LEED v4 updates look at life cycle analysis

The update aims to better understand a building's total environmental impact
Monday, February 3, 2014
By Leah Wong

Green building certification in Canada has received an update with the release of the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design version 4 (LEED v4), which places new focus on conducting a life cycle analysis of a whole building.

The Canada Green Building Council (CaGBC) announced the availability of LEED v4 in late January. The program will officially launch at the CaGBC’s Building Lasting Change conference this June.

LEED v4 enhances the role of product and material transparency within the program, awarding credits for environmental product declarations (EPD), transparency in material ingredients, and transparency and raw material sourcing.

The three credits were added to make manufactures reconsider how their products and materials are assessed. Instead of focusing on a singular benefit of a product, such as the use of recycled content or reused material, members of the building industry will need to understand a product’s life cycle impact.

“LEED v4 presents the next generation of building rating systems with increased emphasis on energy efficiency and reducing carbon emissions, building performance and material lifecycle assessment,” says Thomas Mueller, president and CEO of the CaGBC. “Introducing Environmental Product Declarations is an important first step toward reducing environmental impacts from materials and enhancing public health.”

A life cycle analysis (LCA), also known as life cycle assessment, is a measure of sustainability that evaluates the environmental burden of a product throughout its entire life span. Sometimes referred to as a “cradle-to-grave” assessment, it compiles inventory of relevant energy and material inputs and environmental releases.

“If we want to have confidence that our sustainability choices are making a difference, we have to bring some sort of measurement into the process,” says Jennifer O’Connor, president of Athena Sustainable Materials Institute. “Life cycle assessment is a key measuring tool used by sustainability leaders in product manufacturing and in building design.”

Unlike other technologies and products that have a green label, LCA provides real performance data. O’Connor says that it evaluates how a product or building affects nature — air, land and water — throughout its entire life.

“Without LCA we don’t know the total effect of decisions in the context of a whole building over its full lifetime.  LCA gives us a much stronger foundation to understand and improve environmental footprint,” O’Connor says.

Under LEED v4, design teams will receive credit for conducting whole building life cycle analysis and by choosing products with third-party validated environmental product declarations. And LEED is not the only green certification program to recognize LCA; Green Globes has also integrated it into its credits.

Following LCA is proven to create a quantitative basis for environmentally-improved design. It deals with how a product is made, how it performs when it is in use, as well as what happens when it has been disposed of. It can also be used to compare products side-by-side, though O’Connor says that it is most valuable when used in building design to evaluate a building as a whole.

“LCA is not about choosing good products over bad, it’s about putting together a building with the best LCA performance achievable given other project objectives,” she says.

LEED v4s two credits for environmental product declarations look at the life cycle impacts associated with the manufacturing of a product, including climate change, acidification and ozone depletion potentials in a way that the industry universally understands. While an EPD is not a product rating, it does give architects and developers a way to map the environmental repercussions of a specific product they are using.

By using products with EPDs, building developers can identify its resource inputs as well as the environmental and health outputs of the material. Though they are new and still uncommon in North America, forward-thinking companies within the building industry are ahead of the curve and beginning to adopt them.

Leah Wong is the online editor of Building Strategies & Sustainability magazine.

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