OPPORTUNITIES ABOUND TO DRAMATICALLY REDUCE ENERGY use and lessen the environmental and human-health impacts generated by the built environment. There never has been so much readily available information regarding how to reduce waste, save energy, and build or purchase sustainable products. Many manufacturers, building owners, designers and architects are working harder than ever to improve their environmental performances. And the companies, organizations and individuals who occupy buildings are increasingly sophisticated about environmental issues and motivated to incorporate sustainable values into their build-out and interior-design decisions.
At the same time, progress is impeded by the difficulty in weighing options to determine what will deliver the best environmental performance with the fewest trade-offs. Available information is often incomplete and replete with hidden assumptions. Greenwashing complicates matters further with claims that ultimately do not add up to promised benefits.
Environmental Performance Declarations are a powerful new tool designed to support greater environmental accountability, facilitating environmental decision-making at all stages of green-building planning, design, construction and operation. EPDs are based on rigorous Life-cycle Impact Assessment, an internationally standardized environmental accounting method designed to accurately measure the benefits and trade-offs of various options. The EPD was developed by Emeryville, Calif.-based Scientific Certification Systems, an independent auditing, certification and standards-development firm for environmental and sustainability claims.
By helping companies better understand the nature and scale of environmental and human-health impacts associated with their choices, EPDs can guide meaningful impact-reduction measures by identifying strategies aimed at conserving energy and resources, reducing emissions and saving money. As such, this tool can benefit manufacturers, designers, architects, facility managers, building owners and building occupants.
LCIA is the methodological underpinning of EPDs, setting a new standard for environmental metrics in the building sector. LCIA was developed by leading scientists around the world and standardized under the auspices of the Geneva-based International Organization for Standardization during the past decade. SCS participated in the development of the ISO LCIA standard and developed a robust framework called Life-Cycle Stressor Effects Assessment, or LCSEA, for using LCIA on a site-specific basis. EPDs are an output of LCIA studies conducted under the LCSEA framework.
EPDs are intended to build on the marketplace success of LEED, which has fostered widespread awareness about the ways the built environment contributes to negative environmental and human-health impacts and has led to significant innovation in building design and product and materials manufacturing.
A NUTRITION LABEL FOR THE ENVIRONMENT
The ISO LCIA standards warn LCIA results should not be aggregated into a summary score and weighting factors should not be used to assign greater priority to selected impact categories. In other words, each impact category stands on its own.
Nutrition labels are a useful analogy. Take a look at the nutrition label on the back of your cereal box. The nutrition content categories for fat, carbohydrates, Vitamin C and protein are kept separate; there simply is no logical way to combine these categories under one name or score. Instead, we examine each element on its own merits.
Similarly, the EPD summarizes findings in individual impact categories, such as depletion of water and energy resources, disruption of key species, cumulative greenhouse-gas-emissions, oceanic and terrestrial acidification, smog, eco-toxicity loadings, indoor-exposure risks, and radioactive and other hazardous wastes. Results are summarized graphically on an easy-to-understand bar chart on which individual impact category results are compared to a relevant baseline or average. Environmental performance areas that need improvement are easy to identify; the further any one bar extends to the right, particularly if it reaches “the red zone,” the greater the need for meaningful actions to mitigate that impact.
FLEXIBILITY FOR WIDESPREAD USE
EPDs are well suited for analyzing the environmental impacts of building materials and furnishings, as well as overall building designs and operations. Product EPDs involve a comprehensive examination of life-cycle factors, such as raw-material extraction and processing, energy use, production-related impacts, product distribution and waste disposal. Building-scale EPDs integrate data to point toward opportunities for greater energy efficiency, improved IAQ and reduced environmental impacts.
An EPD also can be used to examine the impacts associated with a company’s workforce, stemming from activities, such as computer and telecommunications usage, air travel and daily commutes. This information can be used to target strategies for reducing workforce impacts. For instance, in one study an employee was commuting to work in a gas-guzzling car and flying to company meetings once a week on an airline that used aging aircraft. By telecommuting one day per week, holding some meetings by video or teleconferencing, and replacing the gas-guzzler with a more fuel-efficient car, the employee was able to dramatically reduce her impacts.
To assist the building sector in advancing understanding of its environmental impacts, SCS has begun work on the creation of a new national voluntary standard pertaining to EPDs.
At SCS’ request, Madison, Wis.-based Leonardo Academy, a nonprofit sustainability and standards-development organization, recently filed an official proposal with the American National Standards Institute, Washington, D.C., for a “Life-Cycle Impact Profile Declarations” standard. This standard will comply with the requirements of ISO 14044 and ASTM draft standard E06.71.10 in specifying the LCIA methods, scope, metrics and format for declarations in an open and transparent process that allows participation from all interested parties. The purpose is to develop a uniform and standardized format for properly reporting the environmental life-cycle impacts of any system studied. Individuals interested in participating in the ANSI process of developing the EPD standard can contact Johna Roth at email@example.com.
A growing number of companies have come to realize their bottom-line interests are aligned with corporate social responsibility, including the reduction of environmental impacts. EPDs promise to move those interested in greater environmental accountability ahead of the rest.
> > ALEXANDER WINSLOW is director of communications for Scientific Certification Systems, Emeryville, Calif. He can be reached at awinslow@ scscertified.com or (510) 452-8003.
Emeryville, Calif.-based Scientific Certification Systems first started providing Environmental Performance Declarations for the electric-power-generation industry. Because of the inherent variability of wind, this 300-megawatt Northwest wind farm’s turbines produce power only 35 percent of the time. This variability necessitates a supplemental natural-gas plant to provide backup power to maintain constant voltage for delivery to the regional grid. The environmental impacts from natural-gas production are included in the wind farm’s overall EPD. The EPD shows no significant impacts in 13 out of 19 impact categories but does show the impact of nonrenewable energy use and related air emissions associated with the operation of the natural-gas plant.