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Sustainability 101: Key Terms Defined

Sustainable design is increasingly becoming the norm in the construction industry, but there is no widely accepted definition of what qualifies something as sustainable. As a result, guidelines are constantly being established and modified to help understand the claims and performance factors of sustainability.

It’s becoming more evident that construction materials need to be designed with a focus on environmental impact. Sustainable design has become more than just a trend—it’s a global movement committed to creating a better future for all of us.

The science behind the sustainable impact of building products is still relatively young but as it matures, so too will our understanding of what it truly means to be sustainable. In the meantime, here are some key terms to aid with the understanding of sustainability:

Environmental Product Declaration (EPD)

An EPD provides an overview of the environmental impact of the products you use. EPDs are a summary of a scientific study of all environmental impacts of a product or service across its lifecycle. EPDs help architects and designers maximize the sustainability of a design by minimizing its impact o the environment.

Life Cycle Assessment (LCA)

LCA is the scientific method of quantifying the environmental impacts associated with the production, distribution, use including repair and refurbishment, and disposal of a product. The results of an LCA study are presented in the EPD.

Perpetual Resource

This is a resource that is seemingly inexhaustible or will last a minimum of 700 years of consumption. Examples include solar energy, tidal energy, and wind energy, as well as minerals like gypsum, salt, and lime.

Cradle to Gate

This describes an LCA conducted on a product from the raw material stage, including raw material transport through the manufacturing stage including packaging. The results of a cradle-to-gate LCA study are useful in evaluating the impact of raw materials or components used within the production of individual products or assemblies.

Volatile Organic Compound (VOC)

Volatile Organic Compounds are chemical compounds that can be emitted from certain solids or liquids. Since measuring volatility is subjective, there are numerous standardized tests designed to determine VOC Content, Total VOCs (TVOC), and VOC Emissions, each with an implied method to determine volatility. THE CDPH 01350 standard has been widely accepted in the U.S. for the determination of VOCs.

VOC Content

VOC Content is the quantity of VOCs present in the finished product. For example, the VOCs released from wet paint is considered VOC content. If that same paint is applied to a wall, VOCs are released and become VOC emissions. This makes VOC Content an occupational hazard for workers manufacturing and installing the material.

VOC Emissions

VOC Emissions are the release of chemical compounds as gases during the lifetime of a material, which makes it a concern for overall occupant health and wellbeing. Building products’ VOC Emissions claims must be tested and determined to be compliant per the California Department of Public Health using an applicable exposure scenario.

Inherently Non-emitting Sources

Products that are inherently non-emitting sources of VOCs, such as gypsum plaster, stone, powder-coated metals, glass, and unfinished or untreated solid wood flooring are considered fully compliant with the CDPH 01350 standard without any VOC emissions testing being necessary.

In Conclusion...

USG has held sustainability as a core value for over a century of industry-leading innovation, and its products are a testament to that belief. For more information on these sustainability terms, read USG’s technical documentation here. All sustainability documents on USG’s portfolio of products can be found using the USG Sustainability Tool powered by Ecomedes.