The Benefits of Quantifying Sustainability

The Benefits of Quantifying Sustainability

Guest Post By Rob Rouwette, Director and Life Cycle Expert at start2see, and former President of the Australian Life Cycle Assessment Society

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Friday, December 4, 2015 - 8:05am

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Building developers and occupiers in the Australasian region are slowly but increasingly starting to understand the value of Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), an environmental accounting principle that assesses the impacts and benefits across a product’s or building’s whole-of-life.

LCA has the potential to quantifiably increase the sustainability performance of a building, by looking at the building materials, operational performance (e.g. energy use), maintenance, fit-out churn and end-of-life options (e.g. recycling, redevelopment) in one holistic approach. This can yield better results than considering improvements in isolation. On top of an improved sustainability performance, life cycle thinking will also highlight inefficiencies and thus opportunities for better financial return.

State of LCA in the region
Although LCA - as a methodology to assess buildings and building products - kicked off in parts of Europe about 20 years ago, it is noticeably underutilised in the Australasian region. At best, there is a patchwork of initiatives at various stages of development and acceptance.

This could be about to change, thanks to the driving power of green building rating schemes, such as LEEDv4 (USGBC) and Green Star (GBCA), that are adopting LCA-based credits.

What are the challenges?
For a successful sustainability assessment a transparent and robust methodology, alongside good quality data and meaningful indicators are required.

The methodologies for assessment of sustainability in building construction are internationally guided by the ISO 21930 series. We also see European standards (EN 15978 and EN 15804) being used far beyond their traditional reach (e.g. in the USA and Australia), as many consider these to represent best practice.

One of the main challenges with respect to proper assessment of buildings in the Australasian region is a lack of good quality local data on a wide range of building materials and products.

How can this be overcome?
Recognition of this shortcoming was what led to the establishment of the Australasian EPD Program ( in 2014.

EPDs (Environmental Product Declarations) are verified documents that report the environmental performance of a product according to a standard set of rules. Standardisation is important for more efficient communication of environmental performance and it facilitates a structured uptake of LCA by multiple green building council’s. 

The Australasian EPD Program has partnered with the International EPD System to build on an experienced platform, align with international standards and facilitate global trade of sustainable products.

Pre-development of the Australasian EPD Program, LCA practitioners in Australia developed a national life cycle inventory database - AusLCI. AusLCI is a compilation of generic ‘building blocks’ that are needed to model a supply chain or complete life cycle. Such a national database makes it easier and cheaper to develop EPDs, or any LCA for that matter. It also creates better transparency and consistency essentially levelling the playing field for stakeholders.

However, not many countries in Australasia currently have such a database or an EPD program. Therefore, the building and construction sector in these countries can be ill-prepared for the new LCA credits in the building rating tools. To overcome this, manufacturers, suppliers and procurement departments need to become skilled in basic life cycle management skills. This process will be most successful when key stakeholders such as industry, government, green building councils and LCA practitioners work together. Furthermore, establishing international networks can help to avoid pitfalls and shave years of the learning curve.

User perspective
LCA is the only method that can provide a holistic view of the environmental impacts of a building throughout its life. In time, gaining comprehensive understanding will lead to better decision making, which should be reflected in design and engineering solutions.

Not only can LCA provide a pathway towards rating tool credits, it will also provide invaluable insights into the product’s value chain from environmental hotspots to economic opportunities and from raw material sourcing to designing a product that better aligns with client needs.

As a first step it’s important that developers start asking for EPDs and begin life cycle assessments of their buildings. The end goal is to create better buildings, which are a pleasure to live or work in while making optimal use of limited resources.

Early mover advantage
The green building rating tools provide a clear advantage for products that come with an EPD. Early adopters that recognise this advantage will reap the benefits. During a recent visit to the 2015 International Green Building Conference in Singapore, only one supplier, from Thailand, could provide an EPD for their product. Again, this indicates that most suppliers have some catching up to do. Judging by the success of EPD programs across Europe, expect acceleration of regional schemes in Asia within five years.

For more information on LCA or EPDs, contact Rob