How Aluminum is Essential to Green Building

Aluminum is a cost-effective, durable, adaptable material for building projects

By Ryan Roush

Aluminum is one of the world’s leading building materials, and it has been for more than 100 years. In fact, major structures within the Empire State Building (including the iconic spire) were built with aluminum in the 1930s. More than 60 years later, nearly 5,500 windows, originally made with steel frames, had severely deteriorated, resulting in water, air and frost leakage. To repair the damage, the historic building sought a replacement — this time with aluminum frames.

The concept of building with aluminum isn’t new. After all, the material is considered one of the most sustainable, energy-efficient building products on the market. In some cases, it’s even superior to steel and glass. Of all aluminum ever produced across the world, approximately 75% is still in use today. As thousands of aging structures — similar to the Empire State Building — require rebuilding and refurbishing, aluminum will play a critical role in infrastructure restoration efforts. (Without aluminum, the modern skyscraper wouldn’t be a reality.) We’re also expecting continued growth in aluminum use for new construction as a way for companies to demonstrate their commitment to green building.

Beyond the fact that aluminum is 100% recyclable and stands as one of the most recycled materials in the world, here’s how the product leads to lower construction costs, better results and increased sustainability:

Lightweight and Strong

Aluminum as a material is just as strong (or even stronger, depending on how it’s forged) than steel. Window frames in structures (including the aforementioned Empire State Building), to planes, automobiles and even spacecraft, aluminum can be produced to outperform other products, including steel, while reducing overall material weight.

From a chemical standpoint, pure aluminum is manipulated to create high-strength alloys by combining the material with other elements, such as silicon, magnesium and copper. It is then processed, such as through hot or cold rolling, which results in various types of aluminum-based products for construction.

It’s worth noting that in construction, aluminum structures weigh approximately 35 to 65% less than steel — though both materials provide virtually equivalent strength. In addition, aluminum is inherently less expensive to transport because of its lightweight features. For that reason alone, aluminum structures are also easier to deconstruct or move.

Corrosion-Resistant and Infinitely Flexible

In addition to its strength, aluminum proves to be one of the eco-friendliest building materials in the world. Ideal for siding and roofing, aluminum has the ability to reflect more than 90% of solar energy, which in turn helps improve a structure’s energy efficiency. The material is also commonly used in doors and windows for its soundproof and airtight qualities. Aluminum is resistant to corrosion and rust and external elements as well, including wind, rain and snow, ultimately requiring minimal long-term maintenance.

We see it first-hand — aluminum services every inch of the construction world, including roofing, window framing, siding, doors, gutters, soffits and fascia. Aluminum is cost-effective, durable, adaptable, corrosion-resistant and features a favorable strength-to-weight ratio. It’s a bonus that the material adds a stylish design component to most construction projects.

Extremely Green

Aluminum is a critical component in LEED-certified green buildings. LEED was established in 1994 by the U.S. Green Building Council to encourage sustainability in construction and design. As the third most abundant element on Earth, aluminum allows architects and construction professionals to build structures with the environment in mind.

When aluminum is recycled, it saves more than 90% of the energy needed to either make new aluminum or a comparable amount of metal from other raw materials. Since 1995, the industry as a whole has reduced its carbon footprint by nearly 40%. And currently at our operations in South Carolina, we are using 100% scrap to produce aluminum for our building products customers. Aluminum in North America is more sustainable than ever before, making it the most valuable item in the recycling bin and on a construction site.

Ryan Roush is the chief commercial officer of JW Aluminum, a US-based manufacturer of flat-rolled aluminum products serving the building and construction industry.