Fast Company recently reported on the potential comeback of one of the most infamous building materials of recent memory. Asbestos is now legally allowed back into U.S. manufacturing under a serious of loopholes by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). As Fast Company reported, on June 1, the EPA authorized a “SNUR” (Significant New Use Rule) that allowed the distribution of products containing asbestos on a case-by-case basis. According to Fast Company, the EPA's recently released report detailing its new framework for evaluating the risk of its top prioritized substances states that the agency will "no longer consider the effect or presence of substances in the air, ground, or water in its risk assessments." This news comes after the EPA reviewed its first batch of 10 chemicals under the 2016 amendment to the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), which requires the agency to continually reevaluate hundreds of potentially toxic chemicals in lieu of removing them from the market or placing new restrictions on their use. The SNUR greenlights companies to use toxic chemicals like asbestos without consideration about how they will endanger people who are indirectly in contact with them. Asbestos was widely used in building insulation up until it was completely banned in most countries in the 1970s. The U.S. severely restricted its use without completely outlawing it. As Fast Company covered, the Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization (ADAO) revealed in April that asbestos-related deaths now total nearly 40,000 annually, with lung cancer and mesothelioma being the most common illnesses in association with the toxin. Healthy Building Network (HBN), an environmental advocacy group, told Fast Company that the fibrous material poses a major health risk for everyone exposed to it, including those who mine it, those who handle it in industrial facilities, as well as people near or inside renovation and construction projects where it’s being used. HBN’s Board President Bill Walsh said that the chlor-alkali industry is the only industry in the country that still uses asbestos, reportedly importing about 480 tons of the carcinogen each year from Russia and Brazil. Walsh pointed out to Fast Company that chlorine-based plastics are commonly found in building-product materials and that “virtually all” asbestos in the U.S. is used in the industrial process to make chlorine. This includes PVC and vinyl plastics, which is largely found in the creation of pipes, tiles, flooring, adhesives, paints, and roofing products. Though the EPA is now easing its regulations against integrating the harmful toxin and others like it under the Trump administration, it will largely be the responsibility of local and state governments, as well as companies and informed consumers to counter these new federal moves. Walsh told Fast Company it’s up to sustainable building-product manufacturers and ultimately, architects to pressure the market. “Architects really set the pace of design, in terms of aesthetics and materials that we like,” he told Fast Company. “If they start to incorporate health-based criteria into their palette, it could really have an influence on what the manufacturers produce.” Earlier last month, The Washington Post noted that the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and the ADAO had discovered a controversial post on Russian asbestos exporter Uralasbest’s Facebook page showing photos of company pallets stamped with a seal of U.S. President Donald Trump’s face. As The Post covered, Trump has long been vocal about his skepticism about the harmful effects of asbestos, claiming in his 1997 book, The Art of the Comeback, that anti-asbestos efforts were “led by the mob.” The Post uncovered how in 2012, he tweeted that the World Trade Center might not have burned had the fire-retardant material not been removed from the towers. It’s estimated that 400 tons of asbestos fiber went into the structures before the developers stopped it from being used further in 1971. The EPA told The Washington Post it will conduct further studies on the first 10 chemicals under the amended TSCA and final risk evaluations will published in December 2019.
