LEED: A focus on product transparency
When USGBC launched LEED v4, it significantly advanced its mission to “transform the way we think about how buildings and communities are designed, constructed, maintained, and operated.” It was, perhaps, the most significant shift in program approaches since LEED was started 14 years ago, with changes designed to push designers and builders into new realms of sustainability innovation.
Some of the most dramatic changes came in the Materials & Resources (MR) section, where product transparency and life cycle assessment (LCA) are given considerable emphasis – encouraging, if not forcing, a more holistic view of product specification.
In previous versions of LEED, the MR section included credits for single attributes such as recycled content or regional materials (sourcing products from within 500 miles of the jobsite). That initial approach was suitable for the program in its early years, when the idea of green certification and specifying green materials were new concepts.
The earlier versions of LEED also wound up driving change at the manufacturing level and led to more sustainable products. “For the place where the market was 10 years ago, that was an effective way to define what a green product was,” says Sarah Buffaloe, LEED materials specialist at USGBC. “As a result of these credits, we saw an uptick in information available and in new products. For example, we saw an incredible supply chain transparency start to appear as a result of the awareness of regionality as a sustainability factor.”
But most stakeholders agree that, while that initial approach had value, it also had limitations. Most notably, it essentially allowed people to pick some attributes, while ignoring others. For example, a product that incorporated a large quantity of recycled material could earn credits, even if that product also had a high carbon footprint.
With experience, as well as a much wider selection of green products, it is now easier to build a green building than it was a decade ago. USGBC recognized that they could encourage people to look for ways to get even greener, and challenged the program committee to look at the MR credits more holistically. The result is LEED v4, released in 2013, in which the MR section promotes product transparency by awarding credits for using products with LCAs and that reduce environmental impact in multiple ways instead of just one.
How it worksUnder LEED v4 Materials & Resources, users can earn several credits.
Product Disclosure and OptimizationThere are credits available for using products that state what materials are used (product disclosure). There are also credits for products whereby manufacturers reduce the environmental impact (product optimization).
There are several ways to get these credits:
Environmental Product DeclarationsOption 1. Use products with some sort of Environmental Product Declaration (EPD).
- Product-specific declaration.
- These are products with publicly available, critically reviewed LCAs conforming to ISO 14044. Products with externally verified LCAs are considered more transparent than those with internally verified LCAs.
- Or Environmental Product Declaration
- This is a document based on the results of the LCA published by the manufacturer. It shows the environmental impact of the product in a variety of categories (e.g., fossil fuel depletion, global warming potential, etc.). This document can be weaker or stronger depending on the rigor of its third-party review.
- Or USGBC-approved program that creates some sort of EPD or other sustainable product certification.
- Use third-party products with documented reduction in environmental impact in at least three categories, compared to industry average. Note that this option requires some sort of industry average information to be available, which is not always the case. Categories include global warming potential (greenhouse gases), depletion of the stratospheric ozone layer, acidification of land and water sources, eutrophication, formation of tropospheric ozone, and depletion of nonrenewable energy resources (fossil fuel use).
- Or products must comply USGBC approved multi-attribute frameworks.
Sourcing of Raw MaterialsThe idea here is to reward stakeholders for using products verified to have been sourced responsibly.
Option 1. Raw Material Source and Extraction Reporting
- Manufacturers use raw materials suppliers who source materials responsibly and have clear, ecologically responsible land use practices, as well as a commitment to reduce environmental damage that could result from material extraction.
- The user specifies a certain amount of products that meet requirements for “extended producer responsibility” or “leadership extraction” criteria. Functionally, all wood specified is FSC-certified. The recycled materials and materials reuse attributes in previous versions of LEED are embedded in this credit. Extra credit is also given for products sourced within 100 miles of the project site.
Material ingredientsThe idea behind this credit is to ensure that manufacturers reduce use and generation of harmful ingredients.
Option 1. Report all ingredients that make up at least 0.1% of product. Manufacturers can keep intellectual property or proprietary chemicals secret as long as they disclose what the chemicals do and if they are harmful.
And/or Option 2. Use no harmful substances. Substances of concern are listed in a comprehensive database (or on multiple lists). Any ingredients used in quantities greater than 100 ppm are considered.
And/or Option 3. Use products from manufacturers whose supply chain has already been third-party verified to manage health, safety and environmental characteristics of chemical ingredients. Alternatively, source products from manufacturers with robust safety, health, hazard and risk programs that document at least 99 percent by weight of all ingredients that go into the product.
Overall, stakeholders are strongly encouraged (via the opportunity for credits) to seek out and use products whose environmental impacts and supply chain have been externally verified according to industry-approved standards. At this early stage, having the documentation itself is arguably more important than what it says. Several of the credits can be earned regardless of the results.
For example, two products with externally verified EPDs contribute to the several of the same points, even if one has a significantly higher carbon footprint. (The product with the lower carbon footprint might also be able to contribute to other points.) At present, the goal is to promote transparency. Once this has become standard practice, it is conceivable credits will start to emphasize environmentally preferable products. In the meantime, the information is available for consideration, enabling specifiers to choose environmentally preferable products, even if the reduced environmental impact is not required to earn certain MR credits.
Catalyst for changeThe overarching result of LEED v4’s shift in focus is the specification of more transparent products – those that take the holistic approach of life cycle assessment and look beyond single attributes. This allows users to understand where environmental tradeoffs might exist so the best decisions can be made for each specific project.
Eventually, the building industry might follow the path of the food industry: The FDA developed a standard nutrition label for foods so consumers can make informed comparisons. Product users would like to see building products more comparable, so it is easier to understand the impact of products. Where food labels contain fat content and calorie count, product labels might spell out fossil fuel consumption and recycled content. Just as some consumers might watch sodium or sugar intake depending on personal needs, some specifiers might be more concerned with carbon footprint or water resources, depending on project needs.
The new system also allows innovative products with reduced energy use, carbon footprint, and other environmental impacts to contribute to a variety of credits. In previous versions of LEED, there were had no formal credit opportunities for these types of products, other than Innovation in Design credits.
Challenges remainAs with any major change, there are drawbacks. Possibly the biggest concern is the relative dearth of products with LCAs and published EPDs or HPDs. Further, finding them isn’t as straightforward as it could be. There’s no master list to discover EPDs across the industry. (Each EPD program operator has a list, but there are numerous EPD program operators.) The onus is on specifiers to perform the extra research in pursuit of increased sustainability.
However, demand for these tools is increasing. Last year, the concrete industry finalized Product Category Rules (PCRs) for concrete, which laid the groundwork for concrete manufacturers to conduct individual LCAs and publish EPDs. In addition, PCRs have recently been finalized for concrete masonry units. In late-2012, CalStar Products published the first EPD in the brick category, with the document providing third-party verification of environmental impacts. CalStar bricks also received a SMaRT sustainable product platinum rating, indicating significant reduction in environmental impact, as well as supply chain transparency and minimization of harmful chemicals. These documents together allow CalStar bricks to contribute to a variety of MR credits under LEED v4.
Similar advances are underway in other product categories, as well, particularly carpet, gypsum, and wood.
Like the recycled content credits that initially drove industry change, USGBC’s Buffaloe expects LEED v4 to do the same: “Transparency enables evaluation…which enables preferential selection…which leads to innovation. And innovation leads back to reporting and transparency. It’s a cycle of its own resulting in market transformation.”
Perhaps, 14 years from now, we’ll view LCAs and EPDs as commonplace and straightforward as trying to use more recycled materials and sourcing locally.
Originally published in Masonry magazine.
About the Author
Julie Rapoport is vice president of product development at CalStar Products.