From Product Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) to Whole Building LCA

Posted on 8/19/2019 10:37:26 AM By Paul Bertram

Part one of a Two-part Blog

At the April 2019 ASC Spring Conference in Philadelphia, I was asked to speak on the business case for LCA. This is a topic that I have written about in previous blogs but not specifically from a business perspective or from the impact of Whole Building LCA.

In a previous blog, I discussed the EPA’S (Environmental Protection Agency) “Forum on Life Cycle Approaches to Sustainably Manage Materials in Building and Infrastructure Projects" discussion of Life Cycle Thinking (LCT) a term that moves beyond traditional LCA focus of production and manufacturing processes to include environmental, social and economic impacts of a product over its entire life cycle. Recent pressures to address Life Cycle Thinking is being requested by owners, architects and various environment & sustainability certifications have ASC and their members taking a closer look in how to respond.

Methods discussed at the “Forum” to assess environmental impacts of resource use throughout the life cycle of materials and the products did not specifically focus on LCA (Life Cycle Assessment) but included LCA principles. One significant take away at the end of the “Forum” is the need for development of industry-level and material-specific data to identify opportunities for improved performance and efficiency gains in production and consumption processes.In LCA it is LCI (Life Cycle Inventory) is the data for accounting of the energy and material flows into and out of the environment that are associated with producing a material, component, or assembly.

This fundamental understanding of LCA, and LCI and LCIA (Life Cycle Inventory Assessment) sets the stage for this discussion.

Decision Points through LCA Assessment.

The recent pressure for full material transparency in the many “Green” Building Certifications and related Credits are not why LCA (Life Cycle Assessment), respective EPDs (Environmental Product Declarations) and related PCRs (Product Category Rules) should be considered. The business decision process should be the deciding factor to determine if LCA is an appropriate tool for improving business. Ultimately the return on investment has to be a key consideration. How much potential business will be gained or lost with or without an LCA?

In the paper, “How to know if and when it’s time to Commission Life Cycle Assessment” by the International Council of Chemical Associations – ICCA, they illustrate a number of possible business decision-making points that include LCA.

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Graphic from: The International Council of Chemical Associations ICCA

In deciding on a LCA business perspective pathway, the following might be considered relevant questions:

What are you trying to accomplish with the LCA?
Will you conduct an ISO Compliant LCA?
What questions are you answering?(Examples: Energy intensity, environmental impacts)
What decisions are you trying to support?(Continuous improvement, cost reduction, supply chain improvements, material transparency)
Who will read the study?(internal/external)
Who will use the results? (Operations, Management, Marketing, Architects, Owners)
How is Government impacting demand for ISO compliant LCA? (California AB 262requires contractors to gather emissions data from their suppliers during the bid process, and then disclose this data with EPDs in their project bids)

LCA accuracy is only as good as the data input and the software utilized to automate the calculations. Typically, the data represents a moment in time such as 1-3 years but typically does not account properly for future liabilities and incorporating risk into that assessment. There are benefits and limitations in considering investing in LCA.

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Deloitte developed the chart below to demonstrate LCA pathway considerations

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Graphic by: - Deloitte Consulting LLP. Copyright © 2012 Deloitte Development LLC. All rights reserved. Member of Deloitte Touché Tohmatsu Limited

In my research, Deloitte’s pathways aligns with 4 types of ISO Standards that are in addition to LCA, EPDs and PCRs that provide options on environmental reporting

  • Not Very – ISO – 14020 Environmental labels and declarations General Principles
  • Moderately – ISO – 14024 - Environmental labels and declarations — Type I environmental labelling — Principles and procedures – Known as Eco-Labels
  • ISO 14021Type II Self-Declared Environmental claims and environmental labeling
  • Highly – ISO 14025 – Type II Self Reported Environmental labels and declarations
    Type III environmental declarations — Principles and procedures based on ISO 14040
    • LEEDv4.1 and other “Green” rating systems now require – the addition of EN 15804 or ISO 21930


Life Cycle Inventory Assessment (data analysis)

There is no consensus on what should be included within LCIA (the data), the impact categories largely rely on

TRACI - Tool for Reduction and Assessment of Chemicals and Other Environmental Impacts 

TRACI is an environmental impact assessment tool and typically the basis for impact categories.

