Sustainability in design

Consideration for both human and environmental health are at the fore yet buildings still account for more than 25 percent of Australia’s emissions, not to mention the significant impacts of overseas construction material manufacturing. We have one of the highest population growth rates anywhere in the developed world, but our emissions targets are 26-28% lower than 2005 levels. How do we continue to build more buildings while reducing our environmental footprint so significantly? We explore this topic with CEO and Program Director of Global GreenTag International Pty Ltd, David Baggs.

What building materials generally have the biggest impact on our environment? 

The materials with the biggest impacts are aluminium, stainless steel, rare metals like zinc, lead and titanium, but in terms of the most used it would be concrete and steel. This is largely because of the high volumes and large masses used. They are high durability structural materials and are the most commonly used for this reason, but both come with large climate impacts even when their differential recyclability is taken into account. Steel’s long term recyclability is a long term benefit, but it still generates large, short term climate impacts and when we have such a short (5-10 years only) to turn climate impacts around to zero, these short term impacts are important and can no longer be ignored.

Timber is another structural material with potentially large impacts. It’s often touted that timber is good because it’s a carbon sink that mitigates climate impacts, and while that is true to varying degrees, that said, timber's impacts are dichotomous. It's impacts can be substantially negative if sourced from remnant native forests or rainforest in particular, as it comes with massive land-based and aquatic biodiversity loss, topsoil and soil-carbon loss together with siltation of rivers, creeks and streams,. Some of these land and aquatic impacts apply to even poorly managed plantations, but at least with properly managed plantation timber, the biodiversity loss aspects are not so severe and plantation timber does bring climate-braking benefits into play, making it a preferred structural material under specific circumstances. 

If renewable energy is used to manufacturer these materials, their climate and other coal-fired energy based chemical pollution impacts are mitigated, but the other environmental and biodiversity impacts are not.

What can designers and architects do to lessen our impact on the environment?

Firstly re-using buildings and materials that have already been used previously should be a core target, Then the next best thing designers and architects can do is to seek out products that make appropriate information available on the life cycle impacts of products and choose products that have the lowest climate and other impacts. Then they need to detail and use these products so that they are able to be re-used or refurbished once that building has come to its end of life phase. That said, architecture and design is hard enough as it is without every building professional needing to become a life cycle or toxicology expert to understand obscure technical data. That’s why Global GreenTag does all that deep technical analysis and provides sustainability metrics and reporting in a variety of ways and on specific topics that make it easily accessible and understandable at whatever level it is needed by different members of the design team, for consultants, designers, builders and even the life cycle assessment experts.

What questions should specifiers ask about products that would help them to do this?

It depends on why they need the information. If the project is wanting to be more sustainable in general terms, they may want to ask suppliers for overall third party or recognised independent sustainability certification, so that they can present and discuss this with clients, help make decisions and enable them to trust the research is done scientifically and is therefore robust. This speeds up the selection process and mitigates their professional risk. 

On the other hand, if the project is using one of the established green or healthy building rating tools used in Australia, like Green Star®, WELL, LEED® or EarthCheck®, then they need to focus on the credits or features within those tools that the projects want to achieve.

The credits in Green Star®, require specific materials centric certifications and/or declarations relative to each credit:

  1. Indoor Pollutants: requires Volatile Organic Compound certification of paints, adhesives, sealants, carpets and engineered wood;
  2. Comparative Life Cycle Assessment: project requires a summary Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) data report in the form of an Environmental Product Declaration (EPD);
  3. Responsible Materials: the Best Environmental Practice PVC (BEP PVC) credit requires independent BEP PVC Certification by a recognised third party certification body;
  4. Sustainable Products: this credit requires Sustainable Product Certification by a recognised third party certification body to Level A, B or C (100%, 75% and 50% of the credit points respectively).

The credits in The International WELL™ Building Standard (WELL™) requires specific materials toxicity transparency declarations for each credit in the form of a Transparency Declaration covering a range of potential ingredients and hazards including:

  1. Feature X01   Fundamental Material Precautions; certified elimination of asbestos, lead, PCBs and mercury in products;
  2. Feature X08   Hazardous Material Reduction
  • PART 1: Limit Hazardous Materials; 
  1. Feature X10   Volatile Compound Reduction:
  • PART 1: involves management of short term emissions of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) from products;
  • PART 2: involves management of short term emissions of Semi-Volatile Organic Compounds (SVOCs) from products;
  1. Feature X11   Long-Term Emission Control; of Furniture, Furnishing, Flooring and Insulation;
  2. Feature X12   Short Term Emission Control; of Adhesives, Sealants, Paints and Coatings;
  3. Feature X13   Enhanced Material Precaution; involves selection of chemical hazard ingredient optimised materials;
  4. Feature X14   Material Transparency; is designed to promote chemical hazards of Ingredient Disclosure reporting;

The credits in LEED® rating tool (like WELL™, a USA based tool also used in Australia and more than 166 other countries) requires specific materials toxicity centric transparency declarations for each credit:

The US Green Building Council’s LEED v4 Rating Tools’ Materials and Resources credits include:

    1. Building product disclosure and optimization - environmental product declarations (EPDs), requires a summary Life Cycle Analysis report based on specific ISO or EN standards compliant reporting;
  • Building product disclosure and optimization - material ingredients
    • Option 1. Material ingredient reporting: Materials ingredient hazards transparency reporting to 1000ppm of the product;
    • Option 2. Material ingredient optimization; Exclusion of certain hazardous materials ingredients and transparency reporting to 100ppm of the product;

    ‘IS’ (Infrastructure Sustainability) Rating Tool (ISCA)

    Currently the $100 Billion worth of projects registered under the IS rating tool is amazing. While you wouldn’t on face value expect it, this rating tool engages buildings and finished flooring in projects involving offices, retail precincts, toilets and facilities, railway stations and interchange platforms etc.

