What significant headway can one person, as a professional or in his or her personal life, realistically make against the rising tide of global warming? This is, for many of us, the most compelling question today. The 2030 Challenge 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 close to 50 percent of all environmental degradation in the United States. Then why focus on the finishes-the Products that populate the interiors of buildings? Because, over the average life of a building in the United States-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."
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 specific environmental attributes: for example, GREENGUARD and Indoor Advantage for indoor air quality; and Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) for wood culled from sustainably managed forests.
Additionally, there are tools which 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.
Life Cycle Assessment
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. It 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 re-use.
It's 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.
The Need for a Global Product Information System
Whatever 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.
"The system isn't working at all well, now," says Bob Berkebile, founder of the AIA Committee on the Environment. "We in the A&D community are making decisions based on way too little information." Wearing his everyday hat as a principal with BNIM Architects, Berkebile adds, "My designers and clients are pleading for better product information. All of us in the building field would do well to agree on fundamental principles for product evaluation, and proceed to create a framework to certify them."
A Call for Synergy
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. "Third-party, transparent product certification adds substantively to the framework provided by LEED," says 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."
"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 to comparable product and building component LCAs that are based on a common methodology."
Deborah Rutherford of HOK adds, "If we are to achieve what we say we want to, building designers are going to need next generation tools that work together synergistically. That means that tool developers will have to collaborate to develop tools that can easily be interfaced."
The Big Picture
In creating a global product information system, there are a multitude of elements to consider. "It's most important that we look through different lenses at the very beginning of the design-even before the site selection if possible," declares Bill Reed of Integrative Design. "Some of these other lenses are energy, CO2 burden, Life Cycle Assessment, Life Cycle Cost, human and ecosystem symbioses, and so on. The pieces need to be understood only as aspects that are in integral relationship with one another-because they are."
Carlie Bullock-Jones in the Atlanta office of TVS Interiors is on a campaign to get manufacturers to see the benefits of working with architects and with the organizations that are developing transparent, third-party certifications. After all, it will be their products that are sought by the many volume purchasers who have adopted a goal to lessen their ecological footprint, per their clientele. For example, one of TVS' clients, Wachovia Bank, has made a commitment to reduce their absolute carbon dioxide emissions by 10 percent from 2005 levels, by 2010.
"The truth is that almost any product we select utilizes materials from around the world," says Bullock-Jones. "We need data from manufacturers so that building professionals in the United States can keep pace through knowledge and use of the emerging Global Product Information System."
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 and will culminate in that any product sold in EU countries beginning January 1, 2009, will be required to have a verified Environmental Product Declaration based on a product LCA.
The Next Wave of Tools
Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) unite existing tools with new ones into a comprehensive framework. Referencing information that lies outside the scope of LCAs, they are instruments to show the total environmental performance of a building derived from the performance of its multiple parts.
They 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 draw as well 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. The most scientifically robust standards require the use of a full product LCA to gather and analyze the underlying data. 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 BIFMA Sustainable Furniture Standard; the ACT Sustainable Textiles Standard; the RFCI Sustainable Resilient Flooring Standard (currently under development); and the Sustainable Carpet Assessment Standard, which is now in draft form. Additionally, The Institute for Market Transformation to Sustainability (MTS) 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.
Currently, several software programs are surfacing in the United States that make it possible for staff at manufacturing firms to incorporate use of LCA into their normal business practices. For example, the Earthster tool, developed by New Earth, provides manufacturers and purchasers with Life Cycle Inventories (LCIs) of key commodities such as plastic and steel.
The Manufacturer's Wizard, developed by The Green Standard.org (formerly known as the International Design Center for the Environment) allows manufacturers to develop LCAs internally for product design ... facilitating "what if" scenarios on materials and processes. The resulting LCA data can be posted on the Web site of The Green Standard.org in two formats: as a simple EcoLabel, and/or as a more detailed EPD, both based on a full product LCA.
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 Paradigm
Every one of our experts has their eye on an exciting new possibility, in part bolstered by the challenge of AIA's 2010 Initiative, which expands on The 2030 Challenge. 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."
Kim Nadel of NICHE Design Group asserts, "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 Challenge, we all must be involved to some measure in the development and shaping of a system of tools supportive of holistic design of buildings and the products used to construct, furnish and operate them."
"It's the end of the phase of privatizing the profit and socializing the risk," proclaims Rives Taylor in the Houston office of Gensler. "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."
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. Children understand that everyone can make a difference.
"The future belongs to those who give the next generation reason to hope."
-Teilhard de Chardin