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Chemistry, Materials & Packaging
Digitization, Data Driving the Quest to Decarbonize Building Materials

Shaw’s Kellie Ballew spoke with Stacy Smedley, executive director of Building Transparency, about the organization’s role in decarbonizing the construction industry.

As 2023 comes to a close, Shaw Industries chief sustainability and innovation officer Kellie Ballew sat down with Stacy Smedley, executive director of Building Transparency — whose mission is to provide the open-access data and tools necessary to enable the broad, swift action necessary for the building industry to address embodied carbon's role in climate change.

Stacy, reducing the environmental footprint of building materials is certainly a key part of creating a better future for people and the planet. Can you provide an overview of Building Transparency’s role in this space?

Stacy Smedley: Building Transparency is a nonprofit organization. We work globally to provide free, open-access tools and data to reduce embodied carbon emissions of construction materials. One of our key goals is to provide data and mechanisms for manufacturers to inform customers and to decarbonize their products.

That’s a significant and important undertaking — and often a complex process.

SS: Exactly. I always say that embodied carbon accounting is like an onion: There are layers to it and our eyes water as we peel back the layers. There's a lot of details to consider; but we need to get actionable data into the hands of the decision makers as it pertains to these products, whether it's procurement professionals or designers or manufacturers. Some of our key areas of focus are to:

  • Support program operators and life cycle assessment (LCA) practitioners that want to go digital in the generation and verification of the data.

  • Work with other NGO partners and stakeholders to create education and technical assistance programs.

Shaw introduced its first Environmental Product Declaration (EPD) more than a decade ago now. In that time, we’ve seen the shift from customers asking, ‘Do you have an EPD?’ to more closely evaluating and comparing the information product by product. What role do EPDs play in the current market landscape from your perspective?

SS: When you think about EPDs, they are similar to nutrition labels:

  • On a box of cereal, you have a gram of carbohydrates per unit or per serving size of that cereal. If you're on a low-carb diet, you look at the grams of carbohydrates on different cereals and pick the one with the lowest carbs.

  • The same is true with EPDs and the information they give you for environmental impacts. For instance, you can look at two or three different concretes that meet your requirements and you can procure the one with the lowest CO2e per cubic yard of concrete for your project.

EPDs have enabled this to be done in a way that sets up consistent rules for manufacturers to follow within a category and have third-party verification. This way purchasers can leverage the information and use it to make decisions. EPDs essentially let us put the construction sector on a low-carbon diet.

Great analogy. Where would you say the most progress has been made in reducing carbon footprints in construction materials?

SS: If you think about a building, there's all sorts of materials and products that go into that building. Looking at high-impact materials, you could start with a couple of different “buckets.”

On the structural side, cement, concrete and steel are high carbon emitters — together, they account for upwards of 10 percent of global emissions. And there has been some good progress made in those areas. For example, there's been a model set up for concrete that enables on-demand EPDs. So, it’s simple, efficient and more cost-effective for concrete suppliers.

  • For every mix that a concrete supplier is producing, they input the amounts of each ingredient for the mix they're making right at that moment and can click a button to get the environmental impact data for each mix.

  • The supplier can then generate EPDs for those mixes at the time of procurement. Then, when they actually make the concrete, they can verify again and generate an EPD for what they make six months later. We've made a lot of progress in just getting to that level of specificity and accuracy for concretes.

And we are now seeing it applied to more categories. Companies are developing EPD generators for asphalt, glass, steel and interior materials.

A lot of good work has also been done with carpet. As you know, it was one of the first nine categories that we published in the Embodied Carbon in Construction Calculator (EC3) because of the amount of data available and the number of manufacturers that are working on it.

On the flip side, are there sectors in the building and construction industry where you're seeing challenges?

SS: Every material has lots of different components and processes that have to be understood and often require engaging with multiple layers of the supply chain. The challenge is gathering all that data and then trying to figure out the hotspots and how to reduce the environmental impacts.

The importance of engaging, disclosing and conducting LCAs can’t be understated:

  • LCAs provide perspective on the environmental impacts and help manufacturers make products better.

  • This process allows manufacturers to gain credit and credibility, and stay competitive via third-party-verified EPD generation based on their LCA results.

This is why we need more LCA professionals. It’s all about education, training and finding people that love math and methodology.

Let’s shift gears a little bit, and touch on funding and your thoughts on the next frontier for the organization.

SS: I'm excited about policy funding. One example is at the US federal level with the Inflation Reduction Act, where we have funding and grants available from the Environmental Protection Agency.

We have proven that going digital and providing data that moves between platforms and databases is important. And that’s at the core of what Building Transparency does — take in this data, put it in a standard format, and provide it for free to the world.

We're going to continue to do this and prioritize and support those that are creating the data and verifying it to go digital first. We are happy that we have 180,000 EPDs in our EC3 tool, but there are hundreds of thousands more needed. We need all products represented and we will get there if we work as an ecosystem across the data and the tools.

Our goal is also to support the creation of harmonized product category rules for manufacturers to comply with in North America, Europe and Asia. We are trying to provide better standards that are more aligned to make it easier for manufacturers to comply.

What are you optimistic about in 2024?

SS: Great question. Funding and more participants in this embodied-carbon ecosystem. I am also excited to see the progression of work in EPDs and EC3.

  • Funding will accelerate this work and attract more players to produce EPDs.

  • EPDs will benefit consumers who prioritize the environment when choosing goods or services.

  • Growth and acceptance of the EC3 database will lower carbon in construction.

Thank you, Stacy. I hear two key takeaways, both of which I wholeheartedly agree with: One, we need to provide decision-makers with actionable data; and two, there is a demand for more LCA practitioners.

Taking a holistic view of product and company impact on people and the planet — including environmental impact, as well as material health and social fairness — are how we can all sustain[HUMAN]ability®.