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New EPD summaries give a snapshot view of LCA data, but are limited by their document-centric paradigm.

This two-page summary of an EPD is a new format that seeks to make life-cycle assessment-based information easier to use.
Image Credit: UL Environment

Environmental product declarations (EPDs) are, in theory, the answer to our product information prayers. To the extent enabled by the appropriate Product Category Rule (PCR), a product’s EPD discloses environmental life-cycle assessment results including its ingredients and environmental impacts. If that information is validated and certified by a credible third party, so much the better. To better understand how all that works, check out BuildingGreen’s graphical EPD primer (PDF) and our feature article on product transparency (member link).

Current LCA methods are not very helpful for some key issues, such as human health, ecological toxicity, and habitat disruption, so most EPDs wisely omit those categories. Even the information that remains, however—a 20-30 page structured summary of an LCA study that might run 100 pages or more—can easily overwhelm designers and other potential users of all this information.

Brevity to the rescue

In an effort to make the key parts of this information more accessible, UL Environment (ULe) has now unveiled a new two-page “Transparency Brief” that summarizes the LCA results even further. ULe collaborated with Perkins+Will on this new format, building on that firm’s work in 2011 creating product transparency label for Construction Specialties, and with Interface, which had produced its own summary view of its EPDs when they first came out in 2011.

A single EPD often covers multiple configurations of a product, but to keep the Transparency Brief simple it is limited to just one configuration, so each EPD can spawn multiple briefs. You can see the new Tranparency Briefs, along with their associated EPDs, by searching UL’s so-called “Sustainable Products Database” for certification type: “Environmental Product Declarations.”

A good teaching tool

The Transparency Brief does a nice job highlighting the key EPD information, and serves as a useful teaching tool about LCA and EPDs, with explanations of the impact categories and tables listing ingredients, recycled content, and other data. This teaching function is enhanced by keeping placeholder cells even for non-existent information—though they could have gone even further to make it clear where current LCA’s don’t tell the entire story.

UL intends to make the format available to any EPD producer, according to Heather Gadonniex, Lead, Strategic Development and Innovation at ULe, and is differentiating its own EPDs with a new “badge” declaring that the Transparency Brief is based on a UL certified EPD.

Where's the app?

When it comes to the fundamental problem of making this information accessible and usable to designers and other decision makers, however, it’s not clear how much the Transparency Brief really helps. Its paper or PDF structure is stuck in the 20th-century document paradigm, which is not a great model for helping users sift through huge amounts of data and make comparative decisions. For reviewing data on individual products, a smartphone app model might be more helpful, with summary views of the data linking to additional details from the EPD and the underlying LCA as needed.

Why manage documents when we just need data?

Ultimately, however, users need access to this data in a way that they can easily compare and manipulate, ideally within the context of a data-rich design tool. I hope that the folks at ecoScorecard and Autodesk are burning the midnight oil (ok, so that’s a 19th-century metaphor) to bring us that functionality so we can stop managing documents to manage data.

More context always helps

New formats alone won’t solve this problem—we also need comparable data for many more products to put each product’s information in context. ULe hopes to be the provider—or at least the certifier—of most of those EPDs. It will be an interesting year or two as all this gets sorted out, along with the question of how the new Health Product Declarations (HPDs) factor into the mix. While it doesn’t solve many of the problems, the new Transparency Brief is a step in that direction.

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1 What about GreenWizard? posted by Adam Bernholz on 05/23/2012 at 05:33 pm

Dear BuildingGreen,

I have just read your article with great interest, as well as wonderment. While I am sure it was accidental, it appears that you have entirely overlooked GreenWizard, a Product Management Platform for the construction industry. Our approach is just what you speak of: a data-driven approach to researching, modeling, documenting, and submitting building products and projects for certification and/or code compliance. In fact, we became an Endorser of the Health Product Declaration, just so we would have open access to this granular-level product data. It is also probably the reason that 2030 Challenge for Products has just named GreenWizard a Technology Partner to allow the AEC community to find, via our free search, granular level information stemming from EPDs. It is also why FSC, SCS, C2C, GreenSeal, MBDC, Green Circle, and others have Partnered with us to get their member companies’ product data loaded into our platform for free. This is also the reason that the majority of the specification software providers have partnered with us. Ditto the good 'ole USGBC,  where we are interoperable with LEEDOnline for uploading this data and documentation.

It is this very ability to deliver dynamic, tailored, green building product data and documentation that has made us such a prominent name in this space. In fact, we currently work with over 1,000 manufacturers in capturing their product information in a data-oriented format. We currently have over 130,000 building products in our platform with searchable data fields and associated documentation. This is also the reason that 11 of the top 20 design and construction firms in the country are utilizing GreenWizard for their product management throughout a building's construction process. In fact, with $10B in projects within our platform, we are hardly an obscure voice in this marketplace.

Although we are competitors of sorts, as we have discussed, I feel that to leave us out of this article in such a wholesale fashion does not do justice to the greater green building movement that we all feel so passionately about. Again, I imagine, and hope, that this was purely accidental, hoping that in future articles you are able to recall that our very platform is based upon delivering granular-level building product data.

2 More data-driven tools posted by Nadav Malin on 05/24/2012 at 02:34 pm

Thanks for the comment, Adam. No, it was not exactly an oversight not to mention GreenWizard...I chose the two that I mentioned specifically because they are rumored to be working with UL on EPD data. I totally appreciate your endorsement of the HPD and support for the 2030 Challenge for Products, but neither of those are exactly EPDs--although they are definitely part of that transparency space. If you guys are doing more with EPDs specifically, I was not aware of that and should have mention it

Good luck! Nadav


3 Product Data And Transparency Is What GreenWizard Is All About posted by Adam Bernholz on 05/24/2012 at 03:34 pm

Hi Nadav,

Thank you for circling back. To be clear, you are correct that an ‘HPD’ is not an EPD, and they certainly cover very different, yet very important aspects of building material data. However, our relationship with 2030 challenge for Products is exactly about capturing transparent EPD data. 2030 Challenge for Products chose our enabling technologies and market influence to work directly with manufacturers to collect, and then disseminate, this very data. The lowest-hanging fruit in this space, concrete, will be the first product category that this Partnership will take a deep dive into. To quote a portion of our press release

“To achieve these goals, Architecture 2030 encourages selection of building products based on reduction of embodied carbon (or the metric of kilogram carbon dioxide equivalent per functional unit). To further this goal, building product manufacturers are encouraged to develop an ISO-compliant Environmental Product Declaration (EPD) or a third party-verified Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) for their product(s).

Initially focusing on concrete – which is the leading contributor of greenhouse gases among building products – the criteria and results of these declarations will be integrated into GreenWizard’s free product data capture, search, and LEED credit assessment solutions. Architecture 2030 has developed a Request for Information letter that can be sent to product manufacturers, asking for the embodied carbon content of their products, along with other assessment information. This information will be directly accessible through GreenWizard.

"GreenWizard is a technology leader and market influencer in the green building sector. We are excited that they have offered their market clout with product specifiers and technological expertise to further the very important cause of the 2030 Challenge," added Ed Mazria, founder of the Architecture 2030.”

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