Feature Article

EPDs Are the Future of the Building Industry, Whether You Like It or Not

Environmental product declarations are taking off, but can they actually fly? Experts share the ups and downs of this promising but imperfect transparency tool.

Paula Melton, Senior Editor

Photo: Amie Walter
I’ve been using an app to track my runs and bike rides for a couple of years now. I joined for the mapping and mileage features, but it also shows me how many calories I’ve burned. This means I get to expend an extra calorie or two every workout because the number makes me sigh and roll my eyes.

That’s because I know this number has little to do with me; it’s based on computer modeling of the metabolism of an “average” person performing that activity in an air-conditioned fitness lab.

My app doesn’t adequately account for the fact that I’m very short and very middle-aged and very much recovering from a period of inactivity after an ankle sprain.

Though it tracks my elevation, it doesn’t connect the dots and realize I was pedaling 9 mph because the whole ride was a really steep hill (not because I was half asleep). It doesn’t adjust for the effects of a 90ºF day with 90% humidity.

Not just a number

And yet it’s not a completely random number.

I know I didn’t burn exactly 278 calories during my most recent jog, but I can still get a sense of how my exercise is trending over time. I can compare this week’s general activity level to last week’s. I can even link my map app to a diet app and compare estimated fuel intake (food) with estimated energy use (exercise).

Imperfect? Yes. Useful? Also yes.

The results speak for themselves: even knowing it is imperfect, people have been successfully using very rough calorie guesstimates to lose, gain, and maintain weight for decades.

Life-cycle assessment (LCA)—the scientific methodology on which environmental product declarations, or EPDs, are based—provides data that is a lot like the calorie calculator on my running app. Because of the immense complexity of environmental impacts, LCA relies on proxies and statistical averages that may have little connection with a particular building material.

Why we shouldn’t dismiss EPDs

Knowing that, our first impulse may be to roll our eyes and sigh. But there are three good reasons not to:

  1. Ubiquity: The industry is already adopting LCA and EPDs at a breakneck pace, and using them is incentivized in LEED v4. You’re going to be seeing EPDs whether or not you want to; completely ignoring these reports is not a viable option.
  2. Carbon: The global climate crisis is a rapidly advancing emergency. One way to address it is to make better choices about how our building materials are manufactured. And one of LCA’s strong suits is estimating embodied carbon.
  3. So many possibilities: LCA isn’t perfect, but it has amassed a huge amount of data, and the methodology is continually improving. Even now, it can provide useful data that improves our building projects. In the future, given enough engagement and feedback—and most especially pushback—from all parts of the industry, it is likely to get far more sophisticated.

One-stop EPD learning

In this special issue, we are departing from our 25-year custom of publishing a single, long-form feature article. Instead, for more convenient reading, we’ve presented a cluster of shorter pieces on a single topic: environmental product declarations.

Read articles on the basic definition and uses of EPDs, how and why to use them for LEED points, and other ways to apply them to your practice. Learn how manufacturers are completing LCAs and EPDs and then optimizing their manufacturing methods.

Dive deep into the process of creating product category rules (PCRs), and understand which EPDs you might be able to compare—and which you absolutely shouldn’t. Check out some brilliant op-eds and a video primer from outside experts. And more.

These resources are discrete but synergistic. Read them all for a deep, holistic view. Or do a quick scan of what you need to know right now, and save the rest for later.

Either way, enjoy!


Published August 3, 2015

Melton, P. (2015, August 3). EPDs Are the Future of the Building Industry, Whether You Like It or Not. Retrieved from https://www.buildinggreen.com/feature/epds-are-future-building-industry-whether-you-it-or-not

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Apples to Pineapples: Four Reasons You Can’t Compare EPDs

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How to Use EPDs in Your Practice: Advice from Designers

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LEED v4 and EPDs: How’s That Market Disruption Working Out for You?

More EPDs are appearing as a result of LEED v4, even as problems with data quality get worked out on the fly.

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The DNA of EPDs: The Making of Product Category Rules

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