The value of transparency documents for construction

by Katie Daniel | May 23, 2018 10:11 am

Images courtesy CertainTeed

By Brent Belanger, CTR
If one were to evaluate the historical progress of sustainable awareness in North America, it is safe to say the environmental movement has made its biggest strides in the last few decades. Although the initial adoption by consumers and manufacturers was slow, the simple 3Rs (reduce, reuse, and recycle) are now common practices. The linear economy, in which materials no longer needed are simply brought to landfill at their end of life, is becoming less prevalent as individuals become innately mindful of reducing waste. Existing sustainable design programs are becoming more refined, and newly introduced ones, more advanced. One of the most common beneficial results of these initiatives is a greater focus on a circular economy, in which materials are directed away from dump sites to be reused or recycled in various fashions.

Green construction has evolved beyond the 3Rs to address other important facets of how resources are being utilized. Current requirements for the monitoring of building performance is not limited to thermal performance, and includes other elements such as lighting, indoor air quality (IAQ), and acoustics. As new sustainability certification programs launch and existing ones develop further, the need increases for more information. For instance, references to environmental evaluations in a product’s technical data sheet are more abundant and prominent today compared to the 1980s.

However, the path to determining how “green” a product is has been fraught with confusion. Professional designers, specification writers, and others involved in determining materials for sustainable design projects might inadvertently select the wrong ones despite their best intentions because consumer product companies sometimes publish many claims as part of this new green economy. The alphabet soup associated with the terminology, as well as all the repositories of information, can be overwhelming. Further, some of these published claims may be inaccurate or presented in a manner that misleads the consumer/decision-maker, despite the best intentions of the manufacturer. “Greenwashing” as it is commonly referred to occurs when a company intentionally represents a product as environmentally better than it actually is. This practice has legal ramifications, as it violates consumer protection acts.

Information is power, but only when the right data is obtained. Decision-makers are disadvantaged because of greenwashing and/or having misunderstandings when interpreting environmental claims. Although led to believe they are assessing results between similar items, building professionals may actually be comparing apples and oranges. Lesser products or systems are then selected for a project because of this confusion and misinterpretation. In the end, the desired performance and results of a “sustainable” project have a high probability of being compromised or even unattainable.

To reduce this risk, architects, contractors, and building owners need a tool to evaluate and compare sustainable products and materials. Such a tool requires a standardized format and verification to ensure easy and consistent evaluation of products from all manufacturers in a specific category. Since consumers are becoming more discerning of the environmental impacts of the materials they purchase, they also benefit by a standardized way to assess them. One such tool developed to create this transparency is an environmental product declaration (EPD).

Figure 1: Product category rules (PCR) and a life cycle assessment (LCA) are the primary steps for creating an environmental product declaration (EPD).

How to create an EPD
As shown in Figure 1, a product category rule (PCR) and life cycle assessment (LCA) are the primary steps for creating an EPD. PCR can be defined as the document setting up the requirements on how to conduct a life cycle assessment and prepare an EPD. This is important for similar building products (e.g. insulation) because it ensures all manufacturers are conducting LCAs and publishing their EPDs on a consistent basis. PCR is commonly developed by a manufacturer or by an industry association/committee with a third-party program operator guiding the process. It explains how to perform the calculations to transfer recorded data to the environmental impact statement. Although a manufacturer or industry association/committee can develop them, the results are still subject to review by an independent board. Further, the PCR’s developer must follow the guidelines of International Organization for Standardization (ISO) 14040, Environmental Management: Lifecycle Assessment−Principles and Framework, and ISO 14025, Environmental Labels and Declarations: Type III Environmental Declarations–Principles and Procedures, or ISO 21930, Sustainability in Buildings and Civil Engineering Works–Core Rules for Environmental Product Declarations of Construction Products and Services. When PCR for a specific category are developed, they tend to remain constant for all similar products seeking an EPD later on. This consistency facilitates comparison in the end.

