Can the Product Environmental Footprint (PEF) method be used at the level of an entire building? 

As the project coordinator, VITO was commissioned by the European Commission to find out, working in collaboration with a number of partners over an eighteen-month period.  The PEF method was tested on various products between 2014 and 2018, including construction products such as insulation materials, pipe systems for dwellings, paints, and photovoltaic and metal panels. The brief of the PEF4Buildings project was to also use this method to calculate the ecological footprint of an entire building.

Ecological footprint of a building

Mapping out the ecological footprint of a building is a highly complex task: it not only involves looking at the different building materials themselves, but also what the effects are of the interaction between those different materials. This is why the study was carried out in three stages.

During the first stage, the PEF method was tested for two new office buildings. One office fulfilled all basic energy performance requirements, while the second office was a practically energy-neutral building. The focus was mainly on the methodology and the drawing up of recommendations. It emerged, for example, that the various guidelines for individual construction products (known as Product Environmental Footprint Category Rules or PEFCRs) are not fully aligned with one another.

The second stage involved developing a possible method of benchmarking office buildings and defining performance classes. This is used to map out and compare the performance of buildings consistently each time. This stage demonstrated that a common method for use across the EU to calculate environmental impacts from buildings needs to be defined, and that we need a common method for determining environmental criteria. It would also be useful if a single benchmark could be developed for both the material and energy impact.

The third stage examined the assessment of the entire building, seeking a way of using the PEF method to combine the assessment of the environmental performance of individual construction products with the assessment of a building. The recommendation that was made advocates a single set of PEFCRs at building level, which may then serve as a basis for all new PEFCRs for building materials.

The results of this project are now being used in order to determine together with the European Committee for Standardisation (CEN TC 350) how all the findings can be incorporated into the existing European standard.