A look at major green building rating systems that are helping to steer the demand for transparency into the environmental and material health impact of building products
As buildings continue to grow more complex and more connected, the demands for products that can support a higher performance standard have also increased. This includes building controls, lighting, electrical and digital infrastructure, A/V and other aspects of the building. At the same time, green building certifications, such as LEED, WELL, and the Living Building Challenge have pushed all built environment stakeholders, from suppliers and manufacturers to specifiers and architects to building owners, to change the way they make decisions about the products and materials that make up their buildings.
One of these changes has been the push for increased transparency into the environmental and material health impacts of products, and the drive for manufacturers to optimize their chemical and environmental profiles. To date, these demands have sometimes overlooked products in the categories referenced above, either due to their complexity or placement in the building, but the case for seeking transparency documentation and evidence of optimization for these technologies is evident more so today than ever before. This highlights the importance of ensuring that the selection of products that enable increased building functionality, flexibility and connectivity includes consideration of their environmental and material health attributes as well.
This article will address several of the major green building rating systems that are helping to steer the demand for transparency, namely LEED v4 and v4.1, WELL v2, and the Living Building Challenge v3.1 and v4.0, and the forms of transparency that manufacturers are publishing in response, including Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs), Product Environmental Profiles (PEPs), Health Product Declarations® (HPDs), Declare Labels, Cradle to Cradle® Certifications and Material Health Certificates, and UL Product Lens™ Certifications. Before we dive into these market levers, let’s take a brief look at why consideration of the environmental and material health impacts of building materials is so important.
From an environmental impact standpoint, the demand has been largely driven by the desire to better understand the embodied carbon of the products and materials that go into our buildings. According to materialsCAN (Carbon Action Network), embodied carbon is defined as “the carbon dioxide emitted during the extraction, manufacture, and transport of building materials.” Between now and 2050, Architecture 2030 estimates that “embodied carbon will be responsible for almost half of total new construction emissions (49%).” And unlike with operational carbon, which is the carbon emitted from heating/cooling, lighting, and other activities while the building is in use, embodied carbon can’t be reduced once the product is installed. This change, coupled with the fact that the embodied carbon from building materials and construction makes up approximately 11% of annual global greenhouse emissions, heightens the importance of reducing the carbon intensity of the buildings where we live and work.
Turning to material health, in their 2018 report, Prescription for Healthier Building Materials: A Design and Implementation Protocol, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) cite several research studies that point to growing concerns about the amount of time we spend indoors (90%) and the prolonged exposure to chemicals, some of which are known to be hazardous to human and environmental health, found in building materials. This concern has precipitated the need for all stakeholders to play a role in not only better understanding the material make-up of building materials and the impacts of the those materials on health, but also to look for viable substitutes or designs that avoid those classes of chemicals altogether.
Let’s start with an overview of the green building rating systems and their environmental and material transparency levers.
LEED. LEED, which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is administered by the United States Green Building Council (USGBC) and is considered to be “the most widely used green building rating system in the world.” There are options for LEED certification for nearly all building types, and the focus of the rating system is on creating “healthy, highly efficient and cost-saving green buildings.” There are currently three active versions of LEED: LEED 2009 (also referred to as v3), LEED v4, and LEED v4.1, but this article will focus only on v4 and v4.1.
LEED v4. In LEED v4, there are two main credits focused on transparency, Building Product Disclosure and Optimization (BPDO) – Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) and BPDO – Material Ingredients. Although there are multiple options available for these credits, this section will focus only on option one for both, since, according to Nadav Malin, President of BuildingGreen, the others are not achievable at this time for most project teams. However, we will address these other options briefly in relation to the changes to the credits in LEED v4.1. Also, as a note, there is one additional BPDO credit within LEED, Sourcing of Raw Materials, that will not be covered by this article. You can learn more about this credit on the USGBC website.
