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Industrial Evolution

A move toward more comprehensive and accessible data on the environmental and health impacts of building products gains momentum.

December 2011
From Architectural Record

By Joann Gonchar, AIA

Continuing Education

Use the following learning objectives to focus your study while reading this month’s Continuing Education article.

Learning Objectives - After reading this article, you will be able to:

  1. Discuss current environmental disclosure initiatives in the building product manufacturing sector, including environmental product declarations and health product declarations.
  2. Describe how these initiatives could provide incentives for manufacturers to improve product performance, reduce environmental footprint, and mitigate negative human health impacts.
  3. identify the elements of an environmental product declaration and outline the process of creating one.
  4. Describe the strengths and shortcomings of life-cycle analysis as a tool for evaluating environmental and health impacts.

Credits: 1.00 HSW

This test is no longer available for credit

Designers are inundated with claims of sustainability from building-product manufacturers. These claims—some substantiated, some not—make material evaluation and selection a perplexing task. But the industry seems poised on the cusp of transformation, from one that is nearly opaque to one where robust and verifiable data are readily available.

At play are a number of factors, including a push for more transparency in both government and corporate operations. Deborah Dunning, president of the Green Standard, an organization dedicated to sustainable product development and purchasing, cites an executive order signed by President Obama in October 2009 requiring federal agencies to collect and report data on their environmental performance. She also points to an early 2010 move by the Securities and Exchange Commission to require publicly traded companies to disclose their climate-change-associated risk to investors.

Within the design and construction world, anticipation of the next version of the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) rating system, LEED 2012, is playing a major role. The document isn’t due to be finalized until November of next year, but if the draft that was released for public comment late in the summer is any indication, the rating system will have a revamped materials and resources section with credits that provide incentive for manufacturers to disclose more information about product contents and their environmental impact. The goal, according to Brendan Owens, USGBC vice president of LEED technical development, is to “fuel the decision-making engine” and create a “virtuous cycle where products are continually improving.”

The proposed credits rely heavily on life-cycle assessment, or LCA, an in-depth, data-intensive evaluation of a product’s environmental impact from raw material extraction through manufacturing, transportation, and installation, and ultimately to disposal or recycling. The methodology accounts for the contribution of the products to impacts such as global warming, ozone depletion, and abiotic depletion (the exhaustion of nonorganic resources like minerals).

A handful of North American building materials manufacturers have begun providing their LCA information through environmental product declarations, or EPDs. These multipage documents, already used extensively in the European Union and Japan, summarize LCA results and present them in a more accessible format. They typically outline product components, describe the manufacturing process, and include information about water use, energy use, and other factors. They provide “comprehensive, third-party-verified disclosure of a product’s environmental impacts,” explains Heather Gadonniex, an EPD specialist with UL Environment. One of the services UL offers is that of “program operator,” overseeing the EPD process for manufacturers.

The protocol for creating an EPD (see diagram on page 2) has been set by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). At the foundation of the process is the product category rule (PCR), which defines the scope and methodology for LCA data collection for a given type of material. It is what ensures a level playing field among manufacturers and allows specifiers to compare the environmental performance of like products. Once the EPD is compiled, its contents are verified by an independent reviewer. And, finally, the document is made available to specifiers, designers, and other interested parties, often on the program operator’s website.

The push for EPDs in North America is still in its infancy, but the first companies to tackle the information gathering and disclosure process tout its benefits. For example, carpet company Interface registered its first EPD for a product line in 2009 and expects to have completed EPDs for all its products in 2012. As a result of compiling the documents and conducting the underlying LCAs, the company learned that most of its products’ impacts were incurred before the raw materials even reached its factories. The information “completely drove our strategy to close the loop,” says John Wells, president and CEO of Interface Americas, referring to an initiative to replace the virgin material in its carpet with reclaimed carpet fibers and other recycled content.


Originally published in December 2011 issue of Architectural Record
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