The next place to gain LEED points may be the next chair you buy.
Along with everything else in the "sustainable and green" universe, furniture is evolving to be manufactured, shipped, and recycled with less environmental impact, and the changes may ultimately save money over the entire life cycle, as well as saving resources.
But as facility managers seek information about products, it's often difficult to find the right type of information. More manufacturers are beginning to offer life-cycle assessments and environmental product declarations (EPDs) — ways that facility managers can weigh environmental and product selection criteria. It is still difficult to compare apples to apples; however, with credits in the upcoming LEEDv4 rating system expected to reward use of EPDs and life-cycle assessments (LCA), that may change soon.
A standard LCA contains every detail about a product that current science recognizes. "It's colloquially referred to as the nutrition label," says Francesca Desmarais, director of the 2030 Challenge for Products at Architecture 2030, "but instead of fat, it's the carbon footprint" — and the impacts on air, water, and soil, the recycled content, health and toxicity issues, chemical content, whether it can be recycled at the end of its useful life, and more. And instead of a few square inches on the back of a box, it's a document that can extend to more than 100 pages.
Although life-cycle assessments have been around for years, environmental product declarations (EPDs) have burst on the scene much more recently. An EPD is, in effect, an executive summary of the exhaustive LCA. "My guess is that a consumer wouldn't want to read an LCA," Desmarais says, but a facility manager may find valuable information in an EPD of five to 20 pages.
A significant difficulty is that, right now, no universal standards exist for writing EPDs, and "there are a lot of new players in the field," Desmarais says. "It's a bottom-up approach of people developing systems. It's a little messy right now." In particular, the industry currently lacks a full set of product category rules (PCRs) — the checklist by which an EPD should be written.
PCRs have been published for many products in flooring and ceilings, particularly in Europe, but furniture at the moment is still in flux, Desmarais says.
The situation is changing, however. The Business and Institutional Furniture Manufacturers Association (BIFMA) has published a PCR for seating in conjunction with the standards organization NSF International. A PCR for storage products is expected to be published this year, and other categories will follow, according to Tom Reardon, BIFMA's executive director.
If and when a product category rule is written, uniform EPDs can follow, usually paid for by the manufacturer and produced by an independent third party — often the same group that wrote the PCR. One challenge for furniture, however, is the number of different parts that go into a finished product.
Elaine Aye, a principal at Green Building Services, points out that "there could be 15 or 20 different pieces of product on a furniture system, and they come from different sources. So what are you doing the EPD on?"
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