A Vision Revisited: Sustainable Product Design & Evaluation

May 1, 2008

What significant headway can one person, professionally or personally, realistically make against the rising tide of global warming? This is, for many of us, the most compelling question today. The 2030 ºChallenge advances an inspiring goal, yet many of us who are willing to sign on in principle find ourselves overwhelmed and in uncharted territory.

There is an arena, however, in which everyone associated with the building industry can make a huge contribution (even though it has received relatively little attention so far) as it relates to the creation and use of sustainable building products. You know that buildings cause more than 40 percent of all environmental degradation in the United States. Then why focus on the finishes—the products that populate the interiors of buildings? Because, during the average life of a building in the United States, (which is 50 years), those products are replaced five to 10 times.

That means, to determine a building's environmental footprint, you must multiply the negative effects on the environment of interior products by a factor of five to 10 in comparison to those materials that are incorporated into the building's shell and are calculated only once.

Designers may be unaware of the immense impact of their work on the environment. Every time you lay out the interior spaces of a bank or healthcare facility, or refurbish your office to give it a fresh look, you are extending a building's ecological footprint. As a designer or purchaser, keeping your eye on that footprint will make all the difference.

"Even the seemingly small parts of our work—such as ordering samples of a product—affect the footprint of our buildings," notes Holley Henderson of H2 Ecodesign. "By using the innovative Tricycle system for viewing samples online, we can reduce the impact of our design processes."

CAPTURING "GREEN"You're likely aware of the term "greenwash" and possibly skeptical about a company's claims of environmental stewardship. Well, you're not alone: "70 percent of consumers—institutional and individual—want better independent, impartial assurance of corporations' environmental claims," according to a report co-produced by Consumers International and Accountability.

So how can you tell how "green" a product really is? There are a variety of dependable, third-party certifications for some products in terms of assessing specific environmental attributes: for example, Scientific Certification System's Indoor Advantage™ for indoor air quality; and the Forest Stewardship Council for wood culled from sustainably managed forests.

Additionally, there are tools that apply to specific industries and their product types (e.g., the Sustainable Carpet Assessment Standard). And, as we speak, innovative tools are emerging that eclipse anything we've seen before.

Industry is well on its way toward capturing green in all its shades.

One of the most scientifically robust measures available is a product Life Cycle Assessment or LCA for short. As a tool, LCA amplifies the familiar capabilities of life-cycle costing by providing a view of all of a product's exchanges with the environment—including elements like additions to water scarcity and to global warming—that do not customarily show up on a corporate balance sheet.

LCA forms a picture that tells you how a product, as the sum of all its processes, harms or supports the global ecosystem.

Product LCAs offer architects and interior designers the most complete and scientifically robust information on a product's environmental impacts throughout its full life-cycle-from raw materials sourcing, transportation of materials to the manufacturer's facility, through manufacturing processes, shipping, and end-of-product-life or reuse.

Looking at a product LCA is like viewing a video of the life story of a product, and then seeing the past and the future brought together into one integrated picture. In addition, LCAs are easily incorporated into an Environmental Product Declaration—a key component in the global information system that is just emerging.

"Third-party, transparent product certification adds substantively to the framework provided by LEED®," explains Henderson. "For example, when our team designed a showroom in China for InterfaceFLOR, we were already thinking in very sustainable ways about materials and products. Being able to integrate LEED and the Global Product Information System easily will be a huge benefit to building professionals."

THE EMERGING GLOBAL PRODUCT INFORMATION SYSTEMWhatever your role in the building process-planning, designing, overseeing construction, selecting products, etc.—it is likely that you are operating on a more global scale than you were 10 years ago. The world is evolving that way and you are evolving with it-whether the scope of your work is local or international.

Domestic design no longer denotes totally domestic production. The products you select, while they may be designed or assembled in the United States, almost certainly contain materials or components from around the world.

"As members of the Earth community, architects and interior designers want to support and advance sustainable production and consumption," urges Deborah Rutherford of HOK. "Yet we don't have time to research building products developed with materials from all over the world. We need tools we can trust."

Everyone is familiar with LEED and its immense success in establishing a common language and framework for green building performance. Now, for the first time, LEED is moving toward including credits for selecting products with a product LCA.

The USGBC's "LCA into LEED" initiative, managed by Gregory Norris of Sylvatica, is close to making phase one of this program public. It will make additional credits possible by using the Athena Institute's EcoCalculator to factor LCA results on building systems. Reportedly, expanded credits for using LCAs to select products are coming soon.

