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Insights

HOW WE CHOOSE MATERIALS AND PRODUCTS FOR OUR PROJECTS

JUNE 2023

Estimates suggest the building and construction industry is responsible for 39% of global emissions. At a time when climate change has become a climate emergency, the sector we are part of has a clear responsibility to play its part to ensure that it minimises its impact on people and the environment. There is a lot of greenwashing out there as manufacturers fight to stay relevant in changing times. In response, various systems of measurement and accreditations have popped up from EPD's to C2C, as well as terminology such as Sustainable, Recycled Content, Carbon Negative, Embodied Carbon, Net Zero, Low VOC content, socially responsible .... it's certainly a lot to navigate. With no current regulation or standard to adhere to from Government in the UK; what do we look at when reviewing suitable products and materials to specify?

We aim to use products which demonstrate the highest standards in:

  • Emissions minimisation - such as low C02e value, or net zero with offsetting.

  • Material / product circularity - how can this be reused, repurposed after this use?

  • Sustainable materials sourcing- is this a renewable resource?

  • Quality and longevity - does it meet or exceed the demands of its intended use?

  • Social wellness -  how does this product choice impact the local and global community?

  • Minimal use of toxic chemicals.

And which are:

  • Affordable, Attractive, Available.

In addition to our own research, we work with specialists in sustainable product sourcing that are reviewing products on a case-by-case basis, and understand that accreditation, although ideal, can be expensive and inaccessible for small businesses. In this way we are able to confidently support innovative new businesses that are driving the circularity agenda.

PRODUCT & COMPANY CERTIFICATIONS / ACCREDITATIONS

Before we look at these, its worth holding in mind that these are not "either or", many of these hold different purposes which we explore a little.

cradle-to-cradle-certified-vector-logo.png

CRADLE TO CRADLE INNOVATION INSTITUTE CERTIFIED

For us this is the gold star standard, or should that be Platinum?

"Cradle to Cradle Certified® is the leading multi-attribute standard used globally across industries by designers, brands and manufacturers for designing and making products that enable a healthy, equitable and sustainable future".

It provides the framework to assess the safety, circularity and responsibility of materials and products across five categories of sustainability performance:

  1. Material Health,

  2. Product Circularity,

  3. Clean Air & Climate Protection,

  4. Water & Soil Stewardship and

  5. Social Fairness.

https://c2ccertified.org/the-standard

Because this model looks at the holistic health of our planet in every aspect and on a product specific, rather than company level, this is our preferred certification, but it doesn't cover everything it possibly could currently. And where certification such as FSC is applicable for timber products as an industry specific standard, there isn't the motivation from suppliers to additionally be C2C certified.

 

B CORPORATION CERTIFIED (B CORP)

B Corp is in simple terms a network of certified companies transforming the global economy to benefit all people, communities, and the planet.

Certified companies meet high standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency through rigorous assessment, typically a process that takes over a year.

Their assessment arm; B Lab "creates standards, policies, tools, and programs that shift the behaviour, culture, and structural underpinnings of capitalism by harnessing the power of business".  

Its unique in that it's global, cross-sector, consumer-facing and B2B-facing.

As a network of companies they are shifting the global economy from a system that profits few to one that benefits all: advancing a new model that moves from concentrated wealth and power to equity; from extraction to generation, and from prioritising individualism to embracing interdependence.

This system looks at everything from paying a living wage, to feedback systems, to cleaning products used by a company and generally takes around a year.

That sounds pretty good to us and we will start to work towards our own certification in time.

LOCAL SUPPLIERS

Local craftsmen is great where skill level matches the requirement; but when using local materials but we have to interrogate the appropriateness and durability of it compared with the alternatives. Sometimes the local choice is European rather than Asian or American where we cannot source within the UK.

ENVIRONMENTAL PRODUCT DECLARATION (EPD'S) & LIFECYCLE ASSESSMENTS (LCA'S)

In response to the climate emergency, much of the focus has been on carbon, and EPD's are data sheets that record the carbon in C02e measurement. It's based on the ISO 14025 standard and the scientific footprinting method Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). In short, they allow designers to easily compare similar products on carbon only basis.

They're increasingly widely provided as they provide the data needed by assessors using the LEED and BREEAM assessments, more on that later.

However. EPD's ignore water use, aquatic eutrophication, depletion of minerals and metals, so whilst they have a value and its a move in the right direction, selecting a low carbon option could simultaneously be polluting eco systems and using unethical practices in the workforce and local communities for example that other certification models consider.

Finally, the presence of a EPD alone is not a signal that it is a "good" product to use, its simply a record of its calculated carbon lifecycle in kgCo2 equivalent based on fossil fuels, biogenic, land use and land change.

CERTIFICATION SYSTEMS

There are 4 core paid for certification models available in the UK. Whilst none are legally currently required, they provide a fixed outcome for clients that acknowledges a standard has been reached, which can be particularly useful for stakeholders. Generally, it’s best to look into each accreditation system to decide which best aligns with your requirements, ambitions and project specifics, to determine the right path for your development.

BREEAM (Building Research Establishment's Environmental Assessment Method)

The original assessment tool for green buildings. Most applicable to our clients would be the BREEAM UK Non-Domestic Refurbishment and Fit-Out (RFO) certification.

In this assessment "Sustainable Value" is measured in a series of 10 categories with different weightings:

  1. Management

  2. Health & Wellbeing

  3. Energy

  4. Transport

  5. Water

  6. Materials

  7. Waste

  8. Land Use and Ecology

  9. Pollution

  10. Innovation

The rating is not a pass or fail, but a rating of "good" to 6 stars "outstanding". A BREEAM Assessor assesses the project and submits their assessment to the certification body (BRE) for a decision.

