Carbon is not our Enemy
EDPs Could Help Measure our Carbon Footprint
We’re starting to treat carbon as our enemy. The reality is, we are all made of carbon. Our buildings are made of carbon, and if they are built, used, maintained and recycle properly, our world can be pretty much eco-safe. It’s only when carbon breaks down, burns, or as in the case of buildings, wasted or made into unusable debris, that it becomes a toxic enemy. But how do we know what is good, not so good or is a really bad use of carbon?
One approach is to look at EPDs, Environmental Products Decorations, to study the total impact of individual materials through processing, transportation, use, recyclability and the entire lifecycle use of a product from cradle to grave.
EPDs are the international Gold Standard for determining a product carbon footprint. One could think of them similar to nutrition labels, but instead of fats and carbohydrates, EPDs list environmental impacts such as the global warming impact on ozone depletion, acidification potential, and more. In other words: what is the total carbon footprint.
Wow....that’s over my head, as well as Einstein’s. Let’s simplify. EPDs is a method to address future global warming potential, resources use such as water, sustainability, energy used for its production and, as importantly, debris recycling.
Some manufacturers are using EPDs for their products, but it is critical that many other industries jump in for the economies of scale, sustainability and reduced transport costs.
Let’s take wood. It can be locally sourced, has a high recycling advantage and low embodied carbon, compared to coal or oil, but it has a high atmospheric destructive level when burned or inappropriately processed. We should be composting and recycling wood leftovers, but then, it’s hard to give up our wood burning fireplaces and pizzas.
We don’t like to admit it, but science shows that plastic products, made from petroleum, have a lower total environmental impact when considering their processing, transportation and light weight. In no way do I excuse the world-wide use and misuse of plastic. It’s the lack of a universal recycling strategy that’s the “enemy” since the World treats plastic like toilet paper: easily accessible, dispensable and not their problem.
Where and how we use our raw materials is crucial when we consider that some sources may be depleted in our lifetimes. For example, sourcing wood responsibly is especially critical, and the most trusted certification system is the Forest Stewardship Council or FSC. The FSC certifies responsible forest management including keeping our wood hunger from endangering the land from which it is harvested. When seeking renewable materials, rapidly renewable products made from bamboo, cork, hemp, recycled wood or agri-boards are other great options.
Using EPDs demonstrates the carbon footprint strengths and weaknesses while giving us a voice in the eco-design of our buildings, and ultimately our lives. Unfortunately, there isn’t an easy grading system; A+ to F-. But here are some key issues to consider in your product choices:
Procurement process: how was raw and processed ingredients obtained?
Embodied carbon content
Transportation distances and procedures
Supply Chain of Custody: how many actions have added to the product?
Is there Independent third-party verification?
Date of research: must have updating process
Life-Cycle Assessment that is easy to understand
Too much, you say? Yes, it can be overwhelming, but think simple and look out for Green-washed marketing. Too many ingredients can be a red flag.
The Future of Construction?
Wood is Man’s oldest and most resilient construction material, shielding civilization from Sun, wind, rain and marauding enemies. It remains vulnerable to all these agents, so is there a treatment that could make wood last like the stones of the Pyramids?
An interesting response is Atmospheric Wood, a surface treatment of the union of three elements–wood, photosensitive powders and liquids, and natural UV light. From the reaction of these ingredients, a soft, surface protective coating is imprinted on the wood that could be a long-term preservative. The look is a blue hue, familiar to architects as “Blueprints”, an historic ammonia and treated paper process for copying drawings. We’ll see where this goes.
Lastly, I’m waiting for someone to figure out how to economically recycle plastics into construction studs and more building product. Currently the cost is too high, but we recycle newspapers into fire-proof insulation: why not wall studs from plastic bottles?
Chris d Craiker AIA/NCARB: Chris still uses a pencil but don’t call the drawings “Blueprints”.