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Construction Corner: Life cycle assessment a tool in sustainable design

Korky Koroluk
Construction Corner: Life cycle assessment a tool in sustainable design

A new study by the Athena Sustainable Materials Institute pinpoints the need for public policy initiatives to increase the use of life cycle assessment (LCA) as an essential tool in the sustainable design of buildings.

The institute, a non-profit based in Ottawa, did the study at the request of Forestry Innovation Investment Ltd. of Vancouver. It was published recently on the Athena website.

The objective of the study was to review existing and emerging embodied carbon policies for the built environment. It is not, nor was it intended to be, an exhaustive study. It’s a snapshot, but one that is focused exclusively on embodied carbon in buildings.

LCA is Athena’s raison d’être. That’s all it’s concerned with. It develops free, simple measurement tools so that green decisions can easily be driven by data.

There is a brief introduction to the study posted on the Athena website, telling us what the institute does.

"We’re covering the technical part of the equation," it notes. "What’s missing is a broad will to act by the construction sector."

Implicit in that comment is a need for stronger public policy in Canada and the United States.

The study shows a clear trend toward public policy as a tool for encouraging sustainable design in Europe, with four countries — the Netherlands, Germany, France and Switzerland — leading the way. The Netherlands is especially blazing a trail that others may follow.

In 2010, the Dutch government co-ordinated a project to harmonize the various private programs for environmental product declarations (EPDs) and whole-building LCA that had been produced during the previous 10 years. The idea was to develop a single framework for both data suppliers (manufacturers) and data users (design professionals), to provide clarity and transparency in the marketplace. An independent association was formed to compile a single LCA database and establish a whole-building LCA method for use in the Netherlands.

With all that in place, the government took the next step. Effective at the beginning of 2013, new residential and office buildings with floor areas of more than 100 square metres, had to report embodied greenhouse gases (GHGs) before a building permit could be issued.

"Together," notes the report, "these two actions are ground-breaking and setting a strong model for other jurisdictions."

Germany, the report notes, came early to the notion of sustainable design. Its Federal Building Ministry first published guidelines in 2001 that covered construction, operation and maintenance of federal buildings.

The guidelines became mandatory in 2011 and serve as a set of recommendations for public building projects at federal, state and municipal levels as well as private-sector buildings.

A policy adopted in 2010 requires that design of federal buildings must also achieve a silver level of certification from a program that is popularly called BNB. This is notable, the study says, because "the BNB green building certification system requires whole-building LCA."

France has developed a policy for embodied impacts in products. In 2011, it became the first country to require EPDs for some consumer products sold in France. In 2014, it modified that policy for construction products. Now, any manufacturer who wishes to make an environmental claim about a product must first submit an EPD to a national EDP database.

It’s worth noting that there has sometimes been confusion about what "embodied carbon" really means. It is simply the portion of building-related GHG emissions attributed largely to construction materials and processes. Operating carbon addresses only one stage in a building’s life — its use. Embodied carbon addresses the rest of the life cycle.

The report makes an interesting read. For those who want more information than I have space for, it’s a free download. If you’re not familiar with Athena and its work, you’ll find plenty to think about on its website. That’s at

If all you want is a copy of the report on Embodied Carbon of Buildings, you can go directly to

Korky Koroluk is an Ottawa-based freelance writer. Send comments to

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