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Published by: The Construction Specifier
Written by: Jennifer Wagner and Chelsea Code-McNeil

Navigating the complexities of LEED v4 with concrete masonry

Masonry is inherently a sustainable building material, thanks to its attributes contributing to resiliency—including protection against rotting, mold, and termites—that translates into lower maintenance costs and reduced need for virgin products. Further, its strength and ability to withstand severe weather and fire are helping meet new demands by designers for climate-resistant building materials, while its thermal mass benefits can reduce energy bills and improve indoor thermal comfort.

Some concrete masonry unit (CMU) providers are looking for ways to introduce new elements of sustainability into their manufacturing practices, including use of carbon dioxide (CO2) recycling technology. This process involves taking CO2 from smokestacks and injecting it into masonry during mixing, where it gets converted into solid calcium carbonate. This means the CO2 is chemically converted into a stone within the masonry, and will never be released.

Acknowledging the continually greener innovations within masonry manufacturing, this article looks at how these Division 04 materials can contribute to points in the latest, forthcoming iteration of the U.S. Green Building Council’s (USGBC’s) Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design rating program, LEED v4.

Proponents of the LEED system say it has always made it a priority to propel and push industry to redefine what makes a material sustainable for manufacturers, designers, and building owners. The definition of what makes a building material green has evolved in the newest version, as LEED v4 will take into account a broad range of considerations, including regional sourcing, recycled content, and environmental impact over a product’s lifecycle.

Introducing LEED v4

LEED v4 will take a more holistic approach to defining a green building material with a particular focus on lifecycle impacts and supply chain management, taking the program’s scope one step deeper into the manufacturing process. This change is expected to influence the information designers and architects are requesting from manufacturers. Architects are requiring more rigorous information from manufacturers, by asking them to collect information from outside their localized manufacturing processes.

In the past, self-declared recycled content and bare-bones regional declarations were enough to meet credit requirements, but under LEED v4 this will no longer be the case. The information being requested will take time to collect, so manufacturers looking to stay ahead of the curve should start this process now during the transition period from the current 2009 version of LEED to LEED v4, which comes into full effect on October 31, 2016.

Now that LEED is redefining what makes a material sustainable, less emphasis is being put on a product’s individual attributes. This new emphasis is reflected in the redistribution of points in the Materials & Resources (MR) credits. For example, under LEED 2009, six points (from three separate credits) could be awarded for products with recycled [Recycled content, MRc4] regional [Regional materials, MRc5] or Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) content [Certified wood, MRc7] whereas in LEED v4 the individual attributes of recycled and FSC content are combined as MRc3, Building Product Disclosure & Optimization, for which projects can receive up to two points.

Further, in LEED v4, “Regional materials” is not a separate credit, but is rather introduced as a value multiplier that applies to several credits. The LEED v4 materials & resources category has 2 prerequisite credits [Storage and collection of recyclables, Construction and demolition waste management planning] and 5 credits. Three of those credits address different aspects of building product disclosure and optimization and are worth up to 2 points each. Those 3 credits include:

  • environmental product declarations [Building product disclosure and optimization – environmental product declarations, MRc2]
  • sourcing of raw materials [Building product disclosure and optimization – sourcing of raw materials, MRc3] and
  • material ingredients. [Building product disclosure and optimization – material ingredients, MRc4]

The other 2 credits available under the LEED v4 Materials and Resources category include MRc1 -Building life-cycle impact reduction (a credit worth up to 5 points that encourages the adaptive reuse of materials or optimizes the environmental performance of products and materials) and MRc5- Construction and demolition waste management (up to 2 points).

According to the LEED credit language, the intent of the 3 Building disclosure and optimization credits is “to encourage the use of products and materials for which life-cycle information is available and that have environmentally, economically, and socially preferable life-cycle impacts.” Further, the credits’ intent is to reward project teams for selecting products according to specific criteria. For example, under the environmental product declarations credit, it calls for products “from manufacturers who have verified improved environmental life-cycle impacts,” whereas the sourcing credit lauds materials that have been “verified to have been extracted or sourced in a responsible manner.”

Similarly, the material ingredients credit recognizes products “for which the chemical ingredients in the product are inventoried using an accepted methodology and for selecting products verified to minimize the use and generation of harmful substances. To reward raw material manufacturers who produce products verified to have improved life-cycle impacts. 

So how do CMUs fit into all of this?

Environmental product declarations

The intention of MRc3, Building Product Disclosure and Optimization−Environmental Product Declarations, is to encourage manufacturers to report and verify their products’ lifecycle impacts. The best tool to communicate impacts over a product’s lifetime is a tool known as an environmental product declaration (EPD). EPDs that quantify the impact from the raw material supply, transport, and manufacturing stages are called ‘cradle-to-gate,’ whereas those that go one step further to incorporate an end-of-life stage are called ‘cradle-to-grave.’

In order to achieve this particular credit, project teams have several options. One option is for project teams to use a minimum of 20 different permanently installed products from at least five manufactures that have issued public declarations disclosing the environmental impact of these products. In other words, a single manufacturer cannot contribute more than four EPDs to the total 20 that are required. 

Each of the 20 must be unique—that is, the purchased finished product has a unique function, or is made by a different manufacturer. For example, two CMUs created by the same manufacturer with the only difference being their color would not be considered unique materials; thus, only one EPD would be able to count towards the required 20.

The most common method to comply with this credit is for manufacturers to issue product-specific International Organization for Standardization (ISO) [ISO 14025, 14040, 14044, and EN 15804 or ISO 21930] compliant, cradle-to-gate EPDs, or to use industry-wide generic EPDs. Industry-wide EPDs are valued at half value for credit calculation purposes, since product-specific EPDs are considered to be more reflective of an actual product’s environmental impact.

