The Accountability in Sustainability

Lucas Hamilton

CertainTeed recently released its first Corporate Sustainability Report.  What people don’t realize is that behind these efforts to produce and publish Sustainability Reports you have to do a great deal of homework. Some of that homework can include life cycle assessments (LCA) for products. LCA’s are similar to creating a personal inventory as you might do when facing a life event. You come up with a large amount of information that needs to be evaluated and acted upon, but if it is not acted on you are living in denial. Having these LCA’s provides companies with data that can be viewed in many different and valuable ways. LCA’s capture the holistic impact of a product from the energy involved in the extraction of the raw materials, to the manufacturing, to the transportation, to the installation, to the impact it will have on the building and the disposal or recycling after its useful life.

LCA’s represent a new way of evaluating building materials and building techniques which is why this is part of building knowledge. As we go forward, all building professionals will need to be conversant in LCA language and understand how to evaluate an LCA which will help you  compare things you couldn’t compare before.

For example, take a brick masonry wall, it is so basic, the materials are so earthy. It lasts so long that it must be a very green structure.  But when you do an LCA on the brick masonry cladding and compare it to a material that people traditionally view as un-green, like vinyl siding, you find that the vinyl siding actually has lower impacts and is more green than brick.

By using data from the LCA’s you can actually evaluate products and apply a metric to each life cycle phase rather than going on gut feeling. You can choose to accept or deny the results but the fact is it is a real metric.  The problem is that LCA’s are complex which makes them difficult to perform and requires users of the data to be educated on how to use an LCA to understand life cycle impacts of products and materials.

To address this, the U.S Government has started a program that hopes to make these LCA’s more accessible so consumers can use them to select building materials. It’s called BEES (Building for Environmental and Economic Sustainability). This BEES program will publish the LCA’s so consumers can compare brick masonry verses vinyl verses stucco verses natural wood – you can actually make a comparison about everything that goes into the creation of these materials.

I have talked about labeling in a previous blog with regard to energy efficiency of buildings.  Labels essentially provide transparency and lead to better informed purchasing decisions. LCA’s do the same for building materials, not just for energy-efficiency, but for a variety of sustainability factors.

I see the publication of LCA’s in BEES as a way of allowing consumers and professionals in the building industry to evaluate things on a level playing field based on a set metric that is definable, quantifiable and repeatable.

Lucas Hamilton is Manager, Building Science Applications for CertainTeed Corporation