By Lynne Blundell

A new life cycle assessment tool being developed by a consortium of industry and government bodies is set to raise the sustainability bar for building materials and to push manufacturers to be more competitive and innovative. It should also help cut through the green marketing dross.

The environmental impact of building materials is widely acknowledged as a major weak point in current environmental ratings tools. There is also currently no agreed Australian standard for assessing a material’s impact. Just ask any designer or architect daily faced with manufacturer claims of “recycled” “recyclable” and “non-toxic”.

The project responsible for the new ratings scheme, the Australian Life Cycle Inventory Database Initiative is jointly funded by the Building Products Innovation Council and AusIndustry to the tune of $1.6 million.

Partners in the project include the Australian Life Cycle Assessment Society CSIRO, BRANZ, and State and Federal governments.

A three year project, it has just over one year to go and is in the crucial stage of developing weightings that will be applied to the criteria used to assess materials.

Project manager is Edge Environment, a research consultancy that focuses on the building industry and specialises in life cycle assessment. LCA looks at the environmental impact of a product or service through its entire life cycle and is also known as cradle to grave analysis.

Tom Davies, Director of Edge Environment, told The Fifth Estate that the enormous complexity of determining the impact of building materials throughout their lifecycle meant the results were often counter intuitive.

“There are so many variables, from the energy used to make the material, to the type of transportation used to get it to the site, to the packaging and then whether it is recycled and how much energy that uses. What you might think is the more sustainable substance often turns out to be the least sustainable.”

And with manufacturers of building materials all having a vested interest in promoting the environmental credentials of their product, there is a plethora of claims and counter claims.

“The ratings tool will cut through all of that and provide a common methodology for assessing the environmental credentials of every building material. If you’re about to build a house you will be able to see the embodied impact of timber, steel and concrete and make an informed decision.
Level basis for competition – at last

“Once we have that it means manufacturers can start to compete on a level basis and they will start to compete to develop the best materials. Our aim is to encourage innovation and the redesigning of products, services and materials,” said Mr Davies.

According to Mr Davies there is currently no consistent or “approved” national methodology for life cycle assessment in Australia and no consistent database of LCA data that can be used to inform design and procurement decisions in the building industry.

In the UK there is an agreed methodology and database of LCA data that has been used to develop practical design tools (Green Guides to Specification), which are referenced in the UK BREEAM environmental rating tools. The BREEAM for Homes has been adapted to create a Code for Sustainable Homes.

In the UK minimum performance on homes is mandatory
It is now compulsory for every home in the UK have a rating against the code and information on this rating to be provided to prospective purchasers. The code includes minimum mandatory levels of performance for:

  • Energy efficiency
  • Water efficiency
  • Surface water management
  • Site waste management
  • Household waste management
  • Use of materials
  • Lifetime homes

Under subsidiary rules in Europe, all European countries can use this system or develop compatible national systems.

The development of the Australian database and assessment methodology involves gathering information from a wide range of sources. Part of this process is a series of “weightings workshops” currently being held throughout Australia.

The weightings will be derived from a series of three hour workshops in 11 different locations selected to span all climate zones and all States and Territories. People from all walks of life will be asked to rank climate change and environmental issues from rising sea levels, to depletion of fresh water supply to ozone depletion.

An additional tool that will be developed out of the AUSLCI project is a design tool for use at the earliest phases of building design. Called ENVEST, the tool will simultaneously reveal both the operational impacts and the materials embodied impacts of a building design as the design evolves.

In doing so, says Tom Davies, it aims to reveal the key design tradeoffs to minimise life cycle greenhouse gas emissions and other impacts.

“This allows the environmental aspect of  a building to be rated from its design through to commissioning,” said Mr Davies.

The tool was originally developed in 1998 in the UK, drawing from the Life Cycle Assessment data generated within the UK Environmental Profiles project administered by the Centre for Sustainable Construction at BRE on behalf of UK Government.  Edge Environment intends to update and adapt this tool to the Australian context as ENVEST Australia.

Workshops to help develop the AusLCI weightings criteria will be held around the country from Wednesday October 21. For more information on venues and locations of the workshops click here.

lblundell@thefifthestate.com.au

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