Ecolabels will soon specify the life-cycle environmental performance of precast concrete products and allow specifiers to compare competing building products.
By Claude Goguen, P.E., LEED AP
When a specifier asks about the strength of your concrete product, what type of cement you use or what your water-cementitious ratio is, you can answer without hesitation. But what if you’re asked about the global warming potential of your septic tank, or the eutrophication impact of your sound wall panel? Who would ask for such product environmental-impact information? Specifiers would – and they will be asking more and more. Will you be ready to answer them? Possessing that information can definitely separate you from your competition.
As owners, developers and specifiers continue to focus on sustainable development, they are turning their attention to the material used in their projects. They want to know the environmental footprint of that material, and they want to be able to compare it with those of other potential building materials. The problem with conducting that comparison has been a lack of consistency in the evaluation methods of different products. It was like comparing apples to oranges; therefore, there was a need for standardization in product evaluations.
Measuring a product’s environmental attributes
Bring on the acronyms! Introducing EPDs, PCRs and LCAs. Let’s start with EPD. It’s an Environmental Product Declaration and, simply put, an independently verified measure of a product’s environmental attributes, including a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) and embodied energy.
Similar to a nutrition label for food, an EPD reports environmental impacts such as carbon footprint and others such as acidification or ozone depletion potential. EPDs list quantified life-cycle product data and are owned by the product or brand producer. For example, the amount of nonrenewable manufacturing energy used by a specific product, such as a precast concrete sound wall, would be listed as MJ/m3. A product’s global warming would be listed as kg of CO2.
EPDs are defined by ISO 14025, an international standard for environmental labels and declarations, and are in wider use in other parts of the world (namely Europe) and for a variety of product categories, including structural steel and laminate flooring. National standards that apply are the U.S. Federal Trade Commission’s guidelines for use of environmental market claims and Canada’s voluntary guidance per “Plus 14021.”
The LCA is a compilation and evaluation of the inputs, outputs and potential environmental impacts of a product system throughout its life cycle (cradle to grave). It considers the embodied energy of materials, the long-term effects of manufacturing processes, the stages of construction, building performance and operations, durability and maintenance of existing structures, and – in the end – demolition, material recycling and future land use ramifications. NPCA commissioned the drafting of an LCA of precast concrete products in 2009.
Rationale for PCRs: product comparisons
The PCRs (Product Category Rules) are rules specific to the building industry that regulate EPD and LCA standards to address manufacturing, use and end-of-life conditions unique to that product. Writing an EPD and LCA for laminate flooring will differ from those for precast concrete. In order to compare the environmental footprints of materials or products, it is important that consistent assumptions are made when the footprint is evaluated. Without category-specific PCRs, it’s not possible to create comparable EPDs. PCRs are, in effect, environmental accounting standards.
A concrete-specific PCR is being developed by the Carbon Leadership Forum, which is an industry-academic collaborative research effort hosted by the University of Washington’s College of Built Environments.
The standard is expected to help people in the building industry meet the 2030 Challenge for Products. What is this challenge?
The Architecture 2030 Challenge
Buildings are the major source of global demand for energy and materials that produce byproduct greenhouse gases (GHG). Slowing the growth rate of GHG emissions and then reversing it is the key to addressing climate change and keeping global average temperature below a 2-C increase over pre-industrial levels.
To accomplish this, Architecture 2030 issued The 2030 Challenge asking the global architecture and building community to adopt the following targets:
• All new buildings, developments and major renovations shall be designed to meet a fossil fuel, GHG-emitting, energy consumption performance standard of 60% below the regional (or country) average for that building type.
• At a minimum, an equal amount of existing building area shall be renovated annually to meet a fossil fuel, GHG-emitting, energy-consumption performance standard of 60% of the regional (or country) average for that building type.
• The fossil fuel reduction standard for all new buildings and major renovations shall be increased to:
– 70% in 2015
– 80% in 2020
– 90% in 2025
– Carbon-neutral in 2030 (using no fossil fuel GHG emitting energy to operate).
These targets may be accomplished by implementing innovative sustainable design strategies, generating on-site renewable power and/or purchasing (20% maximum) renewable energy. These strategies include developing EPDs for building materials and products.
Product ecolabels: coming to U.S.
According to ASTM International, today’s market is demanding more information and documentation related to sustainable marketing claims as evidenced by the development of ISO 21930 and the Federal Trade Commission’s re-examination of the Green Guides.
“It’s (an EPD) the most rigorous and scientific method for determining a product’s carbon footprint,” says Architecture 2030’s Francesca Desmarais, who oversees the organization’s 2030 Challenge for Products and, along with Architecture 2030 founder Edward Mazria, chairs the Vision 2020 Energy and Carbon focus area. “It’s really the missing ingredient if we’re serious about meeting our goals .”
These product ecolabel initiatives are still in their infancy, and the NPCA Sustainability Committee and NPCA staff are committed to help you navigate these unfamiliar waters. Please continue to check the Sustainability page on NPCA’s website (www.precast.org) for updates and information.
Direct any questions to Claude Goguen at [email protected] or (317) 571-9500.
Claude Goguen, P.E., LEED AP, is NPCA’s director of Technical Services.
For more information on topics covered in this article, please visit the following sites:
• ASTM Work Item 23356 – New Practice for Development of Product Category Rules for Use in Development of Environmental Declarations for Building Products and Systems (www.astm.org/DATABASE.CART/WORKITEMS/WK23356.htm)
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