission as being crucial in terms of establishment of the Scheme and ongoing arbitration, the actual machinations of it can best be performed by existing government instrumentalities that already perform similar tasks; namely, municipal councils and the state land titles offices.  There will likely be roles for the AGO (1) , ANSI (2) , ABGR(3) , AASMIC(4) and various other government and non-government organisations.

The Sustainability Commission will be in a position to determine other possible connections and synergies that can be utilised in a similar manner.

Industry Standards and a Sustainability Value System

As an adjunct to the Scheme, a review of the various construction industry standards will be useful.  This is an area in which a lot of ink has already been spilt, as there are difficult issues involved.  There is a general consensus that a move towards performance-based standards is far preferable to maintaining formula-based standards, which tend to act as barriers to innovation.  The question is how to do this in a cost-effective manner, as the cost of performance testing can be prohibitive.

The mechanisms of the Sustainability Auditing Scheme may be able to help solve this dilemma.

The main issue is the delayed effect of any problems.  When problems only present after several decades from the date of construction, the original owner will most likely have sold the property to a third party.  If the original owner/builder used a technology that was outside of the formula-based standard, perhaps in order to gain more Eco Credits under the Scheme, then subsequent purchasers of the building need to understand that they are accepting the attendant risks.

Innovation Caveats

A condition of the granting of Eco Credits on innovative technologies that fall outside of formula-based standards ought to be the registration of a caveat against the title that specifies that the innovative technology that was used.  The caveat will provide specific details of the technology, what level of performance is expected of it and the results of any subsequent testing that has been performed during the period of registration.  This will give the third party purchaser notice of the risk and will be a prompt to find out whether the risk is likely to impact in any way on his or her enjoyment of the property.
In effect, the costs associated with any risk remain with the original owner/builder.  In return for taking the risk, the original owner/builder has the right to redeem any Eco Credits or choose to leave them on the title for the benefit of the purchaser who may then agree to take on the risks.


AASMIC believe that underlying government policy that should perhaps be enunciated in a charter should be a serious consideration as to how to assist new and emergent technologies that are more sustainable and resource efficient so they can compete with existing technically paradigms that have the advantage of economies of scale.

By institutionalising natural capital values eventually they will also become a more important part of our culture which can only be a good thing.
Australia cannot stay out of global sustainability treaties forever and this will be more for economic reasons than any other. There is much current discussion as to the form a replacement treaty for Kyoto will take and our view is that it should be much more broadly based. It follows that our sustainability charter, if adopted should not just be a political green wash document but something with real punch to bring forward into and be compatible with the global debate bearing in mind a likely widening of the agenda.

An overriding principle that should be kept in mind is that of biomimicry. Sustainable processes are more efficient and therefore more economic. Natural ecosystems can be 100% efficient. If we wish to survive in harmony with nature for the longer term, what is needed are new ideas for policies that foster the development of processes and technologies that allow material and energy flows to more closely mimic natural ecosystems.

Economic rationality is not seen as being in conflict with biomimicry as nature is the most frugal economist of all.

The Sustainability Charter and the Sustainability Commission will be tasked with providing solutions to problems that affect the well being of people as a whole in terms of our interfaces with the global commons. Governments are the structure with the mandate and the power to direct the behaviour of individuals in particular directions unfortunately the need for government to drive programs to overcome problems of this nature is not well understood and should be addressed by a charter.

Presently, much of the power that governments have is not being utilised.  Taxation is generally seen as a source of revenue that can be used to solve society-wide problems, rather than as a method to solve them.

The Eco Credits and Debits Scheme that we have proposed is an example of a tax on behaviour that we wish people to avoid; namely, making or building using unsustainable technologies.  Conceivably the scope of the scheme could be extended on a global scale to encourage adoption of a wider range of sustainable technologies in a diverse range of industries.  Eco Credits and Debits could conceivably attach to energy generation, transport systems, manufactured goods, food and services that embody or result in low levels of GHG emission, embodied-energy and embodied-water, or which have any other positive impact on the environment, such as improved bio diversity or waste utilisation as well as overall greater sustainability.

The Sustainability Charter should set Australian governments the target of implementing programs that discourage undesirable externalities and encourage behaviour that results in commonly enjoyed benefits. The system of debits and credits proposed would harness the huge energies that Australians employ towards paying less tax and direct it towards solving our common problems.  This way, much of the change towards sustainability would happen with a minimum of government intervention.

John Harrison B.Sc. B.Ec. FCPA

AASMIC Chairman, June 2006


Aristotle (350 BC). Politics.
Dimond, J. (2005). Collapse. How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive, Penguin.
Hardin, G. (1968). "The Tragedy of the Commons." Science 162: 1243-1248.
Harrison, J. (2005). A Materials Revolution. Hobart, TecEco.
Mulder, F. and J. van den Bergh (2001). "Evolutionary Economic Theories of Sustainable Development." Growth and Change 32(1): 110-134.
Pearce, F. (1997). "The Concrete Jungle Overheats." New Scientist(2097): 14.
Schumpeter, J. A. (1954). History of Economic Analysis. New York, Oxford University Press.


(1) Australian Greenhouse Office

(2) Australian National Sustainability Initiative

(3) Australian Building Greenhouse Rating scheme

(4) Association for the Advancement of Sustainable Materials in Construction