Charles Robinson, Sustainability Manager at ASSA ABLOY Group, examines how better product EPDs can help us design more sustainable buildings.
Sustainability in our buildings matters, right? It no longer seems controversial or especially radical to write that. Alongside the environmental concerns, sustainable buildings are often cheaper to run, easier to let and more attractive to investors. But one day we may view persuading users about the importance of sustainability as the easy battle. Because we’re left with a trickier problem: how can we measure it?
Commercial construction is complex. Its vast web of inputs touch so many areas that sustainability must address, from energy, materials and land use to water, waste and pollution. If our goal is to award buildings a sustainability rating that’s as easy to understand as the one for a washing machine, we still have some way to go. What we need to get there, more than anything, is information. Lots of it; authoritative, detailed and properly audited — so architects can design buildings from the earliest stages to sustainability criteria laid down by LEED, BREEAM and others.
This is where the Environmental Product Declaration, or EPD, comes in.
What exactly is an EPD? It is a document detailing a product’s impact during its complete life cycle. It isn’t a proof of environmental credentials per se, but a map of the product footprint, from raw material, through manufacturing, logistics and impact during use, to end-of-life recycling. So-called ‘generic’ EPDs assess the footprint of a typical product of a certain type; a typical electric oven, say, or a typical electronic lock.
However, products validated by a generic EPD can be manufactured anywhere, with a multitude of components, finishes, dimensions and so on. A generic EPD only gives a loose indication of environmental impact. They are useful, certainly, as an impression of the landscape.
A ‘product-specific’ EPD, on the other hand, is like an Ordnance Survey map.
These supercharged EPDs detail precise environmental impact based on a unique bill of materials. They are time-consuming to create, involving a complete life-cycle study of a single product, manufactured in a specific way. In LEED, BREEAM and similar certifications, a product-specific EPD can be worth twice as many credits as its generic counterpart. Why? Because it gives architects the tools to make an informed choice. Without this kind of detail, it’s impossible to accurately assess environmental performance.
Take an example from my own company. The EPD for our SMARTair wireless knob cylinder details everything from the embodied carbon of the complete product and impact of carton and foam packaging, to the recycling potential of its steel and zinc content, among much, much more. It runs to 9 detailed pages.
Information documented by this EPD was used in the design of Tower 185, a recent 200m-high addition to the Frankfurt skyline. Tower 185 was one of the first European high-rises to be awarded Gold LEED Certification from the US Green Building Council. It also received a Gold Certificate from the German Sustainable Building Council (DGNB). To date, almost 100 double-knob SMARTair cylinders and wall readers have been fitted at the building.
Our SMARTair locks made another important contribution to this building’s sustainability credentials. Because SMARTair locks are wireless, they consume less energy and so emit less CO2 than standard wired electronic locks.
Across our group, we’ve now published 250+ product-specific EPDs, covering mechanical locksets, cylinders, door closers, floor springs, multi-point locks, doors, handles, hinges, and mechatronic and many other access control solutions. Our EPDs are independently researched by a third party, and then predominately verified by the Institut Bauen und Umwelt (IBU) in Germany.
Creating a mass of trustworthy EPDs has required major investment, of course. It demands adherence to comprehensive standards — in our case, ISO 14025 and EN 15804, which are recognised by LEED and BREEAM. Meeting these standards ensures environmental performance can be compared fairly across products and manufacturers, a critical factor for both design and procurement.
Armed with a product-specific EPD, architects and builders can work with clients to create genuinely sustainable buildings. They can more easily meet the increasing compliance requirements around sustainability. Indeed, if building sustainability ratings are ever to become as easy to understand as food labels, the product-specific EPD is a critical ingredient in the recipe.
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