"LEED has been hugely successful in establishing a common language and framework for green building performance that is getting better and better with each new version," notes Rob Watson, CEO of EcoTech International and the founding chair of the National LEED Steering Committee. He goes on to add, "In a perfect world, a building professional would have access simultaneously to comparable product and building component LCAs that are based on a common methodology."

THE NEXT WAVE OF TOOLSIn creating a Global Product Information System, there are a multitude of elements to consider. A truly unifying global tool is not a flight of fancy. In the European Union, this kind of cooperation is fully underway. A new movement to harmonize language and metrics is afloat. There is an EU directive that states language and metrics used in environmental product declarations must be harmonized throughout their member countries beginning in January 2009.

Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) unite existing tools with new ones into a comprehensive framework. Referencing information that lies outside the scope of LCAs, EPDs are instruments to show the total environmental performance of a building derived from the performance of its multiple parts.

EPDs offer data on a product's protection against noise, or its safety in use, as well as information from single attribute tools, such as Energy Star or GREENGUARD. And they also draw from broad tools such as Sustainable Product Standards that give a "triple bottom line" perspective on a given product.

A Sustainable Product Standard provides a picture of an "ideal" product of a given type and encompasses economic, environmental and social equity impacts, then measures a manufacturer's product against that ideal. As such, Sustainable Product Standards are likely to be increasingly of interest to both product manufacturers and users (especially volume purchasers like corporations, educational institutions and government agencies).

Examples that are specific to certain industries are: the ACT Sustainable Textile Standard; the BIFMA Sustainable Furniture Standard; the CRI Sustainable Carpet Standard; and the RFCI Sustainable Resilient Flooring Standard—all managed by NSF International. Additionally, the Institute for Market Transformation to Sustainability has developed the SMART® Sustainable Product Standard, which encompasses products from all industries.

Each of these tools encourages the use of LCA to collect and analyze the whole range of data. And while they have been adopted by leading manufacturers in the United States over the last 10 years—with help from European software experts such as CML, Gabi and Sima Pro—they require in-depth understanding of LCA methodology that goes beyond the in-house capabilities of most industries.

For this reason, an easy-to-use ensemble of tools—developed by Sylvatica, GreenDeltaTC and The Green Standard—will be available this summer. To this ensemble, Sylvatica is contributing its Earthster software, GreenDelta its openLCA software, and The Green Standard is offering a bridge connecting the two programs.

A new, cooperative approach is on the rise throughout the building industry—one that seeks consistently applied
principles, a common language and shared datasets. A budding collaboration is already forming between building professionals in North America and leaders around the world to contribute to the Global Product Information System.

LEADERSHIP: A NEW PARADIGMEvery green building architect and interior designer has their eyes on an exciting new possibility, in part bolstered by the challenge of AIA's 2010 Initiative, which expands on The 2030 ºChallenge. For the first time in the evolution of the building industry, responsible leaders are creating a vision of a future for the planet that goes beyond sustainability.

"The Holy Grail is not a particular tool or certification program," says Bill Reed of Integrative Design. "It is the capability to bring about regeneration of all of the Earth's living systems. It calls for a whole new paradigm focused on living systems thinking."

Professionals in the building field need to get beyond turf considerations and go forward with a shared commitment to using common language and metrics. To meet The 2030 ºChallenge, we all must be involved, to some measure, in the shaping and use of a system of tools supportive of holistic building design and the products used to construct, furnish and operate those spaces.

"We're now in the era of accountability in which we all can be aware of and responsible for the economic, environmental and social justice impacts of what we do," notes Rives Taylor in the Houston office of Gensler.

The world is in transition. A new model of global cooperation is replacing siloed operations, competitive approaches to manufacturing, and inside-the-box thinking. "All of these issues call out to be held and embraced as if they are one whole entity," adds Reed. "The pieces must be understood only as aspects that are in integral relationship with one another-because they are."

The frame for human life and work is expanding. Corporations are realizing that the larger their playing field, the more cost there is to operating within a limited, short-term horizon. Formal and informal partnerships are springing up based on an increased awareness of our economic and environmental impacts.

Manufacturers are looking at how their products affect our health and productivity; engineers are interested in efficient use of energy and water; and developers and interior designers are considering how buildings shape our quality of life and our well-being.

People around the world are waking up to the value of buying green. We all recognize, "The future belongs to those who give the next generation reason to hope."-Teilhard de Chardin.

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