7 April 2011 – Special Report: Building materials are on the cusp of a major revolution driven by demand for more sustainable products and processes. And the tools used to assess their sustainable credentials are an integral part of this revolution. It is a complex world full of acronyms such as LCA, BIM and LCI and driven by people obsessed with methodology and analysis. We dipped a toe into this rapidly evolving and fascinating area.

Assessing the sustainability of building materials is a minefield. It is an area fraught with commercial vested interests and fierce competition and every manufacturer has a particular barrow to push.

Luckily there are tools to help with the process, and these, like the materials they focus on, are in the midst of rapid change and innovation and driven by a move to life cycle assessment of materials, that is the impact of a material from the beginning to end of its life.

Currently designers and engineers use a range of tools to make decisions about the sustainability of materials and building products. These include lifecycle assessment, or LCA, software systems such as LCAid (developed by the NSW Department of Public Works and Services), SIMAPro and GABI, and eco certification schemes such as Good Environmental Choice Australia, or GECA, and Ecospecifier’s Green Tag.

The Green Building Council of Australia also has a materials ratings as part of its Green Star ratings system. Green Star relies on third party certification bodies to test and rate products and materials. Currently it recognises four certification schemes for materials, including: GECA, Carpet Institute of Australia’s Environmental Certification Scheme, Ecospecifier’s GreenTag GreenRate, Australasian Furnishing Research and Development Institute Limited’s Sustainability Standard.

In addition the GBCA has ratings criteria for four major building materials: timber, concrete, steel and PVC. Following a recent review process all four ratings have been updated on a “best practice” basis, which raised questions in the industry at the time regarding whether the GBCA was lowering the bar for materials manufacturers. (see our earlier story on this). This process is almost completed with criteria for the last of the four materials, concrete, expected to be announced in about two months.

The next step for the GBCA is to incorporate life cycle assessment in its materials ratings, which it will start to do from next year.

It’s complex

Building Products Life Cycle Inventory
Last month another resource hit the market – the Building Products Life Cycle Inventory (see our earlier story on this and a report on launch of the inventory.)

This massive collection of data on Australian building materials and their sustainability profile is set to push lifecycle assessment to a new level.

Life cycle assessment, which looks at all aspects of a material or product’s impact from manufacture through to end of life, is not new. What is new for the Australian building industry is a consistent set of data tailored to Australian products and conditions.

The BP LCI brings together information on more than 100 building materials gathered from around 120 companies. A three year project, compilation of the database required the project leaders, Edge Environment, to travel the country gathering information and running workshops.

The next step is for the data to be assimilated into other materials rating and eco labeling tools to bring consistency and an Australian standard.

The BP LCI will also develop Environmental Product Declarations which create a benchmark for designers, retailers and consumers for comparing and assessing the sustainability of products.

Another major tool scheduled to come out of the project in the next year 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.

Edge Environment managing director, Nigel Howard, told The Fifth Estate that up until now life cycle assessment of material and products in Australia has been using data from a wide range of different sources. The BPIC database will allow common methodology to be applied.

“We got all the trade associations to agree on a common way of making measurements. In the past different materials have had a different emphasis – for steel the emphasis was recyclability, for concrete thermal mass and for timber sequestered carbon. So nobody could compare like with like,” says Howard.

For a common methodology to be applied to materials weightings for a wide range of environmental and social criteria had to be determined. This was done through weightings workshops held around the country. The end result was a database specific to the Australian environment.

The assimilation of the data into rating tools will take some time. So far the various software developers and eco labeling companies have been receptive, says Howard, with most keen to assimilate the data into their tools.

“The next step is for the life cycle assessment and building design community to work out how they will use all this data in their tools. When it gets converted into design tools and eco labeling systems we will be able to say that it is really making a difference.”

Haico Schepers, Arup principal, says the building products database will help standardise the industry and provide a benchmark. Currently Arup includes in its specifications a requirement for products or materials to be certified by recognised ecolabels such as GECA and Ecospecifier. If tools all assimilate BPIC methodology and data this will raise the bar and bring a common standard.

“A difficult aspect of lifecycle assessment is that it is hard and very expensive to keep up to date. Now that a common standard is there we can demand that in our specifications,” says Schepers.

Another issue with uniformity has been the highly sensitive nature of commercial information from materials manufacturers. Having an Australian standard through the BPIC database would hopefully fix this problem.

Judy Hollingworth

Good Environmental Choice Australia
Judy Hollingworth, chief executive officer of GECA, told The Fifth Estate, the eco labelling and certification industry, along with society as a whole was in the midst of a sustainability revolution and would be for the next 20 years.

“We’ve had the industrial revolution and the communications revolution, now we’re in the midst of a sustainability revolution. We are all coming to terms with how to make it genuinely work, not greenwashing but a genuinely sustainable way of producing products and materials.

“The interest in life cycle assessment and life cycle indexes will bring about change and we’re in the midst of trying to find a way forward that is not fractured and doesn’t complicate an already complicated area.

“We also need to find an approach that is even handed to all players and I’ll be very interested to see if that happens. It will take a while for it to settle down and everyone who takes it [life cycle assessment and product certification] on will contribute to a better system,” says Hollingworth.

GECA has been through considerable change over the past two years. A non-profit, member based eco certification organisation, it recently announced changes to its auditing process, designed, says Hollingworth, to ensure GECA maintains its reputation for independent, transparent certification.

While the changes came after a legal challenge from a furnishing textiles supplier who claimed, amongst other things, that GECA had too close an association with its single auditing firm, they did not flow out of the case says Hollingworth. Rather, they were part of changes that had been underway since 2008. Previously, GECA’s single auditor was Environmental Assurance, operated by GECA’s founder Petar Johnson.

