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Labels for building products gain momentum

June 12, 2012

The building industry could soon label its products, indicating what they are made of and how much embodied carbon they represent.

According to the Daily Commercial News and Construction Record, the building industry may be on its way to labeling products similarly to nutrition labels, which tell shoppers what nutrients the food contains, and how much there is of each. The object is to give consumers enough information to make a wise choice.

Francesca Desmarais, director of the 2030 Challenge for Products, says that the building industry will soon label its products and list what’s in it, and how much embodied carbon that represents. The label will also provide a “global warming number” that gives the product’s total carbon footprint.

Desmarais spoke to the annual meeting of the Athena Sustainable Materials Institute Wednesday via an Internet link to the meeting in Ottawa. She outlined the progress made so far in the drive to get more sustainable building products onto the North American market, and said that, in the year-and-a-half since the challenge began, the level of acceptance from architects has been “overwhelming.”

The American Institute of Architects is firmly on board, she said, as are Canadian organizations like the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada and the Ontario Association of Architects. The 2030 Challenge for Products grew out of the 2030 Challenge, sponsored by Architecture 2030, which was established by American architect Edward Mazria in 2002.

The idea, Desmarais said, was to “transform the United States and global building sectors from being the major contributor of greenhouse gas emissions, to a central part of the solution to the climate change, energy consumption and economic crises.” The goal is simply “to achieve a dramatic reduction in emissions of greenhouse gases by the building sector by changing the way buildings and developments are planned, designed and constructed.” She led her audience through some facts and figures about the building sector’s role in climate change.

In the U.S., she said, the sector consumes nearly half of all energy produced in the country. Seventy-six per cent of all electricity produced in the U.S. is used just to operate buildings.
In Canada, she said, the percentages are only slightly lower, although the global percentages are somewhat higher. In the U.S., the building sector is responsible for nearly half of the country’s carbon dioxide emissions. Transportation accounts for about a third and industry about a fifth. Again, Canada’s figures are similar.

The mining of materials, manufacturing, transportation, construction, building use and management, and end-of-life stages of building products each generate significant emissions, she said, “so slowing the growth rate of those emissions, then reversing it is key to addressing climate change and keeping the global average temperature below 2 C above pre-industrial levels.”

That’s why, she said, the 2030 Challenge for Products was issued. It lays out some specific targets. Products for new buildings, developments, and renovations should immediately be specified to meet a maximum carbon footprint that is 30 per cent below the average for that product category. Also, that 30 per cent figure should be increased to 35 per cent or better by 2015 increasing by five per cent every five years until it reaches 50 per cent or better by 2030.

Desmarais said that means that key players in the challenge are specifiers, product manufacturers, and supporters such as the Athena Institute.

Although Athena president Jennifer O’Connor, in her remarks, called the organization “a small Canadian non-profit,” it has been influential behind the scenes in its advocacy for the concept of “life-cycle assessment,” or LCA, of the built environment. Since its start, as The Athena Project, in 1991, it has fleshed out the LCA concept, making it familiar to professionals working in the building sector. It has also developed software tools relating to construction, including Impact Estimator and EcoCalculator.

Now, Jamie Meil told the meeting, there is a new piece of software called Impact Estimator for Highways, that has just been released to the public as a beta. Meil, Athena’s managing director (and co-founder), said the new software “facilitates the LCA of various concrete and asphalt mix designs for different types of roads — arterials, collectors and freeways—from the sub-base up to the running surface.”

It allows custom roadway design, he said, or users can draw from a library of existing designs.
The software includes a large materials database and the flexibility to specify unique pavements. It allows for quick and easy comparison of multiple design options.

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