LEED pilot credit for building materials helps clarify potential health, safety and environmental impacts

LEED pilot credit for building materials helps clarify potential health, safety and environmental impacts

Summer 2018 | Written by Calvin Hennick

One set of ceiling tiles requires less energy use to manufacture and ship, but another lasts longer and is easier to recycle. This carpeting comes with extensive documentation showing that it has little to no impact on human health, but the manufacturer has nothing in the way of environmental product declarations. A roofing material that makes installers’ jobs slightly safer also makes maintenance workers’ jobs slightly more dangerous.

Even for developers and consultants who are determined to use building materials that will have minimal negative impact on people and the planet, it can sometimes feel impossible to make apples-to-apples comparisons between products. In most cases, there’s no single source of even basic information about the health, safety, and environmental impacts of building materials—to say nothing of documentation about these impacts across each stage of the product life cycle.

A pilot credit in the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC) Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) v4 rating system aims to change that.

“The pilot credit is a novel way of having a tool that brings together all of the concepts we’re talking about when it comes to LEED and materials. It’s the first step to take all the available information about materials and weave it together in an analysis format that helps project teams make better decisions,” says Melissa Baker, senior vice president at USGBC.

Brendan Owens, senior vice president of strategic partnerships and growth at USGBC, says that the pilot credit motivates project teams to begin asking manufacturers for holistic impact data—which, in turn, will incentivize manufacturers to make that data more widely available. With the data public, Owens hopes, manufacturers will try to improve the sustainability impacts of their products.

“We have a bit of a chicken and egg problem,” Owens says. “Designers want to make decisions optimized around human health, environmental, social, and ecosystem impacts of materials. But the disclosure of the information that allows this type of analysis is something relatively new to ask of product manufacturers. So LEED is set up to reward manufacturers who disclose life-cycle, ingredient, and sourcing information. But transparency isn’t the end goal. The goal is to make transparency ubiquitous so that this information is used to inform project team decision making.”

Owens says that the pilot credit gives manufacturers a chance to set themselves apart in the marketplace. “Looking back 15 years ago, it was relatively easy to stand out as a greener product,” he says. “There weren’t that many manufacturers that were producing products to satisfy LEED requirements so anybody who was, was a leader. But today, LEED is much better known, and many manufacturers have products that meet pre-v4 credits. With LEED v4, manufacturers have an opportunity to recapture the early 2000s leadership space and the competitive advantage that comes with it.”

“It’s really important to look at materials in an integrative way, so that you’re not just focusing on [one] impact piece, but you’re also looking at environmental impacts, energy impacts, [and] safety impacts.”

-Debra Phillips, vice president of sustainability and market outreach for the American Chemistry Council

To fulfill the credit, which was developed in partnership with the American Chemistry Council, project teams must gather extensive impact data on three different building materials (see sidebar, “3x3x5”)—creating a market incentive for vendors to be more transparent, and providing a holistic view of the impacts of building materials, often for the first time.

“From our point of view, it’s really important to look at materials in an integrative way, so that you’re not just focusing on [one] impact piece, but you’re also looking at environmental impacts, energy impacts, safety impacts,” says Debra Phillips, vice president of sustainability and market outreach for the American Chemistry Council. “The thought was, how can we encourage more holistic thinking about building materials? This credit starts to bring all that together.”

David Dixon, owner of Genesis Design, Inc., pursued the pilot credit during his work as the architect for an administration and control building at a power plant in Maryland, which achieved LEED Silver earlier this year. In the comments sections of industry blogs, Dixon says, some professionals were asking each other “where to find” the information necessary to achieve the analysis credit—apparently not quite realizing that the lack of such a repository was a leading reason for the creation of the credit in the first place.

“The information is out there, but it’s not necessarily in this format,” Dixon says. “You have to go into the different declarations and then figure out whether there’s an impact or not. The health product declaration will have some information, and then a safety data sheet will have a little more. From those two sources, you could say, ‘Yes, the product has a safety impact, but the impact can be mitigated if you handle it properly.’”

Dixon says that compiling information for the credit was extremely time consuming (requiring “umpteen” calls to manufacturers), but that the process led him to think about building materials in a new way.

He realized, for example, that the shrink wrap and cardboard used to package a certain type of ceiling tile actually had a greater environmental impact than the tiles themselves. “The credit makes you step back and look at the product and truly do some analysis—not just of the product, but of the processes that it goes through,” Dixon says. “Then you begin to say, ‘What about the other products?’ It forces you to change your mindset.”

Joanna Switzer, a LEED consultant who worked to obtain the materials analysis credit on a tenant fit-out project for the Jacksonville, Florida, office of the insurance company Aetna, says that the pilot credit is reflective of an evolution in thinking about building materials. While previous versions of LEED emphasized easily measured factors such as the distance materials were shipped to a construction site, she says, the materials credits in LEED v4 are more “holistic and comprehensive.”

“It’s a great credit,” Switzer says of the pilot credit. “You can leverage health product declarations and some of the other documentation that you’re researching for other LEED v4 materials credits. Those credits require so much research, and so much product data, and it’s nice that [the pilot credit] aligns with those.”

Currently, Switzer says, comprehensive information around health, safety, and environmental impacts is only available for a handful of products—including the Sherwin-Williams paint that was used for the Aetna project. “That greatly benefited us, and it certainly provided an incentive to use their products,” she says.

Katie Matthews, assistant project manager, and Sylvia Schweri, who was a former assistant project manager for Argento/Graham and now does sustainability and fundraising consulting, worked to attain the credit for the California Wellness Foundation headquarters in downtown Los Angeles, which achieved LEED Silver for Commercial Interiors. They say that, although many vendors lack holistic product impact data, those suppliers who are able to provide the information are positioning themselves as market leaders.

Shown here is Aetna’s Jacksonville, Florida’s, office lounge and break room. | Photos courtesy Gilbane Building Company

The spaces incorporate sustainable carpeting and recycled materials. | Photos courtesy Gilbane Building Company

Sylvia Schweri is a former assistant project manager for Argento/Graham who now does sustainability and fundraising consulting.

Katie Matthews is an assistant project manager for Argento/Graham.

“It’s hard to find materials that have this information,” says Matthews. “And if they do have the information, you might have to email the manufacturer to get it. If you don’t know to ask for the data, it’s easy to assume they don’t have it.”

“The credits seem to be really well calibrated to motivate market change. That’s one of USGBC’s goals with LEED v4, and I think they hit it on the head,” says Schweri, who is currently sustainability and fundraising consultant for various nonprofit organizations.

For the pilot credit on the California Wellness Foundation project, Matthews and Schweri analyzed the product impact of ceiling tiles, carpet tiles, and duct wrap. “We’re already seeing a lot more manufacturers catching up, having environmental product declarations and health declarations,” Matthews says. “It’s helping a lot.”

Sherwin-Williams senior vice president of product innovation Steve Revnew agrees. He says, “The primary benefit of this pilot credit is that it compiles the most meaningful content from existing documents (EDPs, SDSs, and Product Lens) and puts them in one place. By partnering with organizations like Underwriters Laboratory, Sherwin-Williams can provide credible information to architects and other purchasers in a format that is easy to understand and act upon.”

Revnew believes the main benefit of this document is how it has improved communication with their customers. “This communication is just another way that Sherwin-Williams partners with our customers to drive innovation and make coatings that are compliant with the most stringent regulatory requirements, including sustainability.”

“That’s the point of LEED,” Matthews adds. “It shifts the market.”

The California Wellness Foundation headquarters in downtown Los Angeles, which achieved LEED Silver for Commercial Interiors.

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