Using EPDs for Building LCA
The role of Environmental Product Declarations in Whole Building Life Cycle Assessment
One of the most commonly discussed issues when talking about Whole Building Life Cycle Assessment is the role of Environmental Product Declarations and other types of data.
This is due to the fact that access to reliable data sources is important to ensure the quality of LCA results.
First of all, Whole Building Life Cycle Assessment is a scientific methodology that quantifies a building’s environmental impacts, including carbon emissions. In order to perform a Whole Building LCA, it is important to assess the potential environmental damage caused by the actions and processes necessaries to erect a building and make it functional, from the extraction of raw materials to build phase, use, and end of life. This has become more and more relevant as the impact of buildings on climate change is being addressed, both by regulations and voluntary Green Building schemes.
In this context, Environmental Product Declarations, which analyze and quantify the impacts a single product would produce during its whole life cycle, are very helpful in providing a reliable source of information on the environmental footprint of a product.
You must use realistic materials data for Whole Building LCA
The Life Cycle Analysis of building materials is part of performing a Whole Building LCA: in order to correctly assess the carbon footprint and other environmental impacts of any building, it is necessary to include the embodied carbon and other impacts of the building materials used in the project.
It is not simply a matter of knowing where the product comes from and how far it must travel to reach the building site, but to have accurate data regarding its manufacturing and life cycle and its potential impacts on the environment.
This means that using anything but accurate data renders any LCA calculations of limited value. But what do we mean when we talk about realistic data? It means that for your calculations you will use manufacturer data and that data is often, but not always, available in the form of EPDs. An EPD is the complete life cycle assessment of a product from cradle to grave, and contains all the information required to choose greener materials in an objective, reliable way.
The main goal of performing the LCA of your building is to improve the design and reduce the environmental impacts of the project and to do so one of the easiest solutions is to select materials that are better performing in terms of carbon and other impacts through the whole life cycle. This includes, for example, whether materials have recycled content (and therefore lower embodied carbon) or need to be replaced less often than other materials during the use phase of the building.
In order to identify the best alternatives, it is important to have access to a comprehensive and robust database including only data you can use with confidence. This is especially important when the Life Cycle Assessment is performed in the design stage, to improve the design before construction starts. By having access to different data sets and being able to compare the performance of different materials, you will be able to select the best alternatives for your design and reduce the environmental impacts overall.
Life Cycle Analysis of Building Materials: why it matters
When selecting building materials for LCA calculations, the principle to apply is to always choose the highest quality option available. This means that, in order of preference, the selection should go like this:
- Product EPD from your manufacturer of the material you are planning to use, if available
- Technically similar product EPDs from a local manufacturer, if you don’t know yet which manufacturer to use
- Product category level EPD
- Average LCA data for the product in question
International programmes guarantee the conformity of the EPDs with the standards. Each declaration is verified by a third party and interested parties can access the information and use it to make informed decisions.
Compliancy with the international and European ISO 14044 and EN 15804 standards guarantees transparency and accuracy of the verified EPDs. Therefore, using EPDs is an efficient and effective way to have a clear understanding of the environmental impacts of building materials, and choose the highest-performing ones to reduce the overall embodied carbon of the building, and comply with regulations or achieve Green Building certification credits.
However, this doesn’t mean that there are no options left for countries without an existing EPD database: if local EPDs are not available, it is possible to use materials for the calculations with the same technical features as the materials you are planning to use, which means that the environmental impacts they would produce are roughly the same, and, therefore, can be used to calculate Whole Building LCA. Moreover, it is also possible to use average LCA data.
EPD database vs. generic database: how to leverage both
At this point, it is important to clarify what is the difference between an EPD database and a generic LCA database.
An EPD database is understood as a database that contains a comprehensive amount of construction Environmental Product Declarations across one or more countries. In this database, an expert is free to select a specific material produced by an available manufacturer that reflects the LCA analysis of that material only. For example, One Click LCA has more than 90,000 materials in its database. Why don’t you test it with a free trial?
A generic LCA database is a database of industry average LCAs for selected material groups. Industry average LCA is the environmental performance of a material, calculated as an average across all manufacturers of that material. For example, if you are looking for the environmental emissions of paints in Germany, you will find the generic average LCA for all German paints. In this case, the average value consists of both the materials that have exceptional environmental performance and those that contribute highly to CO2 emissions. This might mean that, even if you choose a better performing paint, the final report won’t reflect the fact you chose a more sustainable option.
However, while more countries and manufacturers worldwide work towards building EPD databases, using generic LCA data is still a viable option for performing Whole Building LCA. In short, if you can choose between EPDs and generic data, it is always preferable to use EPDs, but if that is not possible it’s better to use generic data and still perform LCA calculations. Moreover, One Click LCA uses a BRE-approved data regionalization methodology according to CEN/TR 15941:2010 to adjust the emissions to match with local manufacturing conditions. This means that you can use data from other manufacturers and countries and adjust it to your local conditions, obtaining results that are compliant, reliable, and actionable.
By adopting Whole Building Life Cycle Assessment, designers and construction specialists all over the world can effectively measure and reduce the harmful impacts of their buildings, and, by making LCA a necessary step of any new construction or refurbishment project, the pressure on manufacturers and governments to incentivize the creation and use of EPDs will also increase.
Therefore, while EPDs provide more reliable and accurate results, average LCA data is still a good option that can be used in all cases when EPDs are not available.
Calculate Whole Building LCA with One Click LCA
One Click LCA can support more than 40 certifications and has dedicated tools with access to the data and resources you need to comply with the requirements.
You can access dedicated tools for:
- LEED v4 Whole-Building Life-Cycle Assessment
- BREEAM Mat 01 for BREEAM International
- IMPACT-Compliant LCA for BREEAM UK
- Infrastructure LCA
- LCA for Energie Carbone
- Dozens more
You can use One Click LCA for your LCA requirements anywhere in the world. Want to understand in more detail how product-specific EPDs can help you achieve quality and consistency for your Whole Building LCA? Read our position paper.
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