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Last November, the U.S. Department of Commerce under President Trump announced an average of 21 percent import duties on Canadian timber products entering the U.S. The announcement was greeted with mixed reactions within the construction industry; builders claimed that the tariffs would increase the cost of construction, and American suppliers argued that the domestic timber industry would benefit, expand, and keep wood prices low. Single-family home construction in the U.S. relies heavily on Canadian softwood for roofing and framing. In 2017, Canadian lumber yards supplied 28 percent of the U.S. softwood lumber market, and home builders have been the first to raise concerns about the new duties, which were in effect by January. The National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) claims that the imposed tariffs have added approximately $9,000 to the cost of single-family homes and up to $3,000 on multi-family homes. The NAHB doesn’t believe U.S. domestic production is capable of meeting the current market demand and that the tariffs only hurt native manufactures by forcing them to increase their lumber prices. The NAHB is calling for the Trump administration to resume talks with Canada to secure a more mutually beneficial long-term agreement. David Logan, director of tax and trade policy analysis at the NAHB, says that historically, the U.S. lumber field has never been able to support rapid housing growth. “Buyers are still buying from the distributors they’ve always sourced from despite the tariffs,” he said. “Domestic lumber production has increased marginally in the last year, but it’s not kept up with the housing demand in terms of percentages, so it’s hard to say that we’re meeting the challenge. This has always been the case. We can’t meet that need...not even close.” Logan also argued that larger lumber companies in the U.S. are profiting unfairly from the deal, citing the Seattle-based Weyerhaeuser, which owns 12.4 million acres of forest in the U.S. alone and manages 14 million acres in Canada, as well as West Fraser, a Vancouver-based company that operates 48 mills across both countries. The NAHB claims that these companies are able to reap the benefits of both markets under the current trade agreement and likely won’t be affected if things change again. “We say over and over again that we need predictable and stable supply. That means using Canadian lumber,” Logan said. “Diversification of operations in the biggest mills on both sides of the border has really hampered any progress towards talking further about this issue because they’re able to increase production and do well. Prices have been so high there’s not really room for anyone but the big players to have a seat at the table, whether they’re Canadian or American.” The U.S. Lumber Coalition (USLC) rejects these claims. “Since the duties were implemented," the USLC wrote in a statement last week, "U.S. lumber shipments have increased by about 1.4 billion board feet, roughly filling the gap left by the decrease of Canadian imports. U.S. companies continue to invest in expanding their production capabilities to mill lumber from American trees by American workers to build American homes.” Pleasant River Lumber, a small milling company based in Maine, isn’t experiencing the negative side effects that the NAHB claims is coming out of the current tariffs on timber. In fact, the company is on track to complete a $20 million expansion at two of its four sawmills in the next 18 months. As part of the USLC, Pleasant River Lumber sources 95 percent of its lumber within the state of Maine and takes a bit from New Hampshire and Canada as well. Owner Jason Brochu is pleased with the country’s newfound focus on local production and plans to take advantage of it. “Increased demand due to forest fires and hurricanes in other states, spiked prices from the duties, heightened transportation costs, and a strong housing market all factor in to establish a level playing field for lumber production in the U.S. right now,” said Brochu. “We can’t compete against the government or any larger mills without things being equal.” Pleasant River Lumber is capitalizing on the growing lumber market by adding 50 percent more capacity to its production facilities and hiring 40 new employees as quickly as possible. They plan to boost production of their dimensional lumber from 200 million to 300 million board feet annually with the upgraded equipment. More importantly, they’re investing in their framing mills to address the increased demand within the housing market. “We believe we’re pretty typical of most mills in the country at this time,” Brochu said. “Most mills in Maine specifically are adding shifts or putting more money into mills to increase volume. We’re confident that the duties protect our rights as producers in the U.S. and we feel like the laws are working the way they should.” Brochu also emphasized how “relatively insignificant” framing lumber is in housing construction. USLC said the same thing stating that lumber makes up only 2 percent of the cost of a new home—which in 2018 stands at $368,500. Framing lumber isn’t the only wood material that’s used to construct new homes. Plywood, which has zero duties imposed on it, flooring, and other timber products are also increasing in price. New York-based specialty wood-product manufacturer Hudson Company said the niche wood market has been affected as well. Two of its most popular reclaimed-wood products, both of which feature Canadian imported lumber, have both been impacted dramatically, says owner Jamie Hammel. Sales of silver pine siding are down by 60 percent, while hand-hewn beams are down 40 percent. “The reason our business is not down by 60 percent,” he said, “is because we sell other things. But we've had to limit the amount of volume we import because of the tariffs and we’ve had to diversify our product line to adjust and will continue to do. We’ve had to source more products locally which I guess was the administration’s goal.” The timber tariffs against Canada were among the first official duties placed on another country by the U.S. government since Trump took office. In the ten years since the Softwood Lumber Agreement (SLA) was established in 2006, the U.S. Commerce Department has allowed Canadian companies to sell lumber to the U.S. market at subsidized prices, lifting previously countervailing and anti-dumping duties as long as prices stayed above a certain figure. The SLA expired in 2015 and since then both countries have been unable to negotiate a new deal. On behalf of the NAHB, Logan said that his organization doesn't foresee a new Canada-U.S. deal happening in the near future. “We don’t think the dialogue will reopen any time soon as long as the North American Free Trade Agreement negotiations are ongoing. If history repeats itself...the last time this happened it took around 5 years to settle,” he said referring to the original SLA. “Hopefully I’m wrong and this is done very quickly. Until then, prices will maybe get a bit higher, but volatility will certainly increase.”
