By now you are probably pretty familiar with the concept of EPDs (thanks to this blog) and how their inclusion in the new LEED Pilot Credit 43 could have a major influence on transparency in the manufacturing industry, not to mention access to robust information for the architectural and design community.
My EPD journey started in the spring of 2010 when I was approached to speak at the U.S. Green Building Council’s Annual Greenbuild Conference on the topic of Radical Transparency: The New Way to Define Green. I began familiarizing myself with the concept of life cycle analysis based EPDs by doing my own research (which was difficult at the time as not many EPDs existed).
As I was preparing for Greenbuild I realized that my journey actually started much earlier; back in 2002, to be exact, on one of my first projects at BNIM – The School of Nursing and Student Community Center for the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston. The University’s goal for all furniture and moveable wall selection was to enhance sustainability by minimizing the impact of embodied energy and the resulting carbon dioxide emissions.
In order to accomplish this task BNIM’s internal sustainable consulting group, Elements, developed an extensive questionnaire that was issued to major manufacturers in the form of an RFI. The questionnaire was not a comprehensive sustainability questionnaire, nor was it a scientific life-cycle analysis. Instead it was a series of 47 questions designed to collect key pieces of comparable data. As with any analysis, the margin of success rested on the accuracy of the information provided. A comparative analysis report was created to facilitate product selection. It was a long and arduous process, but in the end we prevailed in identifying products that met the client’s goals. The project won three environmental awards among many other awards for its design. The firm, and our interiors team, continued to use this approach on many subsequent projects. I look back now and think, “How much easier and more precise would that process have been if LCA-based EPDs were in existence!”
The great thing about an EPD (besides its transparency) is that it explains the LCA information in a clear, concise, and consistent manner from product type to product type. My favorite analogy is to think about coffee. (Forget paper vs. plastic, it’s way overused!) Let’s say you are making a trip to your local coffee shop. You have many options to choose from as to how to drink your coffee. If you are getting your coffee to go (and you don’t live in California) you might get coffee in a Styrofoam cup or in a paper cup. Perhaps you are meeting someone at the coffee shop and you intend to stay, then your options might be a ceramic or glass mug. Or perhaps you are very environmentally conscious and you bring your own travel mug. You might be wondering, “What does this have to do with EPDs?” An EPD would allow you to look at the life cycle analysis data of all these different coffee vessels, so you could determine which one had the least environmental impact and enjoy your coffee with a clear conscience.
The same concept holds true no matter the material: carpet vs. porcelain tile; porcelain tile vs. hardwood; hardwood vs. carpet. An LCA-based EPD allows you to compare products that serve the same function and make an educated selection on behalf of your client. It allows you to compare different aspects of a product, such as embodied energy, water used to manufacture, etc. much like single or multi-attribute certifications, but it’s much more robust information. The only thing that could make EPDs better would be a sexy little label to relay the information at-a-glance!
In closing I’ll share one of the best quotes I heard last year at Greenbuild: “Transparency causes self-correcting behavior. It’s not the metrics, it’s peer pressure.” So, kudos to Interface for putting the pressure on their peers! On behalf of all of us fighting the good fight for sustainability, thank you for the opportunity to explain the benefits of EPDs from a designer’s standpoint. Here’s hoping many others pursue increased transparency in the industry!