How High-Performance Glazing Can Relieve the Water Crisis


I recall my favorite-ever line from “Star Trek” from time to time when water issues come up. “Ugly bags of mostly water” was the name a life force gave to humans who “still do not listen” in this episode, which first aired on Nov. 22, 1988. Since then, water management has steadily climbed up the list of U.S. and global mega-issues. It doesn’t matter whether you live in California; in Lake Tai, China; in the Middle East or on the banks of the largest source of fresh water in the world. And glass and glazing play a major role in how buildings use water.

Cleveland vs. California

Though Cleveland didn’t come out of the recent match-up so well, what does Cleveland have going over California? Lots, it turns out – though the NBA title isn’t on that list – yet. As we all learned in elementary school, Cleveland sits on the shores of the largest body of fresh water in the world. Unlike the current problem that California has with water supply and security, the big issue the Great Lakes faces is chemical pollution – quality not quantity.

There are differences of opinion around how many “chemicals of mutual concern” that are entering the Great Lakes. The committee tasked with reviewing these under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement has identified four. A recent article in The Globe and Mail states that environmentalists have identified more than 500. I can’t say which is the right number, but I suspect the truth lies somewhere in between. Since the Great Lakes hold 90 percent of the freshwater supply of the U.S. and 21 percent of the earth’s, there’s a lot riding on this game.

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California is not alone in having water problems. The global consulting firm PWC compiled its top 10 global impact risks and identified the water crisis as No. 1. As McKinsey & Company’s May 2015 newsletter highlighted, water already constrains accomplishing the economic, social and environmental goals of many societies globally. This article illustrated how the root cause of the problem is that water management follows a linear model in which it gets more polluted as it travels through the system, rendering future use impossible.

What’s the alternative? A circular model in which water is managed either to prevent contamination or in repeated closed loops of reuse. McKinsey’s article informs us that the basis of a circular economy is a zero-waste imperative that rests on three basic beliefs:

  1. “All durables, which are products with a long or infinite life span, must retain their value and be reused but never discarded or down cycled (broken down into parts and repurposed into new products of lesser value).
  1. “All consumables, which are products with a short life span, should be used as often as possible before safely returning to the biosphere.
  1. “Natural resources may only be used to the extent that they can be regenerated.”

If you want to learn more about how circular solutions can positively impact your business, visit (formerly PE International) for educational resources.

That McKinsey, a leading global consulting firm, is telling us this new model represents the solution to solving the world’s water challenges increases my appetite to learn more about this model.

Q: Who pays the tab for this linear usage model?

A: Future users and society.

Q: How big is the impact of keeping the linear approach that created the situation we now find ourselves in?

A: By 2030 global demand will exceed supply by 40 percent, “with 47 percent of the world population living in areas of high-water stress.”

Bringing It Home – Back to Glass and Glazing

Thermoelectric power plants that generate electricity consume over 100 billion gallons of fresh water every day. More than 90 percent of U.S. power plants require cooling to operate. Once water is drawn from a source, most of it is lost to evaporation, therefore it can’t be returned to the resource system. As a result, over 40 percent of freshwater withdrawals in the U.S. go to cooling power plants. And once it’s used, it’s gone.

What does this all have to do with glass and glazing? In office buildings, 58 percent of all electricity is used for lighting, cooling and heating (PDF). What are the biggest impact areas of properly designed glazing? The same three targets! Here’s what the International Energy Agency 2013 report says about the role of the building envelope:

“The building envelope – the parts of a building that form the primary thermal barrier between interior and exterior – plays a key role in determining levels of comfort, natural lighting and ventilation, and how much energy is required to heat and cool a building.”

This is no surprise to anyone in the glass and glazing industry. What’s surprising is that properly designed building envelopes can save not only a tremendous amount of energy, but also of water. And water has become precious to so many, and likely to become only more so in the future.

The linear vs. circular model reminds me of Albert Einstein’s famous saying that, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Fresh eyes, fresh thinking, fresh water.


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