At the AIA’s National Convention in Denver, held from June 19–22, AN’s Emily Hooper sat down with Spanish architect Francisco Mangado, who was in attendance to receive an honorary fellowship. Mangado discussed foreboding amendments to Spain’s law of professional services that would allow engineers, or anyone deemed “competent” in construction, to design and erect buildings across the nation. The law was introduced at a council meeting of Government Ministers in April of 2013, and a final pass-or-fail decision will be reached by the end of this year. Mangado: At the moment, we are very concerned about this. There are important demonstrations in Spain against this amendment because the government wants to change the law and allow engineers to do buildings. Right now, only the architect has the capacity to design and build buildings. But now the government, in a very very wrong way I think, [has proposed this and] there is no correspondence with the kind of training of architects and engineers receive in school, to extend the possibility to design and make architecture. Of course we are complaining, not only for a professional questioning, but for cultural and conceptual consideration. Architecture is not only construction. It has to do with the city, with the values of the citizen, with the public space, with beauty, with historical and symbolic concepts, but engineers don't manage these. In the same way that I'm not prepared to make a bridge, I think the government has to realize engineers aren't prepared to design buildings. Right now we are organizing a lot of complaints. After the summer I think the country’s students of architecture will go out to the streets to demonstrate and defend the profession, even with very violent demonstrations because it’s the only way our government will understand these things. We have a government that’s a disaster. The crisis is terrible but this government is increasing that crisis. So the problem of Spain is not only this government; the former government—of socialism—was another disaster. And the conservatives are just another. So the problem of Spain is our politicians. We have a very intelligent country of people who are well prepared with the capacity to work but we have a cancer—which is called politicians. They don’t accept anything. They don’t understand anything. I studied economic science before studying architecture; I know what it means to make an economy. An economy is a very important political component. Economy doesn’t mean you manage a society as if we were just a number in a computer. It’s much more. What is happening with architecture is just another sign of how wrong they are. But we have confidence in the citizens that we will defend our position. My family created an architecture and society foundation that at the moment is considered the most important architecture institution in Spain. Because the social architectural association went bankrupt from the crisis, our association has assumed the role of organizing conferences, lectures, and defending architecture in this sense against the government. If it’s necessary to be in the street, with protest, with violence, we will be there defending architecture. AN: So, this law is an economic measure. Mangado: Exactly. They are making this because they think they are going to reevaluate the cost for doing architecture. The reasoning is the more people they have doing architecture, the less the fees. But it’s completely wrong. At the moment in Spain, there are 40,000 architects and another 40,000 students of architecture, waiting to become architects. With this enormous amount of architects they already have competition. Architecture is a relationship with society. We are making buildings to serve a society, so architects have to be keen on these kinds of questions. What also happened is the government has made the most of the academic schedule in order to prepare this law because they know that 40,000 students are on vacation and they know if these students were at university now, tomorrow they’d have 40,000 young people on the streets.
The State Department’s overseas embassies are getting a facelift. Under the "Indefinite Delivery/Indefinite Quantity (IDIQ) Worldwide Major Rehabilitation/Renovation Architecture/Engineering Design Services solicitation," a team of designers will overhaul overseas facilities. The Department’s Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations announced Monday that five design teams would undertake the major governmental project: Beyer Blinder Belle Architects, BNIM Architects, Krueck & Sexton Architects, Weiss/Manfredi Architects, and Zimmer Gunsul Frasca. More than 270 diplomatic missions (embassies, consulates and other facilities) fly the U.S. flag. Since 1999 OBO has completed 89 new structures, with 43 more in design and construction.