ERDC leads advances in sustainable materials for military construction

U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center
Published Jan. 25, 2024
Mass timber uses special processes and new technology to bind wood products together in layers, creating a strong and durable material that is also more sustainable than steel or concrete.

Mass timber uses special processes and new technology to bind wood products together in layers, creating a strong and durable material that is also more sustainable than steel or concrete. nd methods.

Climate change is a major priority for the Biden administration, which has set a goal to reach net zero emissions by no later than 2050.

As the Army works to meet these goals and accomplish the objectives set in its own Climate Strategy, it has begun to focus more attention on one of its biggest emissions drivers: construction activities related to its vast inventory of buildings. Embodied emissions -- which occur during construction because of material manufacturing, transportation and assembly -- account for up to 10 percent of global emissions, according to the New Building Institute.

Possessing the most buildings in the federal government, the Army has an opportunity to greatly reduce emissions by integrating sustainable materials in future construction projects and developing standards that enable others to do the same.

The U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center (ERDC) is helping lead this charge through cutting-edge research to develop new materials, analysis tools and design guidance specifications. ERDC is also leading tri-service coordination of all pilot project activities and guidance updates.

“ERDC material research in sustainable materials will inform our designers, and the construction industry as whole, how innovative materials can replace current materials with alternatives that are resilient and have low impact on the environment,” says Ed Citzler, Senior Architect and Engineering and Construction Sustainability Lead at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE).

ERDC is directly involved with four tri-service pilot projects focused on using sustainable materials in construction, including three that were Congressionally directed in the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). ERDC is supplying subject-matter expertise through rigorous demonstrations and close collaboration with other government, academic and industry experts, as well as supporting project delivery and high-level tri-service coordination. It is also performing lifecycle analyses and cost assessments of these innovative pilots to determine broader applicability.

“ERDC worked with each of the services to do a rack and stack of upcoming MILCON (military construction) projects and look across those to see what would be feasible for us to make a big splash and impact in sustainable materials while not introducing a lot of risk into the project,” said Dr. Robert Moser, ERDC Senior Scientific Technical Manager for Materials, Manufacturing and Structures.

Moser noted special care had to be given to balance improved sustainability with the need to meet the military’s elevated force protection and performance standards. That’s where ERDC’s world-class expertise in materials and force protection played an important role.

“That is the big balance point we have,” Moser said. “We still have to deliver these projects and we don’t want to make sacrifices either based on cost that jeopardize the number of projects we can build or based on performance that jeopardize the resilience for the mission.

“But there are ways we can effectively integrate these and get at those sustainability goals and use the buying power of the government to lead industry to some of these trends.”

These efforts also align with President Biden’s Federal Buy Clean Initiative, which aims to leverage the buying power of the federal government to propel the market for clean construction materials in federal infrastructure projects.

“ERDC’s research programs are contributing to our collective knowledge base on leading-edge, low-carbon construction materials,” said Andrew Mayock, co-chair of the Federal Buy Clean Initiative and Federal Chief Sustainability Officer with the White House Council on Environmental Quality. “By increasing research in and use of American-made low-carbon concrete, asphalt, steel and glass products across the federal government, we can further innovation, scale up commercialization and deployment, and catalyze markets for clean construction materials.”

Two of the pilot projects involve the construction of different Unaccompanied Enlisted Personnel Housing (or barracks) at Joint Base Lewis McChord (JBLM) in Washington state. One, directed by the NDAA, modified nine different construction specifications to use more sustainable materials. This included new types of more sustainable concrete, new insulation and roofing materials, and a redesign of the building’s exterior to use fewer bricks.

“I’ve never seen a project where we accelerated that rapidly, directly working with the design team,” Moser said. “The modified design has the same engineering performance requirements and durability requirements. We are just reducing the embodied energy by using a different material.”

The other JBLM project, directed by the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Installations, Energy and Environment, calls for maximum use of mass timber in structural and architectural features. Mass timber uses special processes and new technology to bind wood products together in layers, creating a strong and durable material that is also more sustainable than steel or concrete.

Because mass timber is so new, the project required extensive ERDC research into its feasibility for military construction. As part of the effort, ERDC developed new USACE design guidance on mass timber usage that will enable greater incorporation in projects across the country.

“We want to demonstrate mass timber as a practical and sustainable material for military construction projects,” Moser said.

“I think a big win will be if we can extensively use mass timber in this project, and along with doing that, demonstrate in a normal military construction project and the way we do business (…) that we worked through the whole design flow with our people and our language so it can inform upcoming updates that will maybe take down some of the barriers that limit us using these materials in projects,” Moser said. “I think that’s the big goal.”

The other two pilot projects, both directed by the NDAA, include a communications facility for the Air Force/Space Force and a child development center for the Navy. One focuses on concrete sustainability and the other on mass timber.