There’s no doubt that product transparency will play a large role in the future of green building, it’s just a matter of time before it pervades the supply chain.
More and more manufacturers are starting to perform Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs), a verified measure of a product’s environmental attributes, such as embodied energy, based on life-cycle assessment (LCA). There is also a move to add “health” into the materials conversation, thanks to visionaries like Healthy Building Network’s Tom Lent and Bill Walsh and others who have developed the Health Product Declaration (HPD). Designed to complement EPDs, HPDs address the contents, emissions, and health hazards associated with the materials and chemicals used in products. Thirty manufacturers signed up to take part in a pilot project that just wrapped up a few months ago.
In a related initiative, the Living Building Institute has developed Declare, an “ingredients” label launched in October. The format is intentionally simple, listing product ingredients (including trace elements), where they came from, whether or not they are on a hazards list, life expectancy, and end-of-life options. Although voluntary and designed to guide certifying projects within the Living Building Challenge program, the goal of Declare is no different than that of HPDs or EPDs—to start documenting environmental and health data about building materials so that it can be shared and used to make healthier, more environmentally responsible purchasing decisions.
These developments, of course, are all positive ones. They are pushing us that much closer to a more transparent and, therefore, more sustainable future. However, there are sticking points that will no doubt make the road to transparency a little bumpy.
For instance, it has been proposed that the much-anticipated update to the USGBC’s LEED rating system (LEED v4) will include available credits for disclosing and assessing the impacts of materials during their presumed life cycles. This is a positive move forward; however, there is disagreement about how builders and their supply chain should go about disclosing that information.
While many EPDs have been completed following ISO standards, several organizations are suggesting that LEED endorse a new, broader methodology. As Vision 2020 research chair Nadav Malin has pointed out, broadening the scope of transparency may seem like a good idea; however, without a focused, standardized approach, this could actually slow progress. In fact, Malin believes inconsistency in data generation could actually reduce transparency.
Another challenge is that manufacturers are hesitant to disclose details because too much transparency could mean revealing intellectual property and proprietary ingredients. It could also hurt sales if, in fact, their product proves to have negative environmental and health impacts. Of course, that is the point—to motivate manufacturers to improve their products—but without their cooperation, transparency just isn’t going to happen very quickly.
The encouraging sign is that all but one manufacturer that signed on to take part in the HPD pilot followed through. However, most manufacturers chose to only disclose a certain percentage of their ingredients, which shows we still have a long way to go before we get to full disclosure.
At the Vision 2020 Sustainability Summit held in Washington, D.C., in September, one manufacturer admitted that part of the challenge his company faced was convincing its own suppliers to reveal their ingredients. The other challenge was the associated costs of providing deeper levels of information. Those are pretty difficult challenges to solve, and when it comes down it, both issues point to sustainability’s greater challenge—incentive. A large part of that responsibility falls on the real estate industry, which needs to build “green” into the value of the home, but as sustainability consultant Steve Baer frankly told me in a recent interview, the real incentive starts with the buyer of the building materials.
As we move along this journey of disclosure, industry segments also need to verify that they are choosing safer alternatives. Identifying chemicals of concern is only the first step toward specifying more sustainable materials. Tools like the GreenScreen from Clean Production Action could help achieve that by not just identifying chemicals of concern within products, but rating them in a way that allows builders and building material manufacturers to make better choices.
There are several other materials developments happening right alongside transparency. Perhaps one of the most important lessons I’ve learned through my research is that the environmental effects of building materials do not start and end with a build. They do not even start in the design phase. They start in the quarry and in the forest—the place where they are extracted.
Organizations like the Forest Stewardship Council and Sustainable Forestry Initiative started the trend by certifying lumber from sustainable forests—something most of you are already familiar with—but the next step is taking the same approach with every building material. What were the mining conditions used to extract the copper in your pipes or the granite in your countertops? What manufacturing processes were used to create your so-called “green” product?
On the other side of the life-cycle coin is end-of-life implications. One area that has been largely ignored by the construction industry is reuse. The reality is the impact of a product never truly ends, especially if it ends up in a landfill somewhere. As we reach for sustainability, the goal should be to reuse building materials in a way that makes those environmental impacts positive impacts.
As BMRA president Tom Napier and innovative structural engineer Bruce King have suggested, builders need to consider reusing materials, experimenting with alternatives sourced from other industries, and perhaps take an active role in making deconstruction an environmentally beneficial process.
Napier believes that if the industry put its mind to it, we could easily reuse at least 50 percent of a typical single-family home’s content. King believes that by sourcing alternative materials from other industries, we could reduce the carbon footprint of building materials by a factor of 10. Those are some lofty goals, but both Napier and King say they are well within the realm of possibility. We just need to do it.
Yes, it’s all a bit maddening, but the fact is that paving the way toward sustainability will require responsible decisions about your materials and resources. Your choices about everything from the concrete foundation to flame retardants to water—our most precious resource—are important. Only then—when we dig that deep—will we be able to call any building “green.”