Q&A with the USGBC’s Brendan Owens
The stage is set for designers and manufacturers to talk about product content and material disclosure like never before.
I recently talked with Brendan Owens, vice president of LEED technical development for the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), about how the LEED rating system is helping to drive that discussion. Here's an excerpt from our discussion:
Healthcare Design: How has LEED evolved from looking at single attributes (such as recycled content) to a multi-attribute assessment system?
Brendan Owens: When LEED launched in 2002, it was the first time building designers and specifiers were asked to do anything other than look at form, color, durability, and those types of things. LEED started encouraging more assessment, whether it was VOC content or recycled content, or whether or not a material was rapidly renewable. Those parameters started to influence design decisions.
After 13 years, LEED has brought a level of awareness to the design industry about the importance of the outcomes that we were encouraging people to look for. Recycled content is great, but it’s a means to an end. The end that we’re looking for is reduced greenhouse gas emissions associated with manufacturing, reduced use of virgin materials, reduced transport, all those things.
The way that people engaged with previous versions of LEED set a stage that allowed us to take the next step, which is multi-attribute assessments across several different dimensions of product evaluation. People are ready for the conversation now in a way that they wouldn’t have been 10 years ago.
Looking at LEED v4, what are some of the credits designers should be aware of?
There are six points tied to whole-building life cycle assessment (LCA), which is incentivizing the reuse of existing buildings as well as the optimization of new materials and new buildings.
The challenge is that an LCA in and of itself is an incomplete analysis tool; it doesn’t do a good job at assessing the human health impact associated with materials choices or with adequately representing the impact associated with raw materials extraction from an ecosystem perspective.
We’ve added two credits that directly address those blind spots in the rating system, and then we’ve added a third that is more on a product level for LCA-based thinking.
How do health product declarations play a role in LEED now?
The three things you can get credit for other than whole-building assessment on the specification side have to do with environmental product declarations (EPDs), health product declarations (HPDs), and raw materials sourcing declarations.
Those are foundational, and each credit has two parts. The first part is solely about encouraging project teams to specify materials from product manufacturers that have engaged in some type of transparency or disclosure activity—that’s your EPD, HPD, and raw materials origin information.
The second half of each of those credits is awarded to project teams that actually do something with that information. They make comparative assessments between “Product A” and “Product B,” and they justify the decision they’ve made by demonstrating that the environmental or health or ecosystems impacts associated with the decision that they made are optimized in some way.
How do you think this push for materials transparency with HPDs and EPDs will transform healthcare design?
The disclosure activity is going to enable designers and specifiers to separate the leadership organizations from the laggards in the industry. The other thing that’s going to be enabled by the disclosure of this information is a much more informed level of decision making.
Once you get past durability, color, or the other traditional parameters around which designers are selecting materials, there will an opportunity to be more discerning about material ingredient profiles.
So if you want to eliminate materials that have a specific persistent bioaccumulative toxin (PBT) in them, the transparency information will enable you to do that.
That’s great because it allows designers to send a market signal back up the supply chain to say, “This is what we prefer. Do more of this type of stuff.”
For those just entering the product disclosure conversation, what’s one thing you’d want them to know?
I’d start by saying that we’re at the start of this journey in a lot of ways, but it doesn’t have to be as daunting as it might seem. It’s complicated for sure, but we’ve gone to great lengths in the LEED rating system to define actionable steps that they can take that will get them a long way toward the ultimate goal.
We’re not looking to turn architects into chemists or epidemiologists. We’ve identified programs [like HPDs] that were built by those folks that enable them to make better decisions as a result.
For more on product declarations and the healthcare industry, check out the article "The ABCs of Building Product Transparency."