Oct 2, 2020

Buildings & Cities: Embodied carbon in construction materials

Published in Buildings & Cities in the Special Collection: “Carbon metrics for buildings and cities”

Publication date: September 2020

Authors: Brook Waldman, Monica Huang, Kathrina Simonen

Abstract

Embodied carbon constitutes a significant portion of a building’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and is a key challenge for the construction and real estate sectors. Embodied carbon includes construction product manufacturing, building construction, material replacement, and end of life. During the specification and procurement stage, designers and contractors have the opportunity to prioritize products with lower carbon footprints. Environmental product declarations (EPDs) are a growing source of environmental data in the construction products market and are increasingly being used for (1) environmental performance assessment of buildings and (2) product comparison for procurement decisions during the later stages of building design. An obstacle to identifying and purchasing lower embodied carbon products is a lack of data quality and the transparency of EPDs. However, EPDs vary widely in their data quality and specificity, which can lead to inaccurate and misleading comparisons. A new method is presented to account quantitatively for estimates of variation in underlying data specificity in EPDs to enable fairer comparisons between EPDs and to motivate the reporting of actual variability and uncertainty in EPDs. The application of this approach can help purchasers to assess EPDs quantitatively.

Practice relevance

Life-cycle assessments (LCAs) and LCA data can be used within the construction sector to evaluate buildings and to assist in design, specification, and procurement decision-making. A new method is presented to support the assessment of the comparability of functionally equivalent materials and products during the specification and procurement stage. Given the known variation and lack of precision within EPDs, this method provides quantitative metrics that correlate to a qualitative interpretation of EPD precision. This method can be used by anyone who is using EPD data to make product comparisons at the specification and procurement stage:

  • It provides more confidence in choosing low-carbon material or product options when comparing between functionally equivalent options.
  • It can incentivize product manufacturers and LCA practitioners to improve data quality and transparently report known variation in their EPDs.
  • It may also motivate manufacturers to reduce GHGs from their products and processes.

Keywords: construction materials, construction products, embodied carbon, environmental performance assessment, environmental product declaration (EPD), life-cycle assessment (LCA), procurement, specification

How to Cite: Waldman, B., Huang, M., & Simonen, K. (2020). Embodied carbon in construction materials: a framework for quantifying data quality in EPDs. Buildings and Cities1(1), 625–636. DOI: http://doi.org/10.5334/bc.31

READ THE COMPLETE RESEARCH PAPER

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