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Green products: Environmental Product Declaration

EPDs contain data on the manufacture, use and disposal of materials, offering architects a transparent route through the greenwash, says Sandy Patience. Illustrations by Hanna Melin

In a culture of product information easily characterised by misleading environmental claims, or ‘greenwash’, the Environmental Product Declaration (EPD) stands out as a tool that helps architects make informed decisions about the materials they specify.

An EPD is a ‘label’ published by the manufacturer whose format is strictly defined by the ISO 14025 standard. The document describes the significant environmental impacts of a product based upon quantified information. This information is generated by a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), a systems analysis tool that records the key inputs and outputs associated with each stage of the manufacture, use and disposal of a product.

The environmental impacts measured reflect concerns such as global warming, energy use, resource depletion, waste and toxicity. An EPD also includes a breakdown of the material components of the product and may add further information about elements such as recycled content or whole-life costing. Critically, the all-important objectivity associated with EPDs is provided by independent LCA experts. These are in turn peer-reviewed to ensure bad data and bias don’t encroach on to the output.

Overly enthusiastic marketing executives are already trumpeting EPDs as a kind of ‘green label’. This is misleading because, though an EPD is an invaluable report of a product’s impact on the environment, it is essentially non-judgemental. Though obviously unlikely, a product made using radioactive waste could viably generate an EPD. It’s tempting to view EPDs as a kind of nutrition label, and there’s plenty of similarity, not least in the potential to transform their respective industries.

We’re familiar with food labelling having driven food safety for nearly 50 years, but will EPDs do the same for building products and the environment? Certainly in the medium and long-term the answer seems to be ‘yes’. There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that clients are looking to designers to provide knowledge about and accountability for the materials buildings are constructed from.

James Warne, head of sustainability at BDP speaks of ‘mainstream clients demanding lower impact materials, even to the extent of publishing lists of materials that should be excluded’. Beyond individual initiative, other drivers are directed through voluntary codes. The small credit for sustainable materials provided by BREEAM and Code for Sustainable Homes springs from the BRE’s pioneering Environmental Profiling, but the most audacious intervention comes from the RICS-supported Ska rating system.

Directed (for now) at the fit-out sector, Ska is upfront in requiring EPDs from manufacturers that want to benefit from the system. Elina Grigoriou, chair of the Ska Technical Committee, recommends the value of transparency but also sees EPDs as a way of ‘pushing innovation through competition between manufacturers’. There are still obstacles to overcome before EPDs become a common feature of the product information landscape. The most formidable is that the data just isn’t user-friendly. To make sense of it and to be able to assess and compare materials requires a skill-set from an alien discipline.

But to Tony Defries of the agents Savills there’s no escaping the responsibility. ‘The information involved is just too technical for occupiers, investors and agents to understand. They look instead to the design team for a lead,’ he says. Turning the challenge on its head will provide an obvious opportunity for architects to occupy more of the sustainability high ground as part of an expanded procurement brief.

Looking to the future, the great prize will be to generate EPDs for entire buildings. Much like energy certificates, commissioned buildings will be accompanied by a document providing a quantified account of the environmental impact that its construction, use and disposal will cause.

The intellectual groundwork has already been done but the real key to success is likely to come from the dynamic calculation tools offered by BIM software. It seems possible that in the near future it will be simple to manipulate designs to minimise the impacts caused by materials. As Julie Alexander of the Halcrow Group says, ‘It will help us make better, greener choices’.

Underpinning the future of EPDs is the proposed EU Construction Products Regulation scheduled for 2013. Item 56 reads, ‘For the assessment of the sustainable use of resources and of the impact of construction works on the environment, Environmental Product Declarations should be used when available’. Legislation doesn’t get much clearer.
Sandy Patience is an architect and editor of www.greenspec.co.uk

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