Not All Building Materials Are Equal

A Guide to Sustainable Building Products

Not All Building Materials Are Equal


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We explore what factors go into sustainable products and the importance of transparency for manufacturers, and review some of the content limits determining compliance with sustainable building rating systems.
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Sustainability

What we put inside a building matters to sustainable performance, the project's embodied carbon profile, and a healthy environment. There are many factors that make up sustainable products. A sustainable product can simply be defined as a product whose net environmental impact is close to zero, although there are many factors that contribute to that calculation. Beyond embodied carbon, which we described as the “Material DNA” in last week's blog, there are lots of traits that make up products that support healthy buildings and a healthy planet. Let’s explore them!

Product Declarations

With growing interest in sustainability from the public, building product manufacturers are paying more attention to the transparency of their products and processes. Product declarations help promote more transparency about the environmental and health impacts of the products that go into buildings.

Environmental Product Declarations

Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) are documents that clearly communicate the environmental impacts of products across their entire lifetime. These documents take into consideration the climate and environmental impacts of a product from the point of harvesting raw materials to the product’s useful end of life. The in-between processes of transformation, processing, and shipment are also considered.

There are three general categories of EPDs

  • Product-specific Declarations: These types of EPDs are publicly available and critically reviewed (but not necessarily) by a third party to ensure that they conform to ISO 1404, which defines how LCAs are critically reviewed.
  • Industry-Wide Declarations: These kinds of EPDs are third-party certified with a verification. The declaration is generic to a product, such as concrete, and not specific to a particular manufacturer or company. For the product to be eligible, the manufacturer must claim representation either directly on the EPD or through the program operator for the associated EPD.
  • Product-Specific Type III Declarations: These EPDs can be thought of as a hybrid of the first two. They are third-party certified and verified and are also product specific to a particular manufacturer, and do not necessarily reflect the practices of the industry.

Within the building and construction industries, EPDs are particularly useful in helping building developers, and architects make better decisions on products to use for each of their projects. They can do this because EPDs provide a comprehensive analysis of the carbon emissions profile of a particular product, thereby enabling the developers and architects to make eco-friendly choices by selecting the right products for use. Projects with enough EPDs are also eligible for optional credits in the LEED rating system and other green building rating systems.

Health Product Declarations

A Health Product Declaration is a reporting standard set by the Health Product Declaration Collaborative to ensure full disclosure of the ingredients that make up a product along with the associated health information of those ingredients. This procedure does not exactly mean that products with HPDs are healthy. It only means that the products have passed a specific set of standards laid out by the HPD specification.

Products with HPDs can potentially be used to earn LEED credits in the material and resources category. The LEED v4 material Ingredients Reporting credits require full disclosure of material content and specific compliance with other requirements.

Product manufacturers are required to develop the initial HPDs for their products. This can be a challenging experience, especially if data is not readily available for collection. A helpful tip is to be informed early about material health by using the HPD repository to select materials that are compliant with LEED.

Limit Categories

Building materials and furnishings used on the inside can significantly impact indoor environmental air quality. Certain products used in buildings contain hazardous chemical compounds such as VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) and formaldehyde. When these chemicals are present in high concentrations within buildings, they can affect the health of occupants and cause what is known as Sick Building Syndrome. With growing awareness of the health impacts of poor indoor air quality, there is a demand for building materials used within the interior of buildings to be low emitting.

Limit categories are control measures put in place for certain chemical contaminants contained within building materials used within buildings to preserve indoor air quality.

Different product categories contain different requirements for LEED compliance for low emitting. Outlined below are a few:

  • Paints and Coatings: At least 75% of all wet-applied paints and coatings, by volume or surface area, meet the VOC emissions evaluation AND 100% meet the VOC content evaluation.
  • Adhesives and Sealants: At least 75% of all adhesives and sealants, by volume or surface area, meet the VOC emissions evaluation AND 100% meet the VOC content evaluation.
  • Flooring: Flooring includes all types of hard and soft surface flooring (carpet, ceramic, vinyl, rubber, engineered, solid wood, laminates), raised flooring, wall base, underlayments, and other floor coverings. LEED requires at least 90% of all flooring, by cost or surface area, to meet the VOC emissions evaluation.
  • Wall Panels: Wall panels include all finish wall treatments (wall coverings, wall paneling, wall tile), surface wall structures such as gypsum or plaster, cubicle/curtain/partition walls, trim, interior and exterior doors, wall frames, interior and exterior windows, and window treatments. For wall panels, at least 75%, by cost or surface area, should meet the VOC emissions evaluation.
  • Ceilings: Ceilings include all ceiling panels, ceiling tile, surface ceiling structures such as gypsum or plaster, suspended systems (including canopies and clouds), and glazed skylights. At least 90% of all ceilings, by cost or surface area, should meet the VOC emissions evaluation.
  • Insulation: This category includes all thermal and acoustic boards, batts, rolls, blankets, sound attention fire blankets, foamed-in place, loose-fill, blown, and sprayed insulation. At least 75% of all insulation, by cost or surface area, should meet the VOC emissions evaluation.Furniture: Furniture includes all seating, desks and tables, filing/storage, free-standing cabinetry, workspaces, and furnishing items purchased for the project. At least 75% of all furniture in the project scope of work, by cost, meets the furniture emissions evaluation.
  • Composite Wood: The composite wood product category includes all particleboard, medium-density fiberboard (both medium density and thin), hardwood plywood with veneer, composite or combination core, and wood structural panels or structural wood products. At least 75% of all composite wood, by cost or surface area, meets the Formaldehyde emissions evaluation OR salvaged and reused materials criteria.

The California Department of Public Health provides the guidelines for testing VOC content in low-emitting products. Products that are low emitting can obtain an approval document from CDPH. There are several certification programs for products, such as GreenGuard, Indoor Advantage by Scientific Certification Systems, and Green Seal Standards. There are also industry-specific certification programs, such as the Carpet and Rug Institute (CRI) Green Label programs that test for and certify low emissions from carpets, cushions, and adhesives.

How to Make Informed Decisions 

The sustainable performance of a building is determined, in part, by the rigor spent in design to evaluate options. When building owners are not clear about what matters most, or design standards are outdated, opportunities are missed to guide projects to the healthiest results. Emerald Built Environments is experienced in preparing design standards, evaluating options with life cycle assessments, and reviewing material product information to understand performance. We can help you ensure your next project uses sustainably sourced materials to support the health of the planet and people.

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