Two Experts on Environmental Product Declarations and Sustainability in Steel

Peer Perspective: Max Puchtel and John Cross of AISC

We spoke with Max Puchtel, director of government relations and sustainability at AISC, and John Cross, expert consultant at AISC, to hear about environmental product declarations (EPD), the implications of the Buy Clean California Act and sustainability in the future of steel.

Q. Tell us a little bit about your professional role and some of your background experience.

A. John: Before retiring in 2018, I was a staff member at AISC for 18 years. During that time, I had a variety of different roles. I still do a significant amount of consulting with AISC primarily on issues regarding sustainability and the construction marketplace from an economic standpoint. I do that under the umbrella of my organization, Crosswind Consulting LLC, where I’m the principal and also the only staff member. Altogether, I’ve been a practicing engineer in the Chicago area for over 40 years.

A. Max: I’m the director of government relations and sustainability at AISC. I’m responsible for leading AISC’s sustainability efforts as well as monitoring federal and state initiatives that directly impact the domestic structural steel industry. Most recently, I served as manager of auditing and quality for the auditing agency of the AISC Certification program. During my career, I’ve also held engineering positions at Wynright Structural Solutions, Sargent & Lundy LLC, and Automotion Systems Group.

Q. Can you give us a top-line overview of what environmental product declarations are?

A. John: There’s some confusion out there in the marketplace in terms of what EPDs are. It’s actually a document that summarizes the environmental impacts associated with a product’s manufacturing or production, but it’s not like a material’s “ingredient” list. The way EPDs are put together is this: There are international standards about doing life cycle assessments on products that look at how much energy is used, where that energy comes from, the environmental impacts of the materials that go into the product, and other details.

The life cycle assessment gives an overall view of the manufacturing process. The EPD is a summary of some of the impacts that come out of that assessment. There are many different environmental impacts people look at, and the EPD narrows that down to the five or six key metrics. You really have to know what you’re looking at when you look at an EPD to understand what it represents in the marketplace.

Q. When looking at these EPDs, what are some of the environmental impacts that are covered, and which of those are the most commonly focused on?

A. Max: Many impacts are reported, and of them, five are standardly highlighted: ozone depletion, acidification, eutrophication, smog formation, and global warming potential (GWP). The most popular of those is GWP, which people loosely interpret as the overall carbon impact.

Q. What’s the difference in value between an environmentally clean building with EPDs and a building without?

A. John: When you’re looking at EPDs for the material in a building, you’re really looking at two different things. One is how the building is designed and the other is how the materials for the building are procured. Anything in that building should have an environmental product declaration associated with it. That means structural steel, concrete, wood, carpeting, tile, ceilings, dimensional lumber for studs and cold-form framing, and those should all work together to minimize the impacts of that building.

In terms of creating that building, you’re making decisions about the materials that are going to be used in construction. Typically, those design decisions are based on the industry-wide EPDs. You’re designing based on an average, so you can’t take a concrete EPD, a wood EPD and a steel EPD and compare those. You have to start looking at them as how they’re used in the building and do a whole building life cycle analysis of the design. When you come up with a design, then you have to ask yourself how to get the least impactful material of that type in the building. So there’s a design optimization and a procurement optimization that take place based on these values.

Now, when you start to say, “How does that affect the value of the building?” Just like anyone else, a building owner is going to promote a value of a building and try to get more rent. The real value of a sustainable, high-performance building is a societal value and that it helps us reach an overall goal of reducing the embodied carbon that’s being used. This reduces the carbon load on the environment to help minimize future contributions to global climate change.

Q. How effective do you think the communication to the steel and related industries is regarding environmental trends in buildings?

A. John: There has certainly been awareness over the years of the importance of environmental impacts and minimizing those. We were far ahead of the environmental trends with respect to recycled content. If you have a basic oxygen furnace out there producing steel from iron ore, you’re probably looking at a CO2-equivalent level of about two tons of CO2 per ton of steel produced. When you get down to an electric arc furnace producing steel from scrap at 95% recycled content, you’re down at one or slightly lower than one. So there’s been a significant reduction.

People have embraced recycled content from the mill to the fabrication phase. One of the things we often talk about is that recycled content is a very direct, easy metric replacing a CO2 equivalent when we talk to our structural engineers and architects, and we help them understand that if they increase recycled content, they’re going to decrease CO2 emissions almost directly.

Q. When thinking specifically about reducing embodied carbon during the design phase, people might turn to using high recycled content materials, maximizing structural efficiency and also just using fewer finishing materials. What are the ways that HSS helps answer all of these asks?

A. Max: HSS is geometrically unique as it can be symmetrical about two axes. This makes it a competitive choice for members subject to repeated compression and tension, such as a seismic brace, and for columns with long unbraced lengths.

Q. We’re hoping you can give us a little bit of an overview of the Buy Clean California Act and what that means for the steel industry.

A. Max: California has been promoting clean energy and energy efficiency to support growth and prosperity since 2006. In 2013, their 800 largest industrial facilities began tracking, reporting and actively reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Despite their efforts though, California still uses a substantial portion of its annual state revenues to purchase goods and services that produce high levels of climate pollution. This is what ultimately led to the passage of the Buy Clean California Act (Assembly Bill 262) in October 2017.

The bill was intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by considering the products that companies buy, including steel. The legislation went through several iterations, and the law now requires facility-specific EPDs for suppliers of carbon steel rebar, flat glass, mineral wool board insulation and structural steel. As 90% of the GWP impacts for fabricated structural steel occur during mill production, acceptable EPDs are those that report mill facility-specific impacts, not fabricator-specific impacts.

Other building materials such as concrete and mass timber were never included and, as a result, now benefit from uneven reporting requirements. Fortunately, legislative efforts are underway to add more materials, which would bring parity to the law and create a more level playing field. AISC worked closely with California regulators at the Department of General Services to help them implement the Buy Clean California Act, and we’re leveraging that experience to other Buy Clean efforts around the country so we can see the same progress happen nationwide.

Q. Are there any other grains of knowledge you’d like to share with our readers about EPDs, continued innovation in the sustainability space, or the future of the steel industry in general?

A. Max: The main takeaway folks should know is that American structural steel is far less carbon-intensive than any major worldwide competitor. Specifying domestically made structural steel is the best way to ensure your project is using low-carbon steel.

As sustainability is on the minds of designers and regulators, AISC will continue to provide value to the steel construction marketplace with published information on our website, participation in webinars, and by serving on industry and market committees.

For additional information from John and Max, view the complimentary STI Buy Clean webinar.

June 2021

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