TRACI Impact categories typically include: 
Ozone depletion,climate change,acidification,eutrophication,smog formation,human health impacts, and ecotoxicity.

What is not currently in LCAs or corresponding EPDs is data on Human health impacts and ecotoxicity

This is primarily an issue of a lack of reliable databases

FYI, this is one of the reasons the Health Product Declaration (HPD) and Living Building Challenge Red List emergedrequiring hazard only reporting.Material data to conduct RISK assessment (Includes both hazard & exposure data) is limited and as a result, hazard only reporting has become the default and not part of current LCAs.

Another challenge in data certainty is the fact that LCA tools all have what is referred to as “Black Box” content

It is understood within the LCA community that there are data uncertainties (incomplete information or errors) – this is an LCA industry accepted exception and the standards have built in sensitivity analysis that requires careful interpretation of the data and various pathways to treat uncertainty. It takes a joint effort of the project leader assigned to the LCA and the LCA practioner to work through this fog.

Product to Product Comparative Analysis as a business approach to LCA

In order to support comparative assertions, EPDs (the ISO Standard for reporting LCA’s)must meet all comparability requirements stated in ISO 14025:2006. However, differences in certain assumptions, data quality, and variability between LCA data sets may still exist. As such, caution should be exercised when evaluating EPDs from different manufacturers, as the EPD results are more than likely NOT comparable. LCA, per the standard,  can serve as a communication tool between companies and consumers, however, any EPD comparison must be carried out at the building level per ISO 21930 guidelines. The results of an EPD reflect an average performance by the product at a moment in time and its actual impacts may vary on a case-to-case basis.

As a result of ISO 210930 Guidelines,the “Green” rating programs have added Whole Building LCA to their respective credits

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From Product to Whole Building LCA

Whole-building life-cycle assessment compares specific impacts of design options over the entire building life cycle, from raw materials extraction through demolition. Whole-building LCA is a complex endeavor, and often times will focus on global warming potential (GWP), specifically the embodied carbon of the building(the sum of the parts).

The accuracy of the outcome of a Whole Building LCA is totally dependent on the LCA Practioner’s experience and the software used and the input from the design team. The Whole Building software and respective LCI databases must contain relevant LCI data for Whole Building LCA.

Besides the Green” rating systems that now include Whole Building LCA credits, the IGCC, 189.1, International Green Construction Code, through alignment with LEED, now includes Whole Building LCA

How are adhesives and sealants represented in theseLCI databasesutilized in Whole Building LCA software?

It could be argued, that at this point, the use of Whole Building LCA is best utilized for materials that are known to have heavy environmental impacts such as: Structural steel, Cement, Glass, Brick, Ceramic tile, Aluminum, Plastics, some Insulations. ISO 210930 provides Guidelines for material comparison at the building level based on EPDs.

The Athena Eco Calculator for Assemblies, provides Whole Building LCA results for commonly used building structure and envelope assemblies. Along with the Athena LCI internal database, the NREL (National Renewable Energy Laboratories) LCI database, is also utilized. However, the Athena Eco Calculator currently does not currently include LCI datasets for adhesives and sealants.

Several databases that include adhesives and Sealants include: Quartz Common Products Database, the NREL LCI database with some references to adhesives, along with Taiwandatasets on tapes and some adhesives in Europe datasets.

In researching LCI databases for adhesives and sealants, Iam putting up a yellow flag of caution!

The question I ask is: how are adhesives and sealants being represented in these LCI datasets/databases?

Manufacturers of adhesives and sealants may be misrepresented due to unreliable LCI datasets created by others. Whole building LCA needs considered from a business decision making perspective and reliable LCI data on adhesives and sealants is part of that decision making process.

The National Institute of Building Sciences – Whole Building Design Guide provides several good references on this topic HERE

My Next Blog on Building Trust through LCA and Material Transparency as a business decision

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