All materials have strengths and weaknesses. When making material selection decisions, it’s important to understand trade-offs – how substituting one material for another may affect a building’s performance, functionality, aesthetics and cost, as well as the health of occupants and the environment.
A number of tools, guides and considerations can help architects weigh options and understand the impacts and trade-offs associated with materials selection decisions. Architects also may want to consult experts in these areas who can help them navigate what guidance might be most useful.
Following is a brief description of some tools, guides and considerations that can help architects weigh options and understand the impacts and trade-offs associated with materials selection decisions:
Life Cycle Assessment
A Life Cycle Assessment, or LCA, is a standardized tool or method for calculating the impact of materials. It is used to systematically evaluate multiple potential environmental impacts of a product or process throughout its lifespan. An LCA can help identify opportunities to reduce potential impacts and minimize resource usage across a product’s current life cycle, as well as to evaluate proposals for change within a product’s life cycle. Architects can learn how to incorporate lifecycle and risk-based metrics into their materials selection processes through these LEED pilot credits.
Tools such as the Building for Environmental and Economic Sustainability (BEES) software developed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) provide an automated approach for measuring the life-cycle assessment, plus environmental and economic performance of a building product.
Environmental Product Declarations
Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) communicate transparent and comparable information about the life-cycle environmental impact of a product. EPDs can help architects objectively assess key environmental impacts and in turn identify opportunities to improve environmental performance.
Materials Disclosure Tools
Materials Disclosure Tools help users evaluate chemical ingredients in a product. Common tools include manufacturer Safety Data Sheets, as well as tools developed by organizations such as Declare, Health Products Declaration®, GreenScreen® and others. Some tools include detailed information on ingredient hazard levels and concentration in the product, others inform customers about safe handling requirements. Most disclosure tools do not provide information about the health impacts of a products through its life cycle or assess exposure risks associated with a product’s handling and use.
Standards, Codes and Certification Systems
Architects can refer to a range of green building standards, codes and certification systems when making materials selection decisions. When choosing a green building system, look for a system that is consensus-based, with a development process that is recognized as fair, inclusive, and transparent. Good standards are data-driven, include multiple attributes for evaluating products and materials, and are supported by science.