Need a birthday gift idea for a friend or significant other? How about a hamster-powered paper shredder? Or, surely they don’t already have an iPod bottle opener attachment or dust mop slippers. There’s no shortage of products you can buy with multiple functions. While such gimmicky trinkets (or more politely, “novelties”) usually end up in the landfill long before their (ahem) useful life, in the building material realm, multi-functionality can be a meaningful way to build with the environment in mind.
Green benefits of multifunctional building products include their potential to reduce overall raw materials needed (and the related extraction and transportation impacts), and to allow buildings and communities to be more compact and efficient.
A real-world example of such products is windows with films or specialty glazing materials that convert sunlight into electricity – in essence, creating transparent solar cells. Windows would be in the building anyway to bring in light or for aesthetics, yet enhancements extend their functionality to be an alternate energy source.
Another company has developed a method for using parking lot pavement to heat water for use in buildings or industrial applications. This not only decreases the need for other energy sources, but also helps reduce urban heat islands by lowering a lot’s temperature. It’s a great example of moving unwanted energy from one area to a place it can be used.
Any number of materials and functions can be combined in beneficial ways. Perhaps scientists could develop carpets that filter indoor air pollutants, or protective wall coatings that emit usable amounts of light. The goal is to create something that provides a true advantage (rather than a combination just attempting to be clever), has lower total environmental impacts than if the functions were implemented separately, and doesn’t diminish the original product’s functionality. On this latter point, would you really want to risk exposing your iPod to a fountain of sticky soda when using a bottle opener attachment?
In some cases, useful multiple functions can be totally unrelated to one another – such as a roof membrane that filters gray water for reuse. Or, multi-functionality can be an extension of an existing feature – such as a device for efficiently channeling an oven’s cooking heat to warm other parts of the home (beyond just leaving its door open after you’ve pulled out the meatloaf). Both types of innovation are important. Your company’s next top-seller could be something radically new or an enhancement of an already useful product.
Companies that develop such offerings hold promise to be industry leaders, attracting customers not just because of green features, but also with more useful, efficient, and possibly cost-effective materials. And for the marketing team, promotional opportunities abound. Think of the fun and energizing brainstorming sessions to be had in launching such a product – and how it could leave competitors in the dust.
Now if you’ll excuse us, we need to take a call on our desktop phone/espresso maker…