LEED v4 BPDO – EPDs. Within BPDO – EPDs, option 1 is to use at least 20 permanently installed products, sourced from at least five different manufacturers, that have environmental transparency documentation available. Acceptable forms of documentation include life cycle assessments (LCAs), industry-wide EPDs, and product-specific type III EPDs, however each form counts as a different number of products, ranging from one-quarter of a product for LCAs to one whole product for product-specific type III EPDs. There is also an option to utilize Product Environmental Profiles (PEPs), which are EPDs for the electric, electronic and heating & cooling industries. When externally verified, PEPs count as one product, and when internally verified, they count as three quarters of a product. In practice, this means that you can select different forms of documentation from multiple different product types, so long as they total 20 equivalent products (i.e., You would need two industry-wide EPDs to earn credit for one product).
LEED v4 BPDO – Material Ingredients. Turning to the LEED v4 BPDO – Material Ingredients Credit, option 1 is to use at least 20 permanently installed products, sourced from at least five different manufacturers, with their chemical inventory disclosed down to at least 0.1% (1000 ppm). Acceptable forms of documentation include a manufacturer inventory, Health Product Declaration (HPD), Cradle to Cradle Certification or Cradle to Cradle Material Health Certificate, Declare, ANSI/BIFMA e3 Furniture Sustainability Standard, UL Product Lens Certification, and Facts – NSF/ANSI 336: Sustainability Assessment for Commercial Furnishings Fabric.
When v4 was first developed, the intention of including these credits was to incentivize the selection of products with transparency documentation, however, their uptake by project teams has been very low when compared to other credits. This is likely due at least in part to two factors, confusion regarding the types of documentation available and the perception that EPDs and material transparency documentation are hard to find. The USGBC has addressed the first factor in LEED v4.1, which we will discuss next, and we will address the second factor later in this article.
Next, we will explore the newest version of LEED, v4.1, and the changes to the BPDO credits referenced above.
LEED v4.1. According to the USGBC, LEED v4.1, which was released as a beta version in early 2019, is “focused on the implementation, applicability and agility of LEED” and has the following goals:
- “Address market barriers and lessons learned from LEED v4 project teams.
- Update performance thresholds and reference standards to ensure LEED remains the global leadership standard for green buildings.
- Expand the marketplace for LEED.
- Improve performance throughout the life of buildings, reward leaders based on their performance and incorporate performance reporting to enable building owners to track progress towards environmental, social and governance goals.”
Although this is only a “.1” update, there are several significant changes throughout the rating system, including to the BPDO credits. A summary of these changes is below.
LEED v4.1 BPDO – EPDs. Within Option 1, the USGBC simplified the requirements so that all LCA and EPD options, with the exception of third party verified EPDs, are worth one product. Third party verified EPDs are now worth 1.5 products. Within Option 2, which is focused on product improvement/optimization rather than just disclosure, they’ve made two major changes in an attempt to make the credit more achievable. The first was to lower the threshold from 50% of permanently installed products by cost to 10%, with the option of instead using ten permanently installed products from three manufacturers. The second was to create two tiers of improvement options, with the first being the publishing of a life cycle impact reduction action plan (valued at 50% by cost or ½ product), and the second being demonstrating life cycle impact reductions in embodied carbon (the value ranges from 100% by cost or one product to 200% by cost or two products). Put another way, the new version of LEED will make it easier to reach the BPDO – EPDs Option 2 Credit by lowering the threshold for product selection criteria for products with disclosure and optimization documentation, and incentivising manufacturers to create impact reduction action plans and/or to demonstrate reductions in embodied carbon.
LEED v4.1 BPDO – Material Ingredients. Within Option 1, the main change was to increase the value of third-party verified material transparency documents to 1.5 products. Within Option 2, which is focused on selecting products with documented material ingredient optimization, the USGBC again lowered the threshold to 10% of permanently installed products by cost, or 10 products. Similar to the EPD credit, the USGBC has implemented a tiered structure, allowing manufacturers to demonstrate continuous improvement ranging from the creation of an optimization action plan to the removal of substances of concern. The options for achieving Option 2 beyond the action plan are detailed on the USGBC website. Overall, the key takeaway for Option 2 is that selecting products with fewer substances of concern may also make your project eligible for earning an additional LEED point.
