The future of business is in delivering more customer benefits with fewer resources. Sounds simple enough, but when you start measuring resources, it quickly gets more complicated. What about a heavy, local resource versus one that’s lightweight but has to be shipped farther? What about a material that’s readily available and needs little or no processing versus one that requires high temps and chemicals to fabricate?

Understanding the tradeoffs between different materials or products isn't always straightforward. To be truly thorough you have to consider not only the mass of a finished product itself, but the mass of resources involved in getting the product to the point of sale, plus the resources needed to maintain or operate it during its useful lifetime and even the resources required to collect and prepare it for recycling. In addition to this resource information, it's necessary to assess the product’s function, or the benefits it delivers. Indeed, a "dMASS life cycle analysis" puts a particular emphasis on understanding the relationship between the resources embodied in a product and the benefits delivered by that product.

Several of our readers have asked us to discuss some interesting problems associated with conducting a dMASS analysis. Consider the mass used to maintain warmth in a passive solar house versus the mass of energy used to heat a comparable (equally well insulated), conventionally heated home. Typical passive solar houses use tons of high mass materials like concrete, crushed stone, and tile to absorb and store free solar heat. The question is, “How long does it take for the embodied mass of the building (the mass of the materials and the mass of all of the fuels it took to get those materials from the ground and to the site and to construct the thermal mass) to be equaled by the mass of fuel saved by that mass?” It’s an important question that should be considered in the design process.

But there’s a more important point I want to make about this question and dMASS. dMASS is a forward-thinking concept; it’s aspirational and strategic. When we talk about delivering more benefits with fewer resources, we’re not just talking about the choices being made today in architecture or product design, or those embedded in countless business process decisions. We’re talking about materials research, new scientific discoveries and applications, and new ways of thinking about design. We’re talking about the direction of innovation - a direction that’s already happening but also needs to be more intentionally pursued.

Many of the “green” solutions we covet today are important but temporary solutions, interim steps. In the case of buildings and thermal mass, new materials will revolutionize the control of radiation and heat transfer. They will make thermal mass for heat or cooling storage obsolete, unnecessarily expensive, and comparatively low-performance. Science is progressing to the point where we are beginning to be able to sort, filter, and reflect specific energy frequencies, which will allow us to eliminate most of the mass needed even for insulation. We see it with the rapid evolution of window designs starting with low-e surfaces and gas spaces. New window surfaces in labs are actually generating power and getting ever better at controlling (reflecting, filtering, or valuing) the transmission of radiation (heat) frequencies.

The same ideas apply to bridge construction and the evolution of mass reduction in bridges, the subject of our first video (Design Matters – check it out if you haven’t seen it). What are the relative environmental benefits of using light industrial metals versus local, indigenous stone? After all, manufacturing the metals requires huge amounts of resources for mining, refining, and transport. The answer has to do with benefits as well as mass.

For areas where it’s desirable to preserve a particular historic character, it may well make sense to continue using stone for bridges. But when you consider the global scope of needs for providing infrastructure with minimum local impacts, there can be little question that a super-lightweight modular bridge structure that can be installed quickly with minimum excavation and rearranging of the local environment is likely to be advantageous per ton, per dollar, per distance, and per unit of environmental impacts. When you consider the number of bridges that can be manufactured in one high efficiency factory using renewable resources, the resource cost per mile of span declines rapidly.

We have to use judgment and wisdom as well as better analytical tools to make these decisions, but overall there is no question that delivering more life-supporting benefits to more people will require dMASS on a very large scale, which is why we are convinced this approach is so important.