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.
CEUs are available for reading all the short pieces on this featured topic. Click here to learn more and take the quiz.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
Receive continuing education credit for reading this feature on EPDs. Please note that all the shorter pieces must be read for credit.
The Green Building Certification Institute (GBCI) has approved this course for 1 CE hour towards the LEED Credential Maintenance Program. The International Living Future Institute (ILFI) has approved this course for 1 LFA hour.
Upon completing this course, participants will be able to:
- Explain how environmental product declarations (EPDs) are made, what they tell you, and how they're best used.
- Describe how product category rules and life-cycle assessments relate to EPDs.
- Describe how the industry is addressing EPDs.
- Explain how to use EPDs in practice.
To earn continuing education credit, make sure you are logged into your personal BuildingGreen account, then read all the articles associated with the feature and pass this quiz.
Use the following questions to inform class discussions or homework assignments.
- What information is included in most LCAs? What information is included in EPDs and how are they created?
- Why doesn’t having an EPD necessarily mean that the product is green?
- What are the most common environmental impact categories you’ll see on building product EPDs?
- When can you compare EPDs? When can you not?
- Why might the best use of LCA data be within a whole-building LCA?
- How easy or challenging is it to acquire LEED points with EPDs? What are some criticisms of LEED v4’s approach to EPDs? How would you describe this phase of “disruption” as “an opportunity rather than an obstacle”?
- How would you use the EPD for a product of your choice to drive an optimization dialogue with its manufacturer?
Keep exploring our featured topic:
PCRs are the instruction manuals behind EPDs. They’re supposed to provide foolproof rules for conducting LCAs, but they can also be the system’s fatal flaw.
Innovations go far deeper than a stunning, biomimetic roof. The Atlanta Falcons’ new stadium aims to bring green building to the masses.
Are EPDs actually going to have an impact on sustainable design and construction practices? Eventually. Just don’t get caught up in the hype.
We answer FAQs on EPDs, which allow manufacturers to disclose a product’s carbon footprint and other impacts.
How to earn the LEED v4 credit for EPDs, from a Canadian practitioner helping design CaGBC’s new office
We’d love to use transparency tools to compare products “apples-to-apples.” But we’ve got a long way to go.
Sure, you can just check a box for LEED v4. But the data can also inform your project, if you use it wisely.
Don’t expect the turf battles over sustainability of structural systems to be settled anytime soon by EPDs.
More EPDs are appearing as a result of LEED v4, even as problems with data quality get worked out on the fly.