EPD Knowledge Gives Contractors an Advantage

Robert Grupe / September 2017

Q: Can you give me some background information on EPDs?

A: “EPD” stands for “Environmental Product Declaration.” These declarations are part of the latest version of LEED®, which is an acronym for “Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.” This program was developed by the U.S. Green Building Council to recognize and reward building projects that are designed to meet specific sustainable initiatives. LEED® is a single number rating system, where buildings attain points based on design and construction practices. The latest version, known as v4 of this voluntary program, promises to have significant impact on contractors.
Early in the evolution of sustainability design, there was a lot of what has been called “greenwash” by building product manufactures as to claims being made on their products’ attributes. Some of this greenwash was simply due to the fact that there was no standardization on environmental properties within the construction industry. This led to differing definitions on how to determine a sustainability attribute. It soon became apparent that standardization was required, and independent third-party certification on performance was in order.
One of the primary goals of LEED® v4 is transparency. This goal solves the issue mentioned above and is where Environmental Product Declarations become relevant. An EPD is global in nature and based on International Standards Organization ISO 14025 (Type III). The role of the EPD is to provide the designer, architect or specifier critical product information pertaining to that product’s impact on the environment throughout the product’s life.  For example, in the cold-formed steel framing industry EPD, the analysis starts at either the basic oxygen furnace or the electric arc furnace and terminates at end of life as a framing member and is noted as ready for recycling. This is important for sustainability for it is considered as diverting waste from a landfill. This is what is termed “cradle-to-gate,” meaning that the raw material is ready for re-application as a different entity. The Gypsum Association has an EPD available for Type X Gypsum panels. It is also cradle-to-gate and covers the manufacturing process.
The EPD examines the product in question in a life cycle assessment and its environmental impact at each stage. The impacts of concern include fossil fuel depletion, acidification of water and soil, degrading water through the increase of nutrients, global warming, ozone depletion, the total energy consumed during manufacture and the possibility of influencing the production of smog.  This is calculated at each stage of the product’s “life.” Another part of the analysis is on a measured amount (tons or square feet) of product.
These reports are completed under ISO standards by recognized independent third parties. They also have a time limit. The steel EPD is good through 2021, whereas the gypsum industry report is valid through 2019. These two reports are examples where industry associations have completed the EPD. Many building product manufacturers have also completed EPDs for their specific products.
On a new construction project or major renovation, the LEED process focuses on eight categories. They are location and transportation, sustainable sites, water efficiency, energy and atmosphere, materials and resources, indoor environmental quality, innovation and regional priority. The category that the EPD falls into is “Materials and Resources.” In that category, there is one point available for the project if a product with an associated EPD is included in the process. This is an oversimplification of the process, but it can be readily seen that having an EPD is highly desirable.
Along with a product’s impact on the environment is the concern of a product’s impact on human life. This comes in the form of another declaration, and this one is the “Health Product Declaration.” Here the raw materials of the product are analyzed for any known hazards to life. This analysis looks at hazardous ingredients down to 1,000 parts per million.
The arrival of EPDs comes with LEED® v4. If the project is following an older version of LEED®, this level of transparency is not required. From a contractor’s perspective, it is important to learn as soon as possible if the project will be LEED® certified. Preferably, this should be done before bid. The next step would be to determine if v4 will be used.  Once this is known, then it follows that product selection may hinge on the ability of providing the EPD. The contractor who understands the LEED® process may soon learn that although the process appears to be complicated and sometimes confusing, this knowledge may provide a significant competitive advantage.

Robert Grupe is AWCI’s director of technical services. Send your questions to grupe@awci.org, or call him directly at (703) 538.1611.