The Footprint Company recently assisted a leading Australian interior architecture team evaluate their latest interior design project executed for a bar/restaurant located in the Barangaroo South precinct. Tenants and their designers have to adhere to many design requirements to support world class sustainability, including embodied carbon and recycled material content.

The design team had an inspiring sustainability ethos and had spent a considerable amount of time looking for products that met both the brief and the sustainability goals. Choosing Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) as the basis for material selection, the design team was able to achieve stunning outcomes reflecting a sleek vernacular, which was aligned with modern design trends.

The design team had selected woodwool (or excelsior) as a key design feature. With acoustic, aesthetic and textural properties, the material is a popular choice for food retail today. This product also had an EPD under the International EPD program with the product declaration stating ‘FSC’ wood sources as a feature. The design team believed this product, by way of its EPD status, would provide sustainability advantages over a conventional ceiling material.

Woodwool is impregnated with pure Portland cement and ‘baked’ to give it stiffness, durability and fire resistant properties. However, since over half the mass of each square metre of the 50mm product was cement, the resultant embodied carbon footprint of the product ‘fixed in place’ was three times greater than a traditional virgin acoustic plasterboard ceiling.

The design team was both shocked and disappointed as they believed the EPD label would deliver environmental advantages. This particular case highlights the problem with labels and ratings or schemes that simply give ‘points’ for EPD labels. To be truly informative, materials need to be presented together or in the context of a performance benchmark to inform choice and raise awareness about their carbon content.

This is the core rationale behind The Footprint Company’s The GreenBook: to provide information accessibility to all materials in an open, transparent and unbiased manner to engage and inform designers on the environmentally preferable options.

Following the assessment, the design team made some material changes and recycled content selections guided by TFC, which meant the overall result for the tenancy was an embodied carbon footprint in the top 25 per cent of the benchmark for food retail. Though the final outcome was great, it could have been even better if EPD was not considered as a benchmark.

With construction materials production responsible for 50 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, it is crucial that every designer delivers low carbon design excellence. If designers and specifiers could ensure that every new square metre of building, interior and infrastructure was just 20 per cent less carbon footprint intense, the world would achieve the Paris Agreement targets faster at a lesser cost.

The Footprint Company are low carbon design experts and produce The GreenBook and on-line whole building LCA software tools specifically for architects and designers.