“When you are an independent standards association there are always questions about how you do your business. We have to walk a line where people can’t accuse us of having vested interests. It is very important for us to have third party auditors who have an arms length relationship with us,” says Hollingworth.

Under the changes, GECA has opened its auditing process up with a new requirement that auditors must have JAS-ANZ or the Joint Accreditation System of Australia & New Zealand  accreditation.  It has appointed NCS International Pty Limited as an auditor and is working towards offering a panel of auditors to assess products and services. Davis Langdon Certification Services is currently applying for certification for the scheme.

In a media statement on the changes GECA said: “We acknowledge the contribution made to sustainable production and procurement in Australia by Petar Johnson, the founder of GECA and the Environmental Choice Australia program, and thank him and the Environmental Assurance team for acting as GECA’s exclusive auditor to this point.”

Judy Hollingworth says Environmental Assurance, along with any other auditor will be welcome to apply to be a GECA certifier once it has JAS-ANZ accreditation.

Another change for GECA was the widening of Green Star’s recognised materials certifiers. Originally GECA had been the only certification program recognised by Green Star for materials and products certification but last year it invited other programs to apply. Three more came on board. Hollingworth says GECA welcomed the change.

“We said at the time anyone who comes into the market assists us do our work. We welcome other labels as it broadens demand for sustainable products and services, it alerts manufacturers to this demand and it builds and expands the green building sector. Competition brings improvement. It is actually constructive co-existence,” says Hollingworth.

GECA is currently considering incorporating the BP LCI data into its ratings scheme.

“We’ll have to look at the inventory and see how we relate what we do to it. We’re open to anything that comes into the market if we can see an opportunity for mutual benefit. We have just started to have a conversation with them.”

The other major Australian eco labeling program, Ecospecifier has also been busy, launching a website in March on which it displays its ratings categories, GreenTag LCARate and its new GreenTag GreenRate.

GreenTag LCARate is a detailed life cycle assessment rating of products compared to the worst case business as usual product commonly available on the market and is reflected in a bronze, silver, gold or platinum rating.

GreenTag GreenRate is a bespoke system designed to accommodate Green Building Council, specific government or corporate accreditation requirements.

Ecospecifier also offers its Verified Product Program which verifies a product has been rigorously third party assessed in accordance with the Standard and all product eco claims meet ISO 14021 and ACCC Environment Claims Guidelines.

David Baggs, Ecospecifier’s technical director, sees the introduction of the BPIC database as indicative that the industry is on the verge of massive change.

“There is no doubt that a database such as BPIC is going to add to the overall depth of the LCA industry. The very fact that it is available gives the GBCA confidence to announce a timeframe for incorporating LCA into its materials tools,” says Baggs.

He says the three things that will drive the green building sector over the next few years are lifecycle analysis, LCA certification and building information modeling.

“Whether the industry realises it or not, leaders in the sector are already involved in this as are the major building contractors and retailers,” says Baggs.

By the end of this year, says Baggs, Ecospecifier will launch a rapid green building eco profiling tool for branded products called LCADesign which is underpinned by a BIM-based assessment tool. This will bring speed to the design process.

“When Stadium Australia was being designed it took 10.5 ‘man’-years [defined as the amount of work performed by an average worker during one year – around 2000 hours] to compare three different lifecycle scenarios. Using interoperable models in this new tool you will be able to do the same thing in a few days,” says Baggs.

Green Building Council of Australia
Robin Mellon, the GBCA’s executive director advocacy and international, told The Fifth Estate the GBCA would start to look at incorporating life cycle assessment into its materials ratings from 2012.

“We are certainly starting to look at it but we’re giving people reassurance that we won’t be making enormous changes – they will be phased in gradually. We will have a dual route for looking at materials for at least 12 months.

“A lot of big projects already using lifecycle assessment and things like carbon measurement. Our first task is to look at all the various options and see what fits best with Green Star.”

Green Star is also in the process of updating its Materials Calculator 2.0 to be used in all Green Star ratings. One of the improvements expected to come out of the update is a reduction in the amount of churn, a major issue in fitouts.

“There is so much work to be done in the area of fitouts. The amount of churn is enormous. One of the bizarre things is furniture such as chairs and other furnishings are designed to last 15 years but they are being thrown out after five. This needs to be addressed, so at least they can be recycled. The flexibility of design comes into play also – spaces should be able to be more readily re-used,” says Mellon.

Green leases are also adding to the problem with fitout clauses often requiring tenants to “make good” [return premises to their condition at the start of the lease] when they move out.

“These clauses cause millions of dollars of waste each year. We’re talking to the RICS [Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors] and facility managers about how to improve this situation

Robin Mellon says the new version of the materials calculator will be released in the next few months.

While this version won’t include life cycle assessment, it seems likely that future updates will, particularly as the GBCA states in its report on the materials calculator review that it would address LCA once two main challenges were overcome. These were: generating sufficient life cycle inventory data that is specific to Australia and collating this data into an Australian life cycle inventory database which can be accessed readily and equitably by the developers of LCA tools.

With the development of the Building Products Life Cycle Inventory these challenges are being addressed.

Mellon is cautiously optimistic about the role LCA will play in the selection of building materials.

“Lifecycle assessment is only going to be the thing if it can be explained simply. I’ve seen an LCA diagram that confused the heck out of me. We need to be able to explain it in a clear way for materials. Green Star has been accused of over-simplifying things but we must make it understandable so that materials choice is made easier. This will also ensure it is environmentally and economically more successful,” says Mellon.

“It is better to take time to explain something well than rush in and confuse everyone.”


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