What is an EPD?

The abbreviation EPD is derived from the English term Environmental Product Declaration and is usually translated into German as Umwelt-Produktdeklaration.

An EPD is a document in which the environmentally-relevant properties of a product are outlined in the form of neutral and objective data. This data covers as many impacts as possible which the product can have on its environment, whereby in an ideal situation, the entire life cycle of the product is taken into consideration.

In the area of construction, EPDs represent an essential basis for experts such as architects and planners when it comes to the comprehensive planning and evaluation of buildings. But EPDs are not usually suitable for direct comparisons of products as the degree of environmental friendliness, conservation of resources or sustainability displayed by a construction product is largely dependent on the (building) context in which it is used.

We have compiled a few examples and more detailed information for you as follows:

Just how environmentally-friendly, resource-saving or sustainable certain products or materials are is also largely dependent on the buildings in which they are installed and/or used. Example: An igloo is typically built by hand using a single construction material: snow – an environmentally-friendly, natural product which can be recycled in full. From this perspective, snow as a building material and the actual igloo building are sustainable – ecologically.

However, this is not universally applicable but only under certain conditions. After all, if you wished to build an igloo in our climate zone or even in the tropics where there is little or no snow, the snow would have to be produced or imported at great energy expenditure. What’s more, the igloo would melt after only a short period of time if it was not cooled or permanently replaced.

It goes without saying that this is a very simplified example but it does illustrate why construction products are not end products and that the influence they have on the environment is largely dependent on how, where and what they are used for. For this reason, construction products which initially appear environmentally friendly are by no means a guarantee of sustainability. And that is why we have EPDs. They contain the data required for calculating and evaluating environmental influences in specific cases.

Our first video explains these contexts in more detail.

EPDs do not simply contain random estimates or arbitrary numbers. They are based on life cycle assessments of construction products. A life cycle assessment summarises and analyses the environmental impacts of a certain product across its life cycle, from the provision of raw materials to the finished product ready for installation. Processes and factors associated with the product are also taken into consideration, e.g. packaging and transport. Increasingly, other phases of the life cycle are also considered, e.g. use phase, recycling, reuse and disposal.

One particularly important feature of life cycle assessments is the fact that they do not deliver a single parameter or assessment but rather individually depict a variety of different environmental influences. For example, apart from greenhouse gas emissions, other influencing factors such as acid rain, smog formation, consumption of fossil resources and water or recycling percentages are also considered. All of this information is included in EPDs which means that it is publicly available – after all, truly sustainable solutions can only be found by simultaneously considering as many environmental impacts as possible.

The life cycle assessment of a building essentially comprises two parts: the life cycle assessments of all construction products and materials used as well as energy consumption during the use phase of the building. Accordingly – and as for individual products – the environmental impacts of an entire building can be calculated across its entire life cycle, i.e. from the provision and production of materials through the construction and use phase to de-construction of the building.

Calculating the life cycle assessment of a building during its planning phase makes it possible to compare various materials and concepts from an ecological perspective and thereby improve the building. While direct comparisons of various construction products and their life cycle assessments is usually less practical (see 1. The problem with comparing products), comparing them within the framework of building life cycle assessments is an essential basis for planning sustainable structures. Life cycle assessments are, therefore, mandatory in some certification systems for sustainable buildings (e.g. at Deutsche Gesellschaft für Nachhaltiges Bauen (DGNB) [https://www.dgnb.de/de/verein/system]).

Our second video explains how building certifications work and the role played by EPDs in this process.

When considering the environmental impacts of a building across its life cycle, two phases are of particular importance: the use phase, i.e. during operation, and the construction phase which also includes the provision and manufacture of materials. Modern buildings are increasingly energy-efficient: they use less energy during operation which also reduces their overall energy requirements. Accordingly, there is a shift in the percentages of overall energy requirements accounted for by the use phase and the construction phase – and this is accompanied by a shift in their share of environmental impacts by the building.

For example: energy requirements during the operation of older buildings (built before 1977) cause more than 90 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions of a building, i.e. less than 10 per cent of its greenhouse gases are attributable to the construction phase. In modern low-energy buildings, energy requirements during operation are significantly lower – which also means lower greenhouse gas emissions overall – with the result that the use phase is only responsible for around 60 per cent of greenhouse gases and the construction phase accounts for 40 per cent. The impact by the construction phase on the (overall lower) environmental impact of the building is therefore doubled. In the case of a truly zero-energy building, the construction phase would even account for 100 per cent of total greenhouse gas emissions.

As energy efficiency improves, the relative influence of the construction phase also increases – and this is accompanied by an increase in the significance of EPDs, as only they permit a scientific and reliable evaluation of the construction phase and the environmental influences associated with it.

Institut Bauen und Umwelt e.V. (IBU) is an association of manufacturers of construction products which have been committed to sustainable building for more than 30 years. In collaboration with the building and environmental authorities in Germany and on the basis of international standards, IBU has drawn up a range of EPDs for Germany.

One of the most important tasks performed by IBU is to ensure a consistently high level of quality and comparability of EPDs. One core area of its work concerns the implementation of international standards as specific instructions for drawing up EPDs and comprehensive guidelines for various groups of construction products. IBU also ensures that EPDs are published online and verified by independent experts prior to publication. The team at IBU also informs and supports manufacturers of construction products, responds to all queries concerning the drawing up of EPDs and assists the entire process.

IBU is involved in various bodies and networks with the aim of promoting sustainable developments and has set itself the goal of sensitising both the construction industry and the public in general for the topic of sustainable building.

IBU homepage : www.ibu-epd.com

What is sustainable development? https://ibu-epd.com/en/sustainable-development

What is sustainable building? https://ibu-epd.com/en/sustainable-building

More detailed description of the concept of life cycle assessments https://ibu-epd.com/en/life-cycle-assessment

More detailed description of IBU https://ibu-epd.com/en/ibu

IBU members https://ibu-epd.com/en/members/ibu-members

Registration for our newsletter https://ibu-epd.com/en/service-2/newsletter

Video: What is an EPD?

EPDs: From Construction Products to Sustainable Buildings