The second option of this credit involves “multi-attribute optimization.” The credit requires project teams comply with one of a list of criteria for 50 percent—by cost—of the permanently installed products on the project. One option is to demonstrate products have environmental impacts lower than industry averages in at least three of the following categories:

  • global warming potential (i.e. greenhouse gases [GHGs]);
  • depletion of the stratospheric ozone layer;
  • acidification of land and water sources;
  • eutrophication;
  • formation of tropospheric ozone; or
  • depletion of nonrenewable energy resources.

For this credit, some CMU manufacturers can issue EPDs for products made with recycled CO2 using proprietary technology that also reduces GHGs associated with manufacturing processes.

Sourcing of raw materials

There are two opportunities to achieve Building Product Disclosure and Optimization−Sourcing of Raw Materials. The first option is to publish a raw material source and extraction report, and the second is for the manufacturer to engage in sustainable leadership extraction practices. This is the credit that captures many of the credits from LEED 2009, such as recycled content and certified wood.

In Option 1, a raw material source and extraction report can be provided by either the raw material suppliers or the manufacturer themselves. The report must outline raw material supplier extraction locations and describe supplier’s commitments to:

  • long-term ecologically responsible land use;
  • reducing environmental harms from extraction and/or manufacturing processes; and
  • meeting applicable standards or programs voluntarily addressing responsible sourcing criteria.

The project team must have a minimum of 20 permanently installed products from at least five manufacturers that have publicly issued these reports. Third-party verified CSR reports which comply with a set of approved frameworks such as the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) Sustainability Report are preferred (these reports contribute full value to the credit calculations), but self-declared reports are also acceptable (these reports provide half value).

The most common framework for creating these reports is that which is set out by the GRI, which has a framework outlining what needs to be included in the report in the economic, environmental, and social categories.1 That last category has several sub-categories, including labor practices and decent work, human rights, social and product responsibility.

In Option 2, the manufacturer must engage in sustainable leadership extraction practices. The credit requires project teams meet one of the recommended responsible extraction criteria for at least 25 percent—by cost—of the permanently installed products in the building. Acceptable responsible extraction criteria include recycled content, FSC certifications, and materials reuse, which have requirements that appear relatively consistent from previous versions of LEED.

One of the new options for complying with the responsible extraction criteria is ‘extended producer responsibility’ (EPR), also known as ‘product take-back.’ This involves taking products at the end of their useful life and recycling them into the same product in a ‘closed-loop’ system. Currently, this credit option is difficult to achieve because there are limited products with EPRs—the authors are unaware of any for CMUs or other masonry products. (Some exist, for example, for carpeting.) Further, products meeting criteria for this credit are valued at 50 percent of their cost. 

To meet this credit of responsible extraction practices, some CMU manufacturers provide products with recycled content to projects. The recycled content credit is calculated in the same way as it was in LEED 2009—that is, the sum of postconsumer recycled content plus one-half the pre-consumer recycled content. The credit states products meeting the recycled content criteria are valued at 100 percent of their cost in credit calculations. 

Material ingredients

There are three options to achieve Building Product Disclosure and Optimization–Material Ingredients, but only the first two options are currently viable. The first option is around material ingredient reporting. Projects must use at least 20 different permanently installed products from at least five different manufacturers using one of the approved programs to demonstrate the chemical inventory of the products.

Acceptable approaches include products that have published health product declarations (HPDs) in accordance with the HPD Open Standard, or products that have been certified by Cradle to Cradle (v2 Basic or v3 Bronze level). HPDs are transparency documents similar to EPDs, except they disclose materials that may pose a health risk for either an end user or a person involved in the manufacturing of that product. To achieve this credit, a single manufacturer can contribute up to four HPDs toward the 20 required. 

A second option takes it to the next level of optimization where one point is awarded when products are used that document their material ingredient optimization employing various approved tools. Options of compliance include products certified under Cradle to Cradle (where v2 Platinum products are valued at 150 percent of cost, for instance) and GreenScreen (where products can be valued at 150 percent of cost if they undergo a full GreenScreen Assessment).

The third option within this credit involves supply chain optimization. This credit is not currently viable, but USGBC has assembled a working group to iron out the details of this credit in order to make it viable. The intention of the credit is to encourage sourcing from manufacturers who “engage in validated and robust safety, health, hazard, and risk programs.” 

The easiest way for masonry producers to contribute to this credit is by issuing HPDs or Cradle2Cradle certifications. An individual company can provide HPDs/C2Cs on up to four products for a particular project, which is a significant portion of the 20 total documents required to collect the credit. If the products meet a certain set of criteria, such as local sourcing and the absence of the highest level of hazardous material, they may be eligible for additional points.

Regional materials multiplier

In the MR credit in previous versions of LEED, points were awarded to projects that sourced materials regionally. However, this is no longer the case in LEED v4. Under the new program, separate points are not awarded for sourcing materials regionally, but rather a “regional material multiplier” is applied to other categories to increase or decrease the value of the points in the credit calculations.

For each of the three Building Product Disclosure and Optimization credits, the regional materials multiplier is applied in the same way. Products sourced within 160 km (100 mi) of the project site are valued at 200 percent of their cost in credit calculations. Another major change is the regional material threshold has been reduced from 500 mi/800km down to 100 mi/160 km.


As concrete masonry unit manufacturers continue to promote sustainable practices, they will seek out new opportunities to reduce the environmental impact of the products they manufacture—implementing CO2 recycling technology is just the first step. With both EPDs and HPDs available for these products, architects can ask for these documents to help them achieve credits and points on projects going after either LEED 2009 or LEED v4 certification.


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