EPDs: Helping to build the sustainable buildings of the future

Barry Rust of Tata Steel discusses the role of Environmental Product Declarations as a weapon for tackling the obstacles the industry faces in ensuring a truly sustainable, transparent and responsible supply chain

With improved awareness and constant news coverage on the effects that the human race is having on the environment, society is increasingly questioning the impact industry is having on the world. With the UK Green Building Council estimating that the built environment generates a shocking 40 per cent of the UK’s total carbon footprint, it’s no surprise that our sector is of particular concern. Determining the environmental impact of a construction project is a complex task, particularly if one is to take a holistic view from cradle to cradle, or indeed cradle to grave.

Because of this, Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) are becoming an important validation tool within the construction industry; developed by manufacturers to provide transparent data about the environmental impact of their products and to enable specifiers to make informed purchasing decisions, assisting their client in constructing a truly sustainable building. Essentially, an EPD is a document that contains life-cycle inventory data to provide a transparent overview of a product’s impact on the environment. This Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) can take into account everything from the extraction of raw materials and manufacturing process to distribution, the product’s use and even its end-of-life value, such as whether it can be recycled or reused. Generally speaking, there are two main types of EPDs: those that provide average data for a general product category, with information taken from a group of different manufacturers; and product specific EPDs, which, as the name suggests, are individual to a particular manufacturer’s product.

Recently, we have begun to see an increased demand, mostly from the top of the supply chain, for specific product data, rather than the generic alternative. This demand could be due to a variety of reasons. The first is related to green building certification schemes, such as BREEAM or LEED. Attaining such a certification can lead to positive results for both the building developer and owner, with BREEAM and LEED-rated buildings often having an increased market and rental value, in addition to the building’s operating and maintenance costs being reduced. Specifying sustainable building products with a product specific EPD can contribute numerous credits towards attaining such certification, more so than a generic EPD for a product category. Another potential reason for the rise in demand is that we are increasingly seeing building developers and architects acquiring a ‘genuine’ interest in furthering their understanding of transparent and sustainable construction and a desire to reduce the environmental impact of their buildings, which product specific EPDs can help them to achieve. However, as great as the creation of a truly sustainable, responsible and transparent supply chain sounds, it doesn’t come without its fair share of obstacles, with the main challenge trying to ensure that this dedicated approach is the same across the board, present from the very top to the very bottom of the supply chain. Unless a commitment to sustainability is matched across the board, a project will inevitably bow to cost pressures. A tendency to cost-engineer and alter the original product specification still too often leads to the initial best intentions being lost – and cheaper, less sustainable products finding their way onto the specification.

At Tata Steel, we are dedicated to delivering accurate and transparent environmental data for our range of products and have also recently become an environmental product declaration programme operator, meaning that we can now provide our customers with both supply chain and product specific EPDs. However, the reality is that if we as an industry are not achieving transparency throughout the ‘entire’ supply chain, then sadly we won’t achieve the improvement in performance we require. Ultimately, if you don’t measure it then you can’t manage it – the ‘it’ being a building’s environmental impact. So, what is the solution and how can architects help in implementing it? Architects are in the ideal position to educate and inspire clients to see the long-term benefits of investing in sustainable materials and play a key part in shifting the emphasis away from short-term costings, to responsible specification and whole life value. In turn, if there was increased demand for transparent, responsible and sustainable sourcing of products, then this would likely impact upon the manufacturing community, potentially encouraging more manufacturers to supply their own product specific EPDs, improving the reliability and accuracy of data.

All too often, a developer or client may have every intention of creating a sustainable building with a transparent and responsible construction process. Yet, as the build progresses, each part of the supply chain may slightly alter the architect’s original specification, whether in an attempt to reduce costs or due to personal choice. We therefore also need to start seeing more robust specifications from the top to the bottom of the supply chain, with product specific EPDs and sustainability requirements ‘built-in’ to the specification criteria that cannot be deviated from. After all, if developers and investors want sustainable buildings, then they and their chosen design team need to ensure that those requirements drill down to the very bottom of the supply chain and are not diluted as part of the build process. Product-specific EPDs are set to play a vital role in improving the transparency and sustainability of construction, allowing developers to achieve Green Building certification, such as BREEAM or LEED, and, more importantly, lessen the environmental impact of their buildings. However, it is also clear that change is required within the supply chain itself, for if we are to deliver the sustainable buildings of the future, this focus needs to be consistently present and executed throughout, from the architect and specifier to the main- and sub-contractor to the manufacturer.

We all have our own role to play, from us as manufacturers responsibly sourcing materials and improving the accuracy of data by producing product specific EPDs, to architects implementing compulsory sustainability requirements in more robust specifications, and finally, contractors who must ensure they honour these and understand the relevance of EPDs.

Barry Rust is energy & sustainability marketing manager at Tata Steel