Critics say it has a slightly narrow perspective, ignoring finishes such as paint for example, choosing to focus on the more structural aspects, as well as ignoring demolition waste. However, points are awarded for reusing materials and furniture.

It has higher fees for certification than LEED due to the requirement for an assessor. It does provides a interim certificate at the design stage however which is helpful for some investors and stakeholders.

LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environment Design)- a US based certification for "green buildings", popular in countries other than the UK. It provides a framework for healthy, efficient, carbon and cost-saving green buildings.

Projects pursuing LEED certification earn points for various green building strategies across 5 categories:

  1. Sustainable Sites

  2. Water Efficiency

  3. Energy and Atmosphere

  4. Materials and Resources

  5. Indoor Environmental Quality.

Points are earned by gaining credits for things like: 

  • Responsible sourcing of raw materials

  • Providing individual thermal comfort controls for at least 50% of individual occupant spaces

  • Providing outdoor space greater than or equal to 30% of the total site area

There is no requirement for an assessor, the design team compile the documentation to submit for assessment.

Ratings are Certified, Silver, Gold, Platinum.

SKA- SKA is from RICS, developed with the input of designers, contractors, corporate occupiers, managing agents and consultants.

It's the only tool that measures only what is within the specific project scope.

It comprises more than a hundred 'good practice measures' (GPMs) covering energy and CO2 emissions, waste, water, materials, pollution, wellbeing and transport. A couple of examples of good practice measures are that when wooden flooring is stripped out, it should be sent for re-use to a salvage yard instead of to landfill, and at least 70% of materials must be supplied with an EPD or Cradle to Cradle certificate.

It's particularly geared towards non domestic refits such as workspace and retail. An assessor identifies GPMs and works with project teams in 8 categories:

  • Energy

  • CO2

  • Waste

  • Water

  • Pollution

  • Transport

  • Materials

  • Wellbeing

The assessment process involves identifying measures in scope, gathering evidence to prove that what had been specified has been delivered and that performance and waste benchmarks have been achieved.

 

Projects are awarded either a Bronze, Silver or Gold SKA rating, plus a percentage score.

WELL - WELL applies the science of physical and social environments to benefit of human health, wellbeing and performance for a buildings occupants.

A projects environmental impact is likely to reduce by designing to this certification due to the link between human health and that of nature; but it is a bi-product and not the goal.

It can be easily combined in terms of documentation with BREEAM which focuses more on the environmental side. You may be forced to prioritise if energy use or health is more important as some aspects such as ventilation will have conflicting messages.

The certification involves a number of standard measures that must be met, followed by optional criteria for additional points scoring.

As an example, it requires documentation for finishes to have low VOC levels to reduce human exposure to chemicals, and beyond that of other certifications it requires on-site measurements taken for various air and water quality parameters, as well as sound and light levels to ensure it performs to the WELL requirements.

An onsite agent will validate the buildings documentation and tests to provide certification.

A pre-certification is possible under WELL as with BREEAM, beneficial for some investors and stakeholders.

WELL certification projects earn points based on performance outcomes against the concepts, and can achieve one of four certification levels: Bronze, Silver, Gold or Platinum.

DIGITAL PRODUCT PASSPORTS

The EU has plans for Digital Product Passports that will enable construction materials and products to be tracked through their lifecycle with information on reuse, repair, as well as a declaration on performance and conformity. This may or may not be adopted by the UK government. It also doesn't help filter out the short lifecycle or toxic items. This will take some time to come into its full usefulness, and doesn't consider everything we have created to date.

The truth is progress to circular, regenerative products is slow and certifications can be lengthy and cost intensive for businesses to achieve. For smaller businesses in particular

, so we still have to keep an open mind and sift through options.

 as well as not having the backing of government or industry bodies like RIBA, SBID or BIID. For now we do our best with the information we can access. It takes

BESPOKE ITEMS

Within the process we often design a series of bespoke items, from bar counters to toilet cubicle systems and furniture. Here we will look at off site manufacture for efficiency of all resources.As well as design for disassembly.

We embrace where possible approaches such as Kintsugi; the general concept of highlighting or emphasising imperfections such as knots in wood, or the layer history of finishes on sites that become part of their unique character where appropriate.

WASTE DISPOSAL

Often with refurbishments there will be a certain amount of waste removed from site. Increasingly manufacturers of carpets, wood flooring, textiles, paint to name a few are geared up with recycling facilities that can divert these "waste materials" away from the skip and straight back into new materials. At the moment this is something that requires specific intervention from all parties, and behaviour change in the  construction industry to implement. End of use programmes where furniture is bought back or otherwise re-introduced into the supply chain, e.g. through remanufacturing, can help businesses dispose of their surplus furniture in socially, economically and environmentally responsible ways.

Others are using the offcuts and over-orders from the production process, such as Haines Collection that resells as a % of the original that has a chance to be used rather than recycled.

 

FORESIGHT & INTEGRITY

When budgets run over at the end of the project, its always the furniture and fixtures that get squeezed, leading designers to look at the cheapest option, not the right option. i.e the balance of People, Planet and Profit is compromised.

We're moving into a era where disposability of cheap, aesthetic driven products should be in the past. We must consider FF&E items, and even timber flooring as an investment, that will return (financial) dividends in the long run and can be moved from site to site and reused, resold just as antique furniture is. Investing in quality products means they will last and hold a residual resale value for far longer than the option that meets the impossible budget constraint.

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