A life cycle assessment helps the manufacturer quantify the environmental impacts of their products across the entire life cycle. Once a manufacturer understands a product’s environmental impacts through every stage, they can then use that information in the new development process to design greener materials. LCA is third-party verified by program operators and governed by ISO 14040 and ISO 14044, Environmental Management: Life Cycle Assessment–Requirements and Guidelines, and EN 15804, Sustainability of Construction Works. Environmental Product Declarations. Core Rules for the Product Category of Construction Products. Once again, the use of independent third parties allows for unbiased interpretation.

Figure 2: The two types of EPDs are cradle-to-gate and cradle-to-grave.

The following five steps are evaluated in an LCA:

1) extraction and processing of raw materials;

2) manufacturing;

3) transportation and distribution;

4) use, reuse, and maintenance; and

5) recycling and final disposal.

The data from the LCA is then used to create an EPD, which also is third-party verified. There are two types of EPDs—“cradle-to-gate” and “cradle-to-grave” (Figure 2). A cradle-to-gate assessment only documents the environmental impact of the extraction and manufacturing phases of a product. Trade associations commonly undertake this method for their “industry-wide generic” EPDs, as they are often limited in their ability to gather concise information at the later stages of a material’s life. The calculations are typically a weighted average of the data from participating members. Manufacturers, who assess a product to its end of life, will have a cradle-to-grave, product-specific Type III EPD, published in accordance with ISO 14025 requirements, to add credibility. Note the expression “cradle-to-cradle” refers to a process in which there is a recovery at the end-of-life phase of a product, and the salvaged material is reworked into other products.

This project is certified LEED 2009 Platinum and used transparency documents as part of achieving this status.
Photo © Jeffrey Totaro

Impact categories of an EPD
From the input categories (energy, raw materials, intermediates, and auxiliaries) and output categories (waste, emissions, and co-products’ waste output) of the LCA, impact categories are then quantified within the EPD.

Measure of Impact is a useful area of the EPD to enable a good overview of where the greatest resource usage is happening, as well as the magnitude or size of the impacts. EPDs assess the impact on the atmosphere (e.g. global warming potential, ozone depletion, or smog creation), Earth (e.g. fossil fuel or mineral depletion), and water (e.g. nutrient loading of water or acid rain).

Among the impact categories found in EPDs, typically global warming potential (GWP) and embodied energy (EE) are referenced to understand relative magnitudes of impact among products specified. This is important information for designers to understand so as to design greener buildings—the lower the GWP and EE, the lower the environmental impact of the product. Therefore, these categories are valuable, if not critical, to manufacturers striving to reduce their carbon footprint.

One other important item for comparison is the “functional unit.” This measurement determines how the impact of the product is quantified throughout the EPD. The functional unit measure is based on how the product is typically employed or installed. For example, when one follows this logic, cladding products use m2 or sf (coverage) as opposed to kg or lb (weight). Were an architect to use a weight-based assessment, which has no correlation to how siding is installed, the results would be skewed unfavourably for siding. (Refer to Building for Environmental and Economic Sustainability Technical Manual and User Guide, published by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) at[5].) As a result, an alternative cladding, possessing a more severe environmental impact, could be selected.

The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system addresses the need for more transparency by requiring EPDs under the current version, LEED v4. This was optional as Pilot Credit 52–Materials Multi-Attribute Assessment under its last edition (LEED 2009). It is worth noting the next iteration of LEED v4, LEED v4.1, is expected to encourage wider use of EPDs.

To qualify for the Materials and Resources (MR) Credit 2, 20 products having “product-specific” EPDs, from at least five different manufacturers, are required to be installed in the constructed building. An “industry-wide generic” EPD is deemed a half-product. Therefore, if only “industry-wide generic” EPDs are provided, 40 products would be needed to qualify for the credit in LEED. In essence, the LEED program recognizes a “product-specific” EPD as a higher standard of environmental stewardship. Therefore, manufacturers are increasingly opting for the more robust cradle-to-grave approach. (Read Dennis Wilson’s article, “Moving in the Right Direction,” published in the November 2017 issue of Walls & Ceilings, for more information.)