WELL Building Standard v2. The WELL Building Standard, which is overseen by the International Well Building Institute (IWBI) and was launched in 2014, is the “standard for buildings, interior spaces and communities seeking to implement, validate and measure features that support and advance human health and wellness.” The standard is built around concepts – air, water, nourishment, light, movement, thermal comfort, sound, materials, mind, and community – and optimizations, which are analogous to the credits within LEED. The most recent version of WELL, v2, is in the pilot phase, and there are several preconditions and optimizations focused on material transparency and material health within the “Materials” concept.
Living Building Challenge v3.1 and v4.0. The Living Building Challenge, which is overseen by the International Living Future Institute (ILFI), is a performance standard focused on creating buildings that are:
- “Regenerative spaces that connect occupants to light, air, food, nature, and community.
- Self-sufficient and remain within the resource limits of their site. Living Buildings produce more energy than they use and collect and treat all water on site.
- Healthy and beautiful.”
The standard is built around seven Petals – place, water, energy, health + happiness, materials, equity, and beauty – and twenty Imperatives, which vary between v3.1 and v4.0.
The one imperative that is most directly related to material optimization is referred to as the Red List. According to ILFI, the Red List contains the worst classes of chemicals or materials found in building products. These chemicals or materials are known to pollute the environment, to bio-accumulate, and to potentially harm individuals with significant exposure to them, including construction and factory workers. Examples of Red List chemicals or materials include Asbestos, Cadmium, Halogenated Flame Retardants, Lead, Phthalates, Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC), and added Formaldehyde. While there are a couple of temporary exceptions from the Red List requirements, the overall requirement to qualify for this imperative in v3.1 is that the building project cannot contain any of these chemicals or materials. In v4.0, projects must avoid the use of the Red List chemical classes on the updated list in 90% of the project’s new materials by cost.
Deconstructing Myths. Although the requirements in each of these rating systems vary, there are some common misconceptions that can limit their implementation and the drive for buildings where products are transparently disclosed and optimized.
1. There aren’t enough environmental and material transparency documents available to meet the rating system requirements. While this may have been true in the past, the recent increase in demand for transparency and optimization has pushed manufacturers that cover a host of building products to publish documentation for their products. This includes the building controls, lighting, electrical and digital infrastructure, and A/V products that are necessary for high performance buildings.
2. Even if there are enough documents, it’s too difficult to find them for differing product categories. There are a number of trusted sources for finding transparency documents, ranging from the databases managed by the organizations that administer the documents, like the HPDC Public Repository, Declare Products Database, UL SPOT Database, Cradle to Cradle Certified Products Registry, and Material Health Certificate Registry to platforms that compile varying forms of documentation across a host of building products, like mindful MATERIALS, Sustainable Minds, BuildingGreen + Designer Pages, and Ecomedes.
3. There are no existing forums for built environment stakeholders to collaborate on driving the building industry forward on transparency and optimization. While there are certainly others (Including materialsCAN, which was referenced earlier in this article), one of the organizations taking the lead on this front is the Living Product 50 (LP50), a group of leading manufacturers, run by the ILFI, committed to investing in product transparency and reductions in environmental and human health impacts. Through conversations and collaboration with the design community, this group is looking to advance the case for specifying products that are transparently disclosed and/or optimized.
Overall, the drive for environmental and material transparency and optimization has come a long way over the past few years, encompassing the increasing number of product categories required to meet advancing building performance and sustainability standards. However, it is incumbent on all built environment stakeholders to play their part in advancing this effort, from the suppliers that provide material and component level data, to the manufacturers that publish disclosure documentation and design improved products, to the members of the design community that specify and select products that are disclosed and optimized. If we’re going to meet our efficiency, optimization, and carbon management goals, we have to consider all the pieces of the puzzle.
Patrick Ford is Product Sustainability Manager for Legrand, North and Central America.