The Buzz on BEES

The National Institute of Science and Technology (NIST) has recently developed a new online application for its popular BEES product assessment tool. Building for Environmental and Economic Sustainability (BEES) is a scientific tool used to select cost effective and environmentally preferable building products. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines environmentally preferable products as those that have a "lesser or reduced effect on human health and the environment when compared with competing products or services that serve the same purpose." In 1997 NIST economist Barbara Lippiatt took the concept further, leading a team in the development of BEES, which she said was needed to "reduce the environmental footprint of building products in a cost-effective way and bring science-based metrics and tools to designers and specifiers.”

The U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) reported that, in the United States, buildings account for 39 percent of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and, over the next 25 years, emissions from buildings are projected to grown faster than any other sector. With the atmosphere rapidly warming, an increased investment in energy efficient buildings is vital in slowing climate change. BEES works to address the environmental impacts of buildings by identifying environmentally preferable building materials. BEES operates by synthesizing and translating science-based, technical data on building products into accessible information that can be understood and used by the building community. In October 2010, the White House Council on Environmental Quality awarded Lippiatt the "Green Innovation Award" for developing BEES, "a practical tool for sustainability performance measurement that is unbiased, science-based, quantitative, transparent, and comprehensive” (NIST).

The BEES application measures the environmental performance of 230 building products (from concrete to exterior wall components, roof coverings and floor covering types) on a life-cycle, "cradle-to-grave" basis. The products are evaluated starting with where and how their raw materials are sourced, how much energy is used during their manufacturing and transport, as well how much pollution and greenhouse gases were generated in the manufacturing process. In addition, the building's energy use, recycling processes, and waste management are considered. Products are also evaluated on their environmental performance once installed. Building designers can then use this information to compare products' positive and negative environmental qualities.

In addition to producing almost 40 percent of the nation's CO2 emissions, the USGBC estimated that over $300 billion was spent on energy in the building sector in 2005 and the cost is expected to rise to $430 billion by 2025. Addressing cost, BEES also helps designers assess a product's economic performance, which is determined using the ASTM standard life-cycle cost (LCC) method. LCC covers the costs of initial investment, replacement, operation, maintenance, repair, and disposal. Economic performance is then combined with environmental performance into an overall performance standard. Both environmental and economic performance are measured over a 50-year period to make the best selection, identifying materials that have a low environmental impact, high quality, high performance, and low overall cost. BEES was one of the first life-cycle assessment (LCA) tools and meets criteria specified by the International Organization for Standardization. The building products that were rated and put in the database had to both perform well and be competitively priced in order to be included on the list.

The evaluation of building products is often complicated as most products perform well in some areas and not others. BEES was one of the first resources of its kind and has been the tool used by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) since the Farm Bill Energy Title and bio-preferred purchase list was authorized in 2002 to promote bio-based products and materials. BEES was used in the third version of the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED-certification program for sustainable commercial and residential buildings and has proven to be a valuable tool to use in building certification. NIST's research is now moving forward to look at building performance as a whole. The performance of individual building components is critical, but the parts must be well integrated and optimized in design, construction and operation to achieve a high performance, low energy "whole" building.

BEES Online is available at