New standards for sustainable material use

Gensler raises the bar for net-zero transition across the industry
Friday, November 10, 2023
By Rebecca Melnyk

Global architecture firm Gensler is launching a set of standards that define minimum sustainability criteria for high-volume materials used in architecture and interior projects. The database is open to all building industry sectors, including facility managers who oversee renovations and play a key role in the transition to net-zero.

The Gensler Product Sustainability (GPS) Standards v1.0 outline performance criteria for the top 12 most commonly used product categories. They include gypsum board, decorative glass, task chairs, resilient flooring and base, interior latex paint, non-structural metal framing, carpet tile, batt and board insulation, systems furniture workstations, glass demountable partitions and acoustic ceiling panels, tile and suspension grids.

Developing the criteria involved extensive industry outreach and holistically aligning with regulations and existing third-party certifications such as LEED, Living Building Challenge, Carbon Leadership Forum, REACH, ISO, BIFMA, and BREEAM.

Philip Galway-Witham, associate at Gensler and regional sustainability lead in Toronto, says the goal is to create a clear and consistent standard across the firm, but also for the entire design industry. Ultimately, it creates a feedback loop among suppliers, contractors and clients to look at the current target and evolve as the industry moves toward a carbon neutral future.

Embodied carbon and other impacts

Materials can be evaluated through five impact categories, which include life cycle impacts that refer to embodied carbon over the lifespan of the product.

Current building codes don’t account for carbon emissions associated with materials and construction processes throughout the whole lifecycle, but more than half of greenhouse gas emissions are related to materials management, according to the Carbon Leadership Forum.

“When you have a real estate asset that needs continuous maintenance or renovation, the life cycle of the materials going into those projects is typically much shorter than larger pieces . . . such as external walls and particularly steel and concrete,” explains Galway-Witham. “Canada is making great progress when it comes to operational carbon, which is the energy for buildings, but the embodied carbon is more nuanced and we’re providing a mechanism to clearly talk about that.”

Facility managers and design teams may wish to closely consider the early adoption of embodied carbon limits to get ahead of the curve. “Scope 3 emissions are becoming more common as a yardstick for organizations to start looking at their own businesses when it comes to carbon reporting,” he says. As well, they are increasingly being set for new construction and retrofits in certain jurisdictions.

“If we take the Toronto Green Standard as an example of a framework that continuously improves its performance with each iteration, one can imagine that while it’s only for city projects today, those Scope 3 emissions will begin to be roped into the conversation and requirements,” he adds. “As legislation and the aspirations of companies continue to improve, this is where having clear targets to measure against your Scope 3 emissions is really valuable.”

The other four categories include organizational commitments, multi-attribute certifications (related to higher level of performance), indoor air impacts and material health and transparency, which involve potentially hazardous substances. They include baseline requirements and a means for manufacturers to become market differentiators.

The GPS standard comes into effect in January 2024, with the hopes of future iterations that expand with new materials.

“We’re drawing a line in the sand and saying this is where we want our projects to go,” says Galway-Witham. “It’s a mechanism for suppliers of those materials to have a dialogue with ourselves and our clients about how we can make the industry better.”


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