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Continuing Education: Environmental building declarations

An introduction to environmental building declarations

The Athena Sustainable Materials Institute recently began publishing a new kind of document, something we call Environmental Building Declarations [EBDs]. An EBD is a summary report of comprehensive environmental footprint data for a building and declares the life cycle impacts of a building according to a standardized format. It is a statement of performance and is typically publicly disclosed, like a nutrition label on a food package. The intent of the document is to present results as transparently and concisely as possible.

By Jennifer O’Connor and Matt Bowick, Athena Sustainable Materials Institute Athena’s EBDs are compliant with the European standard EN 15978, a whole-building life cycle assessment [LCA] standard that is intended to support decision-making and documentation around the assessment of environmental performance of buildings. Since one of the stated purposes of the standard is to guide “environmental declarations,” we’ve adopted the name “environmental building declaration” for this kind of report. While many people are using EN 15978 in their practice and reporting of whole-building LCA, Athena may be the first to formalize the documentation and apply the term “EBD.”

The EN 15978 Standard

EN 15978 is the most advanced consensus standard for whole-building LCA. It includes provisions on how to calculate results for a uniform set of environmental indicators, and how to report the results transparently. The standard has filled a critical gap in building LCA practice and taken the guesswork out of what constitutes a good assessment. EN 15978 is now the most widely-used standard for building LCA studies and is referenced by various green building rating systems worldwide. Athena’s EBDs aim to advance the emerging consensus on whole-building LCA practice.

Quantification and Validation of Green Building Performance
Our mandate at the Athena Institute is to help bring quantification and validation to sustainability decisions. How confident is the design community that self-declared “green” buildings deliver measurable environmental benefits over standard buildings? We believe it is time for performance assessment and standardized transparent reporting on what the community calls sustainable design.

Transparency is the big buzz word right now, putting pressure on manufacturers to measure and publish environmental performance data on their products. The result is a rapidly increasing number of environmental product declarations [EPDs]. We believe it is time for similar disclosures to be made for entire buildings. As a think tank, the Athena Institute has a responsibility to establish innovative methodologies and help implement them.

The Relationship Between EBDs and EPDs
EBDs and EPDs are similar in the sense that both publicly report LCA results according to standards. However, an EPD has further requirements which, if applied to building declarations, would add complexity and cost that we feel is unnecessary. In addition to following LCA standards, an EPD is developed according to “product category rules” [a PCR] and is issued through an EPD “program operator” who arranges for third-party review. This increased level of standardization and oversight is important for product declarations, which are reliant on high-quality fundamental data and which may be used to compare competing products against each other.

In contrast, a building declaration has very little fundamental data – it’s a compilation of product and process data that has already been developed elsewhere. This means a building declaration could be viewed more like an in-house engineering report, which would be internally reviewed for technical accuracy and would be credibly published by, for example, an architecture or engineering firm. So, in summary, we view an EBD as a whole-building EPD without the usual EPD process.

Design Tool or Confirmation Report?
An EBD is not a design tool, rather it is a statement after the fact. Ideally, an EBD is the final step after a project team has used LCA throughout the design process in order to minimize the environmental impacts of the proposed building. In other words, the background life cycle assessment work is the design tool, if used early enough. The key element for the best practice and reporting of LCA is adherence to a standard, which is why Athena uses EN 15978.

Advancing Green Design with EBDs
EBDs motivate effective sustainability decisions because actual performance data is available to the public. In other words, building owners and their designers are accountable for the claims they make about their building. The reported data is also useful for future design projects. Athena’s EBDs include contribution analyses [identification of “hot spots”], which help to identify what decisions are really working and where to look for reductions next time. And once the pool of EBDs gets large enough, the collective data will provide performance benchmarks.

Jennifer O’Connor, M. Arch and Matt Bowick, MASc, LEED AP are, respectively, president and senior research associate of the Athena Sustainable Materials Institute.

THE QUIZ WILL BE AVAILABLE SOON AT: WWW.SABMAGAZINE-EDUCATION.INFO by Alison Walker, LEED AP [ND], Sustainability Analyst with Integral Group, and Certified Passive House Consultant.