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  • Event Review: EPDs, the Next Step in Product Transparency

Event Review: EPDs, the Next Step in Product Transparency

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  • By opionGIGA
  • Date April 14th, 2014 10:33
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  • March 25th was an historic date for product transparency and information quality. It marked the first public session on EPDs (Environmental Product Declarations) for building materials in China. The evening brought together five industry leaders to explain EPDs, why they are significant and how they are being used. Thank you to the 111 people who were part of this event as well as Haworth who generously provided the space.

    Raefer Wallis, Founder of GIGA (GIGA is a building and material think tank, who has been driving material transparency since 2008), began by introducing the context of the evening: In an industry that already has hundreds of certifications and standards for product documentation, why spend an evening focused on only one? 

    Materials are global. Yet, around the world designers and developers struggle to make sense of product documentation that is anything but global. Different measuring and reporting standards from country to country make the comparison of materials extremely difficult. They also make project calculations for metrics such as embodied carbon almost impossible.

    EPDs document the way in which a product impacts the environment throughout it's entire lifecycle, evaluating it across multiple indicators such as emissions to air, soil and water. EPDs are transparency tools capable of providing internationally standardized data on materials. It is the first transparent, multi-attribute standard to spread internationally.

    Born in Europe and adopted by multiple governments and green buildings systems, the recent inclusion of EPDs in LEED v4 has catalyzed their use internationally. Also, in many countries the attributes covered by EPDs have direct overlap with local priorities, including the recently approved incentives for documeting the embodied carbon of materials in China. Continued widespread adoption and refinement of the science behind EPDs could eventually allow us to compare materials internationally and make the right choices based on project needs.

    Mahesh Ramanujam, COO of the USGBC and President of GBCI gave a brief presentation as to why the USGBC has adopted EPDs as part of LEED v4. Beginning with the question of 'what is a green material?' Mahesh explained that although some green attributes are universal (chemical off-gassing for example) other attributes are dependent on the use case. The only way to assess this is by having transparent information on products and enabling users to make educated choices, based on use-case and a consideration of a products life-cycle impact. The USGBC has frequently drawn the parallel between LEED and the nutrition labels required on food packaging.   In order to bring greater transparency to buildings,  EPDs (and Health Product Declarations, HPDs) are an extension of this approach.  Both are transparency tools.

    Michael Tunkey, Director of CannonDesign China, gave a brief presentation on the EPD work they are spearheading with Architecture 2030 in an effort to help the industry reach the 2030 target of carbon neutral buildings. Having emerged from the world of Life-Cycle Analysis, EPDs tend to be heavy documents to sift through, particularly when they are not formatted in a universal way. Michael shared a few slides from CannonDesign's Material Life publication on Embodied Energy, serving as an example of how complex data can be made more accessible to end users. With the participation of other design firms and industry experts, CannonDesign is leading an initiative to create an open EPD format that makes information easier to extract and apply. As global leaders in education and healthcare design, Michael referenced one of his current construction sites - the first LEED certified hospital in China. The complexity of the project not only drove home the need for accurate material data but also how crucial it is for that data to be easily accessible. Without this, proper material choices can't be made, potentially undermining project performance, occupant health and environmental health.

    Mark Rossolo, Global Director of Public Affairs for UL, was tasked with the challenge of explaining what EPDs are, what they are not and what drives them in terms of market forces. An EPD is a 3rd party verified, internationally recognized, single comprehensive disclosure of a product's environmental impact throughout its life-cycle. A Life-Cycle Assessment (LCA) is a technique to assess environmental impacts associated with all the stages of a product's life from cradle-to-grave. The EPD standard is defined and managed by ISO (International Standards Organization) and follows a set of rules, requirements and guidelines specific to each product category (Product Category Rules or PCRs). The EPD development process begins with choosing the appropriate PCR for the material being analyzed, conducting the LCA according to that PCR and publishing the final results in the EPD.

    The main limitations of an EPD are that they do not include information on the actual environmental performance of materials during their use, nor do they include information on human health impacts.

    Key market drivers that are spurring the need for EPDs include architects and designers, clients and owners, global green building rating systems and Government Policies, including international and regional trade regulations.

    Abby DeWolfe, Associate at Gensler, presented a compelling case study of a current Gensler project in Shanghai: an interior fit-out that is targeting both LEED v4 and Living Building Challenge certifications. Although projects such as this one have ambitious environmental goals, they still follow standard project timelines and budgets. Concept designs and colour palettes must still be converted into actual material choices quickly and efficiently. However, this seemingly straight forward task becomes a critical road block when there are little to no material choices that meet the requirements on information disclosure. Although the number of clients requiring this level of information is increasing, the supply of materials isn't. Whereas this creates a difficult challenge for designers, it also creates a tremendous opportunity for the industry's first movers.

    Dr. Yu Hai Yong, Vice Manager of JTAC / SRIBS and author of the new embodied carbon credits for the China Green Building Label, dissected the life-cycle attributes considered within an EPD and explained how they overlapped with China's developments in green building. This presentation was critical in helping manufacturers understand how EPDs could be useful to them in China:
    1. Generating data to be used for the material requirements of the China green building label.
    2. Meeting the eco-design standards of the MIIT
    3. Overcoming the green trade barrier
    4. Informing the improvement and development of the the products being assessed.

    Dr. Yu wrapped up with a brief introduction of their research in the LCA field, as well as a summary of the EPD development process.

    An open dialogue followed well into the evening, allowing manufacturers to ask the experts more specific questions about the EPD process.

    The evening wrapped up highlighting recent EPD milestones in China, beginning with Interface's launch of the first EPDs for a building product manufactured in China, to GIGA publication of the first Chinese language EPD for Forbo Marmoleum.

    GIGA also announced that they had finally succeeded in localizing the EPD research process and that the first one to be authored in China is currently under way. 

    For more on EPDs, please click here.

    Above: Mahesh Ramanujam (right), COO of the USGBC and President of GBCI. 

    Above: Michael Tunkey, Director of CannonDesign China

    Above: Mark Rossolo, Global Director of Public Affairs for UL

    Above: Mark Rossolo answering questions from the audience. 

    Above: Dr. Yu Hai Yong, Vice Manager of JTAC / SRIBS

    Above: Abby DeWolfe, Associate at Gensler

    Above: Raefer Wallis, Founder of GIGA, giving a summary of the fastest growing labels in China and GIGA's role in helping the industry in China make sense of them.

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