A paradigm shift is occurring in the architecture, design, and construction industry as leaders are increasingly prioritizing low-carbon initiatives during the new building or retrofit process. We can attribute this shift to the fact that data is more accessible than ever to designers, contractors, and material specifiers, helping them make informed decisions that can significantly impact the carbon emissions of a project.
This data comes in the form of Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs), which provide a “carbon roadmap” to AEC professionals when comparing construction materials. At first glance, these technical documents might seem convoluted, but there are tools available in the marketplace that make EPDs easier to digest and understand. Also, there are simple steps that contractors can take to apply their knowledge of EPDs across the construction lifecycle to make tangible progress towards decarbonization.
A few of these steps are outlined below:
1. UNDERSTAND WHAT AN EPD IS TRYING TO TELL YOU
EPDs can be thought of as a nutritional label for construction materials. However, instead of sharing nutritional facts, they show the environmental impact of producing a given material. They also describe a material’s intended applications, performance and specifications and provide a glimpse into its production process.
Understanding the data an EPD provides can give contractors a leg up in a project’s planning phase, especially when it must meet specific certifications related to operational and embodied carbon, such as LEED v4.1 and IFLI’s Zero Carbon Certification.
One common misconception across industries is that having an EPD makes a material inherently sustainable. The product and material data on an EPD are not all the same. A material can have an EPD while still having a higher impact on the overall emissions of a project when compared to another option, making it even more important for contractors to understand how to read the data EPDs provide.
Through tools such as the Embodied Carbon in Construction Calculator (EC3), contractors can compare materials and understand their impact on the overall emissions of a project in an easy and digestible way. There are also various trainings and educations, through Building Transparency and other organizations such as CLF, ACLCA, and USGBC, that contractors can participate in to gain more knowledge on how to read an EPD.
2. TAKE YOUR KNOWLEDGE TO THE BIDDING PROCESS
Understanding the power of an EPD and its data can be integral when considering a project bid. As the industry continues to adopt sustainable construction practices, more and more property owners will be looking to contractors and subcontractors alike to specify lower-carbon products to meet sustainability requirements, especially for government-funded projects.
With the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), grants, technical assistance, and tools are now available for the AEC industry to take actionable steps towards lowering the carbon emissions of a construction project. There are also increased government-regulated green building standards for federally funded projects that property owners must adhere to. If a contractor understands the intricacies of an EPD and how to compare materials in order to specify the lowest-carbon option, they have a leg up against their competition when submitting a bid.
3. PARTNER WITH THE RIGHT MATERIAL MANUFACTURERS
A final piece of the puzzle that can drive carbon reductions for a construction project is to partner with the right manufacturers. By working with manufacturers that disclose the environmental impacts of their products through EPDs, the AEC industry can make informed decisions for material specification and give preference to manufacturers who prioritize transparency.
Creating a long-standing partnership with a manufacturer who places sustainability at the forefront of operations can help you win more business and support a healthy, sustainable built environment.
Learning about EPDs and what the data demonstrates is only half the battle when considering what it takes to decarbonize projects, industrywide.
Currently, the AEC industry is at a crossroads where leaders are becoming more aware of low-carbon initiatives and making strides toward transforming processes but are coming up short when attempting to utilize EPDs due to the lack of widespread adoption and alignment. It’s critical that the AEC industry asks manufacturers for EPDs as part of the specification process to change this. By demanding data and transparency, we expect that more will invest in and publicize EPDs, accelerate improvements in the EPD system, and help us all specify low-carbon materials on our journey to reduce the carbon impact of construction.
About the Author:
Vaclav Hasik is the program director for North America at Building Transparency, a nonprofit organization that provides open-access data and tools to foster a better building future and aid in reversing climate change. For more, visit www.buildingtransparency.org.
Modern Contractor Solutions, June 2023
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