At this point, builders that are serious about sustainability understand the importance of life-cycle assessments (LCAs). Chain of custody and material transparency are no doubt the keys to a more sustainable future. The question is how quickly the building industry can get there.

Steve Baer, a principal consultant at sustainability management consulting firm PE International and Five Winds Strategic Consulting, says the good news is that all the LCA tools are in place to make materials, products, and buildings safer for both homeowners and the environment.

For example, in an ideal world, Baer says the following would—and can—take place:

  • A product manufacturer contacts a firm like Baer’s and undergoes an LCA or, even better, develops an Environmental Product Declaration (EPD) for its specific product. (Alternatively, the manufacturer can conduct an LCA using GaBi software to make the assessment.)
  • The Life Cycle Inventory developed then would be made available in the U.S. LCI Database or other recognized Life Cycle tools.
  • The data also could be embedded into a tool such as the Athena Impact Estimator, which would allow a builder to do an LCA for an entire building.
  • That same LCA (or EPD) data also could be embedded into the BEES (Building for Environmental and Economic Sustainability) software tool, which would allow builders to compare different products against one other.

According to Baer, if the above took place, the industry would have the accurate, brand-specific product data that is needed to transform the market. “When the manufacturer looks in the mirror—the mirror called LCA—and sees that they are ugly, they will likely use that tool to help them find where their warts are and where they can apply some corrective action so that next year they can improve their product,” he explains.
The rest, he says, would then just fall into place. “By encouraging transparency, it will encourage the introspection, which will then enable product improvement, which will give the customer better choices among products,” Baer says.

Of course, that is the ideal situation and, unfortunately, not reality.

The reality, Baer says, boils down to the age-old chicken and the egg challenge. While it appears as if these transforming actions all start with the manufacturer, Baer says the missing link really has more to do with the builder valuing these improvements and, even more important, communicating that value to home buyers.

“Although we help manufacturers improve their products, they have to be motivated to do so,” Baer says. “The manufacturer’s first response is, ‘Why should we do that?’ The builder needs to be able to not only buy that improved product, but they need to effectively communicate that it makes their building more desirable.”

The critical path then becomes communication, Baer says. “Most builders are not good at selling anything beyond aesthetic upgrades,” he explains. “They are really good at selling upgrades in kitchen cabinets because they look pretty, but they are not really effective at talking about the environmental value of the insulation or windows or the sourcing materials of the countertops or cabinets.”

Baer says builders also need to get home buyers to think beyond code. “Most homeowners don’t ask beyond code,” Baer says. “But building to code means you are not being a criminal, and you are building the worst possible building you are allowed to build.”

The hurdle for the construction industry is convincing homeowners that environmental improvements do in fact carry value. And as Baer so frankly states, it would certainly help if that value was confirmed by a third-party source like an appraiser. “It’s about communicating to the ultimate buyer that there really is value to these improvements, and that value is defined by the mortgage bankers and lenders today,” he says.

Once again, Baer believes the opportunity is there, but no one in the financial community is willing to take that next step. “You could do a net present value of the home based on the future cost of operating it,” he explains. “The financial tools are in place ... they are just not being utilized.”

For Baer, the goal is clear: The environmental costs of a property can and should be recognized. “The future,” he says, “depends on this being integrated into our decision-making.”