by Lynne Blundell

FAVOURITES – 17 June 2010 – The lifecycle assessment tool that will arm designers and architects with comprehensive knowledge of the true sustainability of Australian building materials is in its final stages of development, with a release deadline set for November.

The Australian Life Cycle Inventory Database Initiative is jointly funded by the Building Products Innovation Council and AusIndustry. Partners in the project include the Australian Life Cycle Assessment Society CSIRO, BRANZ, and State and Federal governments.

The project is being managed by Edge Environment, a research consultancy that focuses on the building industry and specialises in life cycle assessment (see our earlier story).

Edge Environment’s team has just completed the crucial stage of developing weightings that will be applied to the criteria used to assess materials. To do this they travelled the country, conducting workshops in 11 locations selected to span all climate zones and all States and Territories. People from all walks of life were asked to rank 12 different impact categories. These categories included:

  • Global warming
  • Eco toxicity
  • Ozone depletion
  • Human toxicity
  • Abiotic resource depletion
  • Land transformation use
  • Eutrophication
  • Acidification
  • Photochemical smog
  • Ionizing radiation
  • Respiratory effects
  • Water depletion

Project leader Nigel Howard told The Fifth Estate that gathering the opinions of a wide cross section of the population was a vital aspect of determining the importance of the various factors in lifecycle assessment.

Nigel Howard

“Weightings are always controversial because they are subjective. We only use them where science doesn’t allow us to progress and we need to know how relatively important each factor is,” Mr Howard said.

“Up until now every lifecycle assessment developer and ratings tool developer used their own weightings but we wanted to go to Australian stakeholders – otherwise it is just the opinion of one or a few. This is the most thorough weightings process we are aware of and we think it is a reasonable representation of the Australian average,” says Howard.

The results of the workshops confirmed findings of weightings in the United Kingdom, the United States and New Zealand with very little variation in relative weightings across the 11 Australian locations.

The largest variation, says Howard, occurred with opinions on global warming.

“The average concern about global warming was similar to results in other countries but there was larger variation here, with some very concerned and others not so much. We believe this was influenced by the amount of media coverage about global warming at the time our workshops were being held.”

The weightings will be available as a separate toolkit, which can be applied to the lifecycle assessment database of building materials.

The database will include lifecycle information on around 100 building materials, which is very comprehensive says Howard when you consider that the mass of buildings is made up of about four key materials.

One of the biggest gaps in the information gathered so far is floor coverings and also the impact of cleaning, maintenance and replacement life of materials.

“This was one of the disappointments as there is surprisingly little data on this. We’re hoping someone will fill the gap. This can make a significant difference to the impact if you take into account the cleaning of something like a floor covering required once a week over the period of its life,” says Howard.

Edge Environment has been working with LCA practitioners and the developers of rating tools and eco labels who will be embedding the information from the database in their own tools.

According to Nigel Howard the Green Building Council of Australia has also expressed interest in incorporating lifecycle assessment into its Green Star ratings.

The other tool that Edge Environment is developing specifically for designers is expected to be available within about a year. Called ENVEST the tool is for use at the earliest phases of building design and will simultaneously reveal both the operational impacts and the materials embodied impacts of a building design as the design evolves.

This allows designers and architects to understand the key design tradeoffs to minimise life cycle greenhouse gas emissions and other impacts.

“This will provide a generic design tool for buildings allowing comparison of building materials. We’re also encouraging eco labelling companies to embed lifecycle data into their ratings to help decision making on specific products at the procurement stage,” says Howard.

lblundell@thefifthestate.com.au