Op-Ed

Opinion: EPDs Are One Small Step for Design Professionals, a Giant Leap for Industry

Uptake of life-cycle assessment will produce huge amounts of data that designers can use to reduce whole-building impacts.

Jennifer O’Connor is president at the nonprofit Athena Institute.

Image courtesy Athena Institute
Life-cycle assessment (LCA) is a respected analytical technique long used in many industries to measure key environmental performance factors and identify ways to reduce impacts on air, land, and water.

LCA has started to show up in the construction sector, most noticeably in the wave of new environmental product declarations (EPDs) hitting the street.

This is great news. EPD market drivers like LEED are working: more and more manufacturers are doing LCA, which is the first step in benchmarking and reducing the environmental footprint of products.

Designers, this is not about you

In fact, the whole point of the LEED v4 credit for EPDs is to drive industry towards LCA.

Once manufacturers understand the environmental burdens of their products, they can begin to make meaningful improvements. The LCA results are reported in an EPD for transparency, but the real work is behind the scenes. A manufacturer uses the highly detailed life-cycle inventory data underlying the EPD to consider product changes.

Growing pains are inevitable

These are early days for EPDs in North America, which means there are some growing pains. Here are some issues with the transition:

  • The information in them isn’t digestible for most readers.
  • We’re also a long way from a benchmark context (are the results “good”?) or a comparability framework (how does one product fare against a competitor’s?).
  • We probably need a lot more education about LCA and EPDs so expectations are managed. LCA only addresses part of the information important to sustainability, which means an EPD is just one tool of many required to environmentally assess a product.
  • EPDs actually have limited usefulness for building designers. Environmental performance data on products really only makes sense in a design context when it’s all rolled up into LCA results for a whole building. That way, product data is appropriately evaluated within the right context and scale, and trade-offs can be considered.

Are designers ready for their own transparency?

However, for industry, the LCA information reported in an EPD is tremendously useful. This is a big step for industry and should be recognized as sustainability leadership: the manufacturing sector is equipping itself to more proactively address the environment.

EPDs also set a great transparency reporting example, by quantifying and publishing internationally accepted performance data that will one day help replace unsubstantiated and vague “green” marketing claims.

It would be nice to see the same thing happening more often in sustainable building design: whole-building environmental declarations, anyone?

Jennifer O’Connor is president at the non-profit Athena Institute, which has been a leader in construction-sector LCA since 1997, working with multiple industries to measure and reduce the footprint of products. The organization provides the free “Impact Estimator for Buildings” LCA software tool to the design community.

Published August 3, 2015

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