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Materials Selection

A number of tools, guides and frameworks are available to help inform materials selection decisions.

Thousands of different materials and products are used all over buildings. Architects, designers, and construction specifiers may consider a variety of attributes when deciding which materials and products to use in building design and construction. This can include cost, product durability, performance, and aesthetics. It can also include health and environmental and sustainability impacts, such as indoor air quality, energy efficiency, carbon footprint, and more.

To help designers, architects, and builders navigate this complex territory, a number of tools, guides and frameworks are available to help inform materials selection decisions. Some of these include:

Life Cycle Approaches

A Life Cycle Assessment, or LCA, is a standardized tool or method for calculating the impact of materials. An LCA can be used to systematically evaluate multiple potential environmental impacts of a product or process throughout its lifespan. An LCA can help identify opportunities to reduce potential impacts and minimize resource usage across a product’s current life cycle, as well as to evaluate proposals for change within a product’s life cycle.

Architects can learn how to incorporate lifecycle and risk-based metrics into their materials selection processes through two LEED pilot credits:

  • The Integrative Analysis of Building Materials LEED pilot credit encourages building project teams to evaluate products and materials using available life cycle information and identify those that have positive environmental, health, and safety impacts. Building project teams must use at least three different permanently installed products with documented health, safety, and environmental impact data in five lifecycle stages: assembly/manufacturing, installation, use, maintenance, and end of life.

  • The Building Materials Human Hazard & Exposure Assessment LEED pilot credit awards credit to building project teams that incorporate products that have assessed human health-related hazard and exposure considerations in their installation and use phases. Project teams must use at least five different permanently installed products, from at least two different manufacturers, that have completed human hazard and exposure assessments and received acceptable risk scores.

Additionally, tools such as the Building for Environmental and Economic Sustainability (BEES) software developed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) provide an automated approach for measuring the life-cycle assessment, plus the environmental and economic performance of a building product.

Environmental Product Declarations

Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) communicate transparent, comparable information about the life-cycle environmental impact of a product. EPDs can help architects objectively assess key environmental impacts and, in turn, identify opportunities to improve environmental performance.

Single vs. Multiple Attribute Consideration

Different building materials have unique strengths and weaknesses. When making material selection decisions, it’s important to understand trade-offs. Substituting one material for another may affect a building’s performance, functionality, aesthetics, and cost, as well as the health of occupants and the environment.

Material Ingredient Disclosure Tools

Material Ingredient Disclosure Tools can help users evaluate chemical ingredients in a product. Common tools include manufacturer Safety Data Sheets, as well as tools developed by third-party organizations such as Declare, Health Products Declaration®, GreenScreen® and others.

Some tools include detailed information on ingredient hazard levels and concentration in the product. Others inform customers about safe handling requirements. Most disclosure tools do not provide information about the health impacts of a product through its life cycle or assess exposure risks associated with a product’s handling and use.

It is important for architects, engineers, and designers to use material ingredient disclosure tools along with, rather than in place of, other tools. Product selection decisions should consider material ingredient makeup along with environmental impacts, price, and performance, even consultation with building owners and operators for how the decision will affect cleaning and maintenance.

Risk Assessment

When looking at the safety and health impacts of a product, one must consider how building occupants might be exposed to the product in question. A product such as insulation, which is installed behind a wall without direct contact with building occupants, should be evaluated differently than the vinyl flooring that occupants walk on and have direct contact with every day.

Reports and studies that combine considerations of product hazards, relevant toxicological endpoints, and exposure of a product used for a specific application are called risk assessments. Understanding how to recognize and address potential risk is critical when considering how to balance the benefits of products with their potential health, environmental and sustainability impacts.

Learn more about chemical hazard, exposure and risk in buildings.

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Life Cycle Assessments

Life cycle assessment and management is becoming a more important part of sustainable design.
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Examples of EPDs

An Environmental Product Declaration (EPD) is an independently verified and registered document that communicates the life-cycle environmental impact of products.