By 2020 transparency will have permeated the world of building products, giving us nutrition-label-like data on everything we use. Those labels will inform us about what’s in the products, what resources went into their production, and what was released or emitted in the process of making them.
Recognizing that data alone is not actionable information, we’ll also need trustworthy, reliable resources to help us interpret the information about ingredients and emissions. The nutrition labels we see on food wouldn’t do us much good without access to good science about healthy and unhealthy fats—and we need that kind of science to inform healthy material choices as well.
Today we know that many of the products we’re using are unnecessarily harmful—to our health, to the species with which we share this planet, and to the climate—but we have only glimpses and conjectures about the exact nature of those impacts.
This predicament certainly applies to designers and contractors—they know only what suppliers tell them about what’s in a product. But it also applies to manufacturers, who may be in a similar position with their suppliers. Even when manufacturers know exactly what they’re using, information about the health and environmental risks of those substances isn’t always clear, nor can they predict which substances their customers will be most concerned about next.
KEYS TO TRANSPARENCY BY 2020
The push for transparency is not just about health—it applies to environmental impacts of materials as well. And it’s not just about products. A growing number of cities are mandating that building owners release data on how much energy their buildings use. New York City is leading this trend with its groundbreaking release of energy use in large nonresidential buildings throughout the city.
In the realm of building materials, an important tool for getting a handle on all of this is an environmental life-cycle assessment (LCA), which adds up the inputs and outputs of resources and emissions through all stages of a product’s life.
Those inputs and outputs are then traced to categories of environmental impact—sometimes called “the big six”—which include global warming potential (greenhouse gases), depletion of the stratospheric ozone layer, acidification of land and water resources, eutrophication (nutrient loading of surface waters), formation of tropospheric ozone, and depletion of nonrenewable energy resources.
An LCA report on a single product can run more than 100 pages—too much for most designers and builders to digest. Fortunately, the Europeans created a summary format, called an Environmental Product Declaration (EPD), that a few leading suppliers are starting to use in the United States. In addition to being short enough to manage, EPDs have the benefit of third-party validation, which adds to their credibility.
But there are critical issues that LCA studies either ignore completely or give lip service to with woefully inadequate proxy indicators. For example, the widely used TRACI method for translating inputs and outputs into impact categories deals with habitat disruption using the proxy of numbers of threatened or endangered species in the country, and it lacks risk factors for many widely used chemicals.
As whole-building LCA becomes feasible for more projects, it is critical to avoid overstating what it can do.