For years now, I’ve been singing the blues about the shortsightedness of U.S. building manufacturers. Products in our modern homes, like our automobiles, TV sets and magazines, seemed designed for rapid entropy—made to fall apart, if you will—fast, cheap, and out of control. What genius came up with the idea of putting moisture-susceptible drywall behind shower tile? Who thought it would be a good idea to roof homes with clay tiles that last for centuries over felt paper with a 20-year warranty? And how did the U.S. building industry decide that 50 years is an adequate design life span for ANY part of a home?
Ten years ago, life cycle assessment of building products in the U.S. was spotty at best. In fact, building scientist Joe Lstiburek with Building America told me at the time that U.S. product research had “tremendous breadth, and almost no depth.”
But LCA wasn’t a new concept to other industries. Players in the aluminum market such as Alcoa began creating life cycle reports on their products in the 1980s, to defend their products from competitor claims (notably plastic bottling companies). During that process, they discovered new, money- and energy-saving efficiencies.
The cement industry also has been pro-active in seeking out accurate LCA information. That effort has helped them defend their product from criticism of its large CO2 emission footprint, (due primarily to the energy required to produce Portland cement). LCA assessments have helped them make the case that the initial energy cost of cement should not be the only factor considered in evaluating its eco-friendliness.
Ten years later, more--but still a small minority of—manufacturers have embraced LCA. What they’re discovering, based on our research for this article, is that LCA studies tend to strengthen—not weaken—a product’s position in the green marketplace. Often, a product has environmental advantages that might otherwise go uncounted—such as surface durability that reduces the impacts of cleaning solvents, paints or stains.
In fact, once LCA becomes more mature—and focused on closed loop manufacturing, it’s our view that basic assumptions about renewability and green materials may get a second look. As blunt-spoken architect and co-author of “Cradle to Cradle” Bill McDonough said at a conference I attended in Spain last month. “I like toxins. There’s nothing wrong with toxic material, if it makes a product better and it’s part of a closed-loop system. It’s only when the system is open ended that toxins become a problem, when they are allowed to enter the environment and poison our water or our atmosphere.”
What’s Driving LCA?
With growing frequency, we’re seeing companies voluntarily pursue life-cycle assessments of their products. Among them, countertop makers, cement associations and vinyl siding manufacturers.
For example, Cosentino has taken major steps into the green category with it’s Eco by Cosentino brand of countertops, which is available in the U.S. The tops incorporate various types of recycled scrap aggregate, from broken mirrors to crushed bathroom fixtures. They just completed a life cycle assessment using Environmental Product Declarations (EPD), an organization operating primarily in Europe and Asia.
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Cosentino’s move into “greener” materials was motivated in large part by raw resource costs, says marketing director Santiago A. Rodriguez. “Some of the materials we use in our Silestone brand, such as crushed quartz, were coming from farther and farther away,” he explains. “The price is very volatile, often determined by local politics. So we began looking at other aggregates that could replace it.”
Out of that effort came a new countertop line. An EPD assessment made sense, Rodriguez says, because architects were asking increasingly tough questions about the product’s green credentials. “People want that recycled look,” he says, “but the professionals want more data. Their questions created a chain of events that led to the [life cycle assessment].”
Who’s the Greenest?
LCA organizations are well aware that they may be sought out for market advantage, not simply eco-altruism. For example, EPD notes that one of its primary goals is “to provide the basis for a fair comparison between goods and services having the same principal function based on their inherent environmental performance.”
But often direct comparison of LCA results from different systems such as BEES, Athena or EPD is tough. For example, which data should carry more weight—a product’s CO2 emissions and impact on global warming, or its contribution to water pollution? Or its level of known carcinogens?
“LCAs and Social Impact Analyses (SIAs) are highly technical,” says sustainability design expert Nathan Shedroff (www.nathan.com). “This makes engineers and builders comfortable. However, they suffer greatly from "garbage in, garbage out" and, as such, can be a little malleable to make whatever point someone wants to make.”
A good example is the new LCA (actually an LCIA, or life cycle impact assessment) of insulating vinyl siding done by CertainTeed, using the BEES modeling system. It’s the kind of information that should make comparing siding products for their environmental impacts easy. But it’s not that simple. For example, the data compares certain brands of vinyl with cedar siding, and on some criteria, the wood siding is slightly more toxic to the environment, presumably because of chemicals used in long-term maintenance. BEES does “weight” different impact categories, but choosing the “greenest” product can still be tough when you’re looking at two rated products side by side, especially for consumers without any technical knowledge.
Another problem is that not every product in a category will has LCA data available. So how can companies that have taken the high road hold their products up side by side with competitors? Some of the LCA databases do contain information on general materials, but not necessarily branded products. Cosentino, for example, has plenty of EPD data on its ECO by Cosentino line, but how do they compare with solid surfacing countertops that have not completed LCA analyses?
Perhaps it’s just a matter of time before LCA becomes the norm. The next step will be to try to standardize the information collected so that consumers, builders and architects can understand a product’s environmental pros and cons. One promising solution may be a simple score card such as the one designed by Ecolect. It seems likely that the DOE or another national entity will embrace an approach such as this one as LCA becomes more widespread, making the information both accessible and affordable.
The Hidden Perks
Another aspect of LCA that needs refinement is the way it determines durability—which directly impacts both maintenance impacts and product replacement. LCA data tends to set product lifespan conservatively, based on industry estimates, warranties and other “soft” data—but not hard research. Longevity studies on U.S. building materials, especially on the residential side, have been rare. Are 35-year-warranty shingles being replaced at 15 years, or 50 years? Such information could have a major impact on the accuracy of LCA data.
That’s not to say LCA isn’t worth the effort. It can pay back on many levels. For example, companies often discover (or confirm) the weakest link in their sustainability story. This can create an “aha” moment that leads to action.
That’s what happened with CertainTeed’s LCA study of some brands of their vinyl siding. They used the findings to develop a take back program for used PVC siding, to our knowledge the first major company to undertake this challenge. That’s a major leap toward sustainability. The company has set up a network with recyclers who will take old siding and using the raw material in new vinyl siding products—a prerequisite of a closed loop LCA. That recycled content is already being used in their CedarBoards D6 product.
The requirements for closed loop LCA are quite specific in most measurement tools. You have to create the same type of product as the one that’s being recycled or reused. That’s a provision that may deserve a second look. For example, if you’re recycling old vinyl windows into vinyl siding, isn’t that close enough to earn closed loop credentials? These are the types of details likely to be worked out as LCA matures. In the meantime, life cycle testing ensures that we’ll become more conscious of the environmental costs and benefits of the products used in construction.
To see this article as presented in our August 2011 issue, including more graphics and an interview with representatives of the vinyl industry, please visit our Magazine Archives.