The development from start to finish of an EPD by a manufacturer is a serious engagement because it requires devoted human and financial resources over an extended period. The timeline to complete an EPD can range from five to 18 months, depending on the material analyzed or the type of LCA performed. Additionally, an EPD for product A, made in production facility X, is not applicable to the same product produced in facility Y or Z. No two production facilities are exactly alike in how they source materials, manufacture, or deliver products. For this reason, a separate EPD needs to be developed for each product at each facility by the manufacturer to maintain consistency and accuracy.

More than 800 EPDs have been published in North America. Many are for commonly-used products in commercial construction, such as gypsum board, glass-fibre insulation, ceiling tiles, and door hardware. This facilitates the effort needed when incorporating EPDs into a project. Verification is simpler and less time-consuming compared to other credits needed to achieve sustainable design credits. Further, EPDs can be utilized for all methods of construction, be it wood, concrete, or steel. This versatility in offering is one of the reasons EPDs are being prescribed more frequently in project specifications.

From a global perspective, it is worth noting the middle-class is expected to grow to 4.9 billion people by 2030. (Consult Mario Pezzini’s article “An Emerging Middle Class” in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development OECD Observer Yearbook 2012 at[6].) This segment of the population has the highest level of consumerism, and hence, places the greatest demands on the world’s resources. Therefore, an EPD is a valuable tool for gauging the impact on many of the Earth’s resources, especially non-renewables. Its value extends far beyond the building.

Figure 3: Some manufacturers will opt to report material and health hazards for all intentional products at 100 parts-per-million (ppm), which is more stringent and exceeds Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) v4 requirements.

Health product declarations
Another transparency document of note is the health product declaration (HPD). A HPD is commonly described as a “food label” for construction products. Just as a can of soup lists its ingredients on the label, a HPD discloses the materials and chemicals contained in a manufactured product.

The standard for HPDs is developed by the Health Product Declaration Collaborative. The intent of HPDs is to assist designers, specification writers, and builders in understanding the materials and chemicals employed in the products they specify for building projects. At a time when people are more health conscious and careful as to what they put in their bodies, it only makes sense they should be better informed of what is contained in the places they live, work, study, and play.

HPDs build upon EPDs in that the reader can additionally understand the chemicals used, and the potential health hazards associated with a product. Potential is an important word. Just because a hazard is identified does not mean there is any risk of exposure in the product. Similar to the EPD, a HPD is an impartial third-party verified document. Consistency is maintained when identifying substances, which are denoted by their chemical abstract number (CAS). One item worth noting when reviewing a HPD is the level of disclosure a manufacturer provides. A HPD must disclose material and health hazards for all intentional products, as well as residuals and their hazards to the 1000 parts-per-million (ppm) level, which equals 0.1 per cent. Some manufacturers opt to report at 100 ppm, which is more stringent (0.01 per cent) and exceeds LEED v4 requirements (Figure 3).

HPDs are recognized in several sustainable design programs. Under LEED v4, the Materials and Resources (MR) Credit 4 for material ingredients is achieved when 20 products having a HPD from at least five different manufacturers are employed in the construction of a building. Similarly, with the WELL Building Standard, HPDs are used in achieving the standard’s Compliance 25 Toxic Material Reduction and Compliance 26 Enhanced Material Safety features. HPDs can also be employed to comply with the Living Building Challenge, currently considered by many to be the most rigorous performance standard for buildings.

The advent of transparency documents has enabled an environment in which people can make more efficient and better-educated decisions about what materials and products to select for structures. Thanks to the standardized methods used to develop EPDs and HPDs, as well as the due diligence of manufacturers, those involved in sustainable design are now able to compare apples to apples. Therefore, it is not time to moan about transparency documents. Rather, it is time for all parties involved in the life of a building to embrace these tools of clarity.

Brent Belanger, CTR, LEED GA, is the architectural services manager for CertainTeed IPG Canada. He has more than 30 years of experience with manufacturers in the design/construction industry. He currently serves on technical committees for the North American Insulation Manufacturers Association (NAIMA) Canada and Gypsum Association (GA). Belanger can be reached at[8].

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