Don’t “think”, “know” the truth about product EPD labels

We recently had the privilege of assisting one of Australia’s preeminent interior architecture teams evaluate one of their latest interior designs. The bar / restaurant is located in the Barangaroo South precinct. There are many design requirements to support world class sustainability, for tenants and their designers to adhere to, including embodied carbon and recycled material content.

The design team has an inspiring sustainability ethos and spent quite some time searching for products to meet the brief and the sustainability goals. They chose the path of Environmental Product Declarations (EPD’s) as a key “gate” for material selection. The interior design is stunning and reflects a sleek vernacular which is super on trend today. They were excited to have our debrief of their designs performance.

Woodwool (or excelsior) was selected as a key design feature. Acoustic, aesthetic and textural – it is a popular choice for food retail today. The product selected had an EPD under the International EPD program. The product declaration stating “FSC” wood sources as a feature. The design team believed this product, by way of its EPD status, would provide sustainability advantage over a typical ceiling. Woodwool is impregnated with pure Portland cement and “baked” to give it stiffness, durability and fire resistant properties. However, over half the mass of each square meter of 50mm product is cement. The resultant embodied carbon footprint of the product “fixed in place” is three times greater than a traditional virgin acoustic plasterboard ceiling.

The design team were both shocked and disappointed. They thought the EPD would deliver environmental preference, but it highlights the problem with labels and ratings or schemes which simply give “points” for EPD labels. To be truly informative, materials need to be presented together or in the context of a performance benchmark to inform choice and raise awareness of which material or assembly has a lower carbon content. This is the core rationale behind The GreenBook – to provide information accessibility to all materials in an open, transparent and unbiased manner to engage and inform designers on the environmentally preferable options.

In the end, the design team made some materials changes and recycled content selections guided by us, which meant the overall result for the tenancy was an embodied carbon footprint in the top 25% of the benchmark for food retail. A great result – but could have been even better!

With construction materials production responsible for 50% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions it is crucial that every designer delivers low carbon design excellence. If every new square meter of building, interior and infrastructure was just 20% less carbon footprint intense, we would fast track the delivery of Paris Agreement targets – and save money in the process.

The Footprint Company are low carbon design experts and product The GreenBook and on-line whole building LCA software tools specifically for architects and designers.