Building’s Nutrition Facts Exposed

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Interface’s samples at its restorative enterprise office in San Francisco

The industry begins to standardize EPD and HPD standards.


By Nancy Amdur

[dropcap]W[/dropcap]ith the latest version of the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) rating system, building owners can now get credits for health and environmental product declarations that can help architects, designers and their clients make greener choices when selecting building materials.

[pullquote_right]We need to understand what they put in our materials, and healthy buildings are very important,” Lynn Simon, a senior vice president at Thornton Tomasetti[/pullquote_right]Sometimes likened to nutrition labels, these disclosures provide transparency about building product contents.

LEED Version 4 is “not widely used yet, but we’re launching into the era when it will be,” said Mark Palmer, the senior green building coordinator at the San Francisco Department of the Environment. The new rating system is available now but won’t officially replace Version 3 until next summer.

An environmental product declaration, or EPD, is a life cycle evaluation that measures the environmental impact—such as the energy, water and transportation—tied to bringing a product to the marketplace.

The health product declaration, or HPD, provides a standardized way of reporting the ingredients of building products and what their impact is on health, according to the USGBC.

Engineering firm Thornton Tomasetti included EPDs and HPDs when it renovated its new 15,000-square-foot office at 650 California St. in San Francisco. The company, which moved into its space in November, was part of a beta program comprising about 120 projects worldwide that tested LEED v4 before releasing it to the marketplace.

Thornton Tomasetti office in San Francisco

“It’s eminently important” to issue the declarations, said Lynn Simon, a senior vice president at Thornton Tomasetti who has consulted on hundreds of LEED projects.We need to understand what they put in our materials, and healthy buildings are very important.”

While the firm has not yet completed its paperwork, it is aiming to get LEED v4 Platinum certification, Simon said.

EPDs have been in use for more than a decade, but HPDs were first brought within the green building industry in 2011.

Both provide “resources to make good decisions” about products, said Jean Hansen, the sustainable interiors manager in the San Francisco office of HDR Architecture, Inc., who also helped develop and pilot the HPD.

Many designers and architects for years have requested details from suppliers about chemicals used in building materials and products, but there was no standard way to ask for or provide it, said Suzanne Drake, a senior interior designer in architecture and design firm Perkins + Will’s San Francisco office.

“It’s really amplifying the message that we want to know, and we’re going to make it convenient for you to tell us,” Drake said.

For manufacturers, providing these details can give them an edge over competitors, industry experts said.

“The ones who are able to figure it out early on get the market share,” Drake said.

Interface, a global modular carpet manufacturer, was one of the first companies in North America to market products with EPDs, said Mikhail Davis, Interface’s director of restorative enterprise, who is based in San Francisco. The company began issuing EPDs in 2009, and by 2012, issued them globally for nearly all of its products, he said.

Using EPDs is now much more common. “In the last two years, it’s really exploded,” Davis said. “No one wants to say they don’t have [EPDs].”

Lisa Britton, president and founder of the 6-year-old Wassaic, N.Y.–based company Alpar Architectural Products, planned to provide healthier products from the start. Alpar, which makes wall protection such as corner guards and handrails, was among about 30 manufacturers that participated in a pilot program to test out the HPD format in 2012.

“We spend a lot of our life in buildings, and not knowing what we’re exposing ourselves to is a considerable issue. This is the fist step in trying to get some of the harmful chemicals out of our buildings,” Britton said.

But having the information doesn’t necessarily mean anything has to change, even if a chemical in a product is determined to be hazardous.

“Having an HPD is only a piece of information,” Drake said. “It doesn’t automatically mean that product doesn’t have toxic things in it. It just means now we know.”

“The health product declaration is a starting point for evaluating health,” Davis said. Often manufacturers don’t realize what is in their products and once they find out, might decide to change it, he added.

“Hopefully, you will get improvement just from people asking for transparency,” Davis said. “If no one actually has the data about what this product does or doesn’t do to the environment, there’s never going to be any improvement.”

“We’re on the cusp of change here. This is just the beginning,” Hansen said.

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