Architects, designers and construction specifiers may consider a variety of attributes when deciding which materials and products to use in building design and construction – including cost, product durability, performance and aesthetics, as well as health, environmental and sustainability impacts, such as indoor air quality, energy efficiency, carbon footprint and more.
Materials used in building and construction applications have unique strengths and weakness, and there are often tradeoffs among these attributes. For example, a particularly durable product may also come with a hefty price tag. Or a particularly beautiful product may be difficult to maintain and need early replacement.
To help designers, architects and builders navigate this complex territory, a number of tools, guides and considerations are available to help inform materials selection decisions. Some of these include:
Life Cycle Approaches
When choosing among various materials and products, an architect or builder may undertake a life cycle assessment, or LCA, to systematically evaluate multiple potential environmental impacts of a product throughout its lifespan. An LCA can help identify opportunities to reduce potential impacts and minimize resource use across a product’s life. It also serves to identify tradeoffs, such as whether attempting to decrease one environmental impact of a product may inadvertently result in another environmental impact.
Environmental Product Declarations
An Environmental Product Declaration (EPD) is a multi-purpose disclosure tool that provides standardized, verified environmental information for a product. EPDs are intended to make the environmental impacts and trade-offs of a product more transparent and comparable. EPDs help decision makers objectively assess key environmental impacts of products throughout their life cycle, while also providing a means for manufacturers to identify opportunities to improve environmental performance. When considered along with additional societal and economic life cycle data, EPDs can be a useful tool for evaluating and optimizing a product’s sustainability.
Single vs. Multiple Attribute Consideration
Often, builders, designers and architects are trying to optimize product selection across a range of attributes. For this reason, it is critical to understand trade-offs among various product attributes. One can only make an accurate evaluation of a product by looking at all of its attributes and deciding which are most important to the decision maker or client, rather than looking at just a single attribute. For example, a product that contains a high level of recycled content may require more maintenance over time. A product that is locally produced may have used more energy from fossil fuels than an alternative product manufactured further away. Understanding and weighing product and materials trade-offs, and deciding which attributes are most important in each project, is crucial to making comprehensive, informed product selection decisions. Looking only at one attribute (e.g., cost, durability, environmental footprint) can result in decisions that may be incomplete or short-sighted.
Materials & Ingredients Lists
Builders and building occupants are often interested in information about the materials and ingredients used in a building product, particularly those that come in contact with the building occupant. In recent years, ingredient lists have sometimes been supplemented with suggested “chemical red lists,” that call for elimination of specific substances from building products. However, such approaches do not account for the amount of the chemical ingredient used in the product, the actual exposure to building occupants, and the ultimate safety of the product. In addition, this approach does not consider the performance or environmental attributes provided by chemical ingredients. In fact, reliance solely on “red lists” for product selection may result in specifying products with reduced environmental, safety and sustainability performance.
When considering the safety and health impacts of a product, one must always consider how building occupants will be exposed to the product. A product such as insulation, which is installed behind a wall without direct contact with building occupants, should be evaluated differently than the vinyl flooring that occupants walk on and have direct contact with every day. Reports and studies that combine considerations of product hazards, relevant toxicological endpoints and exposure of a product used for a specific application are called risk assessments. Understanding how to recognize and address potential risk is critical when considering how to balance the benefits of products with their potential health, environmental and sustainability impacts.
Putting It All Together
The final decision about what products or materials to use for a specific building project should take into account not only the cost, performance and aesthetics of the product or material, but also the environmental, health and safety information about a product and its ingredients, how the product is used in a specific application, its exposure and risk profile during use and its end-of-life characteristics.
Using the tools identified above can help designers, architects, and builders make thoughtful, informed decisions about the materials they use in a variety of building applications. While there may be no “silver bullet” or “one-size-fits-all” answer to tell you the “best” product or material to use in a specific application, careful consideration of a product’s life cycle impacts, performance and environmental attributes and trade-offs, safety profile and exposure potential using one or more of the tools above can help provide confidence in materials selection decisions.