    1. Mat-1 Materials lifecycle impact measurement and reduction; this credit is designed to reward design and practice that reduces lifecycle environmental impacts of materials, this credit recognised EPDs;
    2. Mat-2 Environmentally labelled products and supply chains. This credit is designed to reward procurement of major materials that have environmental labels or are from sustainable supply chains.

    Are there any tools available to help specifiers choose more sustainable products?

    Yes of course, Global GreenTag has certification and declaration services for every product related credit or feature that are recognised and/or compliant with the various Green or WELL Building rating tool organisations. How GreenTag’s specific services relate to the various rating tool credit or features is shown below:

    GreenTag GreenRate™

      1. Green Star®: VOCs and Sustainable Products Credit;
      2. WELL™: Feature X10   Volatile Compound Reduction: PART 1:
  • IS Rating Tool:  Mat-2 Environmentally labelled products and supply chains.
  • GreenTag LCARate™

      1. WELL™: Feature X10   Volatile Compound Reduction: PART 1:
  • IS Rating Tool:  Mat-2 Environmentally labelled products and supply chains.
  • GreenTag Product Health Declaration (PhD)

    1. WELL™: Feature X01   Fundamental Material Precautions; 
    • Feature X08   Hazardous Material Reduction; PART 1; 
    • Feature X10   Volatile Compound Reduction: PART 1;
    1. Feature X11   Long-Term Emission Control; Furniture, Furnishing, Flooring and Insulation;
    2. Feature X12   Short Term Emission Control; Adhesives, Sealants, Paints and Coatings;
    3. Feature X13   Enhanced Material Precaution; 
    4. Feature X14   Material Transparency.

    GreenTag Environmental Product Declaration (EPD)

      1. Green Star®: Comparative Life Cycle Assessment: (EPD);
  • IS Rating Tool:  Mat-1 Materials lifecycle impact measurement and reduction (EPD);
  • LEED®:  Building product disclosure and optimization - EPD

  • There are so many marketing terms used that suggest products are better for the environment than competitors, how do I know what to trust?

    There is really only one way to trust claims by manufacturers, and that is to have them validated by an independent third party. This validation can come is various forms. The highest order validation is certification, usually in the form of an ecolabel, or specific test report or assessment certificate against a specific recognised standard or methodology. Examples of these are labels like FSC, FairTrade, Certified Organic or any of Global GreenTag’s services mentioned above, i.e., GreenRate™, LCARate™, GreenTag PhD or EPD. Other GreenTag Certifications are their HealthRATE™ and CarbonRATE™ services. 

    The next level order of assessment is ‘Verification’. This is where claims made by manufacturers is independently checked by a third party, but there may not be a recognised standard against which to certify. Some manufacturers will make assertions claimed to be ‘in accordance with ISO 14021-Self Declared Environmental Declarations’ which can then be verified and certified as compliant with ISO 14021. 

    What is a products replacement frequency and how does it impact the environment?

    The replacement frequency of a product is the result of the length of its life cycle. In other words, how often a product wears out or reaches the end of its serviceable life and needs replacing. The impact of a short replacement frequency is significantly larger than the initial installation, due to the complexity of removal and re-installation of the product in place. 

    These issues include re-manufacturer and transporting the new goods, gaining access and removal of the old surface, making good of surrounding finishes, transport of all materials and reprocessing of the waste and removal of any temporary works, not to mention the disruption to any tenant or occupant of the area or the business itself.

    Ideally, a designer or owner would make their product choices based on long- lived, highly durable products, where characteristics like slip or fire resistance, don’t disappear in the first flush of use as with many supposedly ‘slip resistant’ flooring products or fire-resistant cladding products.

    What is LCA centric design?

    LCA is short for Life cycle assessment. It is the study of the lifetime impact of a product or building that includes all impacts and all life stages and quantifies the impacts of all raw materials, ingredients, components, processes, transport types, packaging, maintenance, cleaning and end of life impacts. 

    The aim of LCA centric design is to use products and design outcomes that identify and reduce the aggregate life cycle impacts of both products and the projects they build up to create.

    The ‘currency’ of LCA centric design are products that have their LCA data summarised in an a standardised format called an Environmental Product Declaration (EPD). Rating Tools like Green Star and LEED have LCA impact reducing credits that call for or require EPDs to enable the projects to do their LCA calculations.

    What is Global GreenTag and what does it offer specifiers?

    Global GreenTag is an ACCC approved Certification Mark, Health Declaration and EPD Program Operator recognised formally, by all Australian and most international, Green and Healthy Building Certifications systems. 

    GreenTag has a certification solution for all locally used rating tools and their product related evidence needs. GreenTag does all the heavy lifting for designers and procurement professionals to enable the quick, easy and efficient (low risk) selection of products that meet the credits or features and deliver the points the rating systems demand, or indeed provides the ‘HealthRATE- healthy in use’ rating that is designed to show consumers and end users that a products can be trusted to deliver a healthy outcome in their home or business. All GreenTag Certified products and their current certifications, declarations or verifications can be found at

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