Caroline Noller

18 March 2014 — A new online platform is giving business, planners, architects and educational institutions the ability to quickly and cost-effectively assess options for building – and living – within the earth’s finite resources.

The online sustainability calculation system and software platform has been developed by Dr Caroline Noller’s The Footprint Company. TFC’s calculators deliver a whole of building, whole of life evaluation that incorporates energy, water and materials footprints and formulates an embodied carbon figure for a project. It also allows the user to explore the sustainability and cost impacts of different design decisions rapidly, enabling choices to be made that achieve the highest possible level of sustainability within a budget.

Developed initially as a software package and recently launched as an online platform, the calculator is based on a decade’s worth of data collected by Dr Noller on life cycle impacts of design decisions in terms of energy, water and materials footprints.

Users can accurately evaluate and monitor actual outcomes and can calculate investment and carbon payback returns, with a comparison function allowing them to compare up to 20 different project scenarios simultaneously.

The calculators draw on a range of international standards, and have been third-party peer reviewed for robustness, accuracy and effectiveness. Every project also contributes to the evolution of the data, as the data is fed back into the TFC database to generate comprehensive pictures of the needs and solutions relevant to different businesses.

TFC also develops customised versions for clients with specific needs, and provides a consulting service to assess and advise on lifecycle sustainability and project footprinting.

The calculators are licensed to users at a cost ranging from a few hundred dollars for a retail tenancy fitout to several thousand dollars for a more complex project such as a shopping centre or university campus.

Since TFC entered the marketplace in 2012, the products have been used by more than 800 projects in Australia, the USA, Singapore and Hong Kong. More than 40 universities worldwide have used the campus-specific calculator including Macquarie University, University of New South Wales, Monash University, Harvard University, the University of South California and Boston University in the USA.

The company’s turnover has grown from $300,000 in the first year of operation to $600,000 in 2013, with Dr Noller expecting growth to continue as the product meets a need in the market for a solution that is far less costly than hiring a consultant to undertake the initial design modelling, and less time-intensive and complex than some of the formal rating tool systems.

Speaking with The Fifth Estate on the eve of her attendance at Green Cities 2014, Dr Noller said Real Estate Investment Trusts were proving a strong market, as to maintain their licenses in mainland China they are required under Chinese law to have lifecycle assessment and footprinting for projects.

Dr Noller said the tool is often engaged by projects that are unlikely to apply for a formal green rating credential as for a low up-front investment it gives users a number of options for achieving sustainable outcomes, many of which are low or no cost. Another benefit is it allows to users to identify ways of trimming a project’s budget, regardless of the size of the project, while still achieving more sustainable results on a lifecycle basis.

Case studies: The calculators in action

“[The calculator] aligns the process of design with [sustainability] information, it thinks about how people design,” Dr Noller said. “Simple changes, once [users] understand the embodied carbon, have led a client to a different design, which can both save money and save on embodied carbon.”

An example is a recent project undertaken by Pymble Ladies College in Sydney, which engaged TFC to quantify the life cycle carbon emissions of a new aquatic centre to align with the school’s environmental policy goals.

TFC established a whole of building impact from the project’s design drawings and cost plan, a shopping list of items to choose from based on their ecological impact and cost effectiveness, observations on design alternatives and a report of the findings and opportunities.

The assessment identified pathways to reduce the project’s carbon footprint by 15 per cent with an associated capital cost saving of 3 per cent of the total build cost.

GPT has been involved with the calculators since its inception, as they are based partly on methods and data developed by Dr Noller while working for GPT.

“I visualised a periodic table of building materials, which had each material’s ecological footprint and costs,” Dr Noller said.

The calculators also incorporate building physics information, drawing on research from the University of New South Wales Materials Science School, and another application adds in operating elements as an additional part of the overall lifecycle analysis matrix.

GPT approached Dr Noller to fully develop the potential of the data and methodology to provide rapid results, and allowing her to purchase the IP of her earlier in-house work to form the foundation for TFC.

GPT has used the calculator successfully on a number of their projects, including the Rouse Hill Town Centre, for which TFC developed a comprehensive ecological footprint strategy and development brief. TFC supported the GPT design team through a detailed and discrete footprint assessment of major materials, which resulted in the project achieving a 21 per cent recycled and embodied carbon footprint reduction.

For Macquarie University, TFC developed the Multi-Use and Campus Ecological Footprint Calculators, which are being embedded into the university’s curriculum with undergraduate units doing faculty assessments using the calculators.

The calculators are also being used to undertake detailed ecological footprint assessments on new development projects planned for the main campus, with assessments taking place throughout the building development trajectory of feasibility, concept design, detailed design and as built.

In addition, the university is using the calculators to set a campus sustainability target and capture all non-capital expenditure and model elements of the Masterplan to see how the growth is impacting the overall footprint, using this information to guide design decisions.

Empirical information gives options not opinions

“Contrary to the argument that sustainability costs more, the calculators can clearly demonstrate the consequences of decisions in both cost and footprint terms, allowing buildings which are tightly budgeted to still assess and create options for being more sustainable,” Dr Noller said.

“[The calculators] are driving performance based sustainability outcomes… and take one tenth of the time of the traditional route to do a complex lifecycle assessment.

“Being based on data and mathematics, this is an evidence-based assessment methodology. It takes away the opinion [element] and the facts can speak for themselves.

“It doesn’t tell you your building has to have [something like] a large PV system to be sustainable; it tells you how to get the lowest footprint.”

“Architects know that [ecological] efficiency is better on an intuitive level, our software gives them the dollar value to go to clients… it gives an architect the language to go to a client and say, ‘This will give us 20 million less tonnes of embodied carbon.’

“It might be the cheapest building in the world, but it can still be low footprint.”

One of the reasons for architects to use the tool is that it is, according to Dr Noller, far more effective to consider a project footprint at the earliest stage of the design, rather than engaging a specialist consultant in the later stages to advise on sustainability.

The central issue was how to resolve the “design nexus” between the architect and the project’s embodied carbon and lifecycle sustainability, and reach a point where an architect would be able to draw the lines knowing the result would be as sustainable as possible, and then bring that awareness of minimising the footprint into all the aspects of the building, including fitout materials such as floor finishes.

This, according to Dr Noller, enables an architect to make choices that make an impact on overall building sustainability and also leverages an increased ability to embrace innovation.

“[The tool] empowers them to be their own sustainability consultant. A barrier to progress [in sustainability] has been the complexity in assessment [of some systems], which has stifled innovation. To progress sustainability, innovation must happen at an early stage in the development process,” Dr Noller said.

“In the early phases [of a project] is when the big decisions about how to avoid thousands and thousands of tonnes of carbon are made… we break the barrier of complexity.”

How materials enter the equation

The complexity factor in calculating footprints includes not only the standard energy and embodied water data, but also the “global metres squared” of productive land sequestered by extraction of materials, extraction of waste and extraction of energy for each square metre of a material or project.

“[The global metre squared is] a very powerful figure for the property sector. They get it because they know how much one metre squared of property takes to cool, to clean and to maintain,” Dr Noller said.

She gave the example of the footprint of aluminium used in a standard house, which can equate to up to three tonnes of aluminium in total. This footprint includes the embodied carbon of the CO2 (energy) for the mining, refining, fabrication and all transport including to site for installation; plus global metres squared for the material and its fabrication; as well as what Dr Noller estimates to be “gigalitres” of water per tonne.

“Embodied water is as hot a ticket as embodied carbon,” Dr Noller noted.

A final figure in the report produced by the tool is how many “planets” a design will require. This is a measure of how many planet earths would be required if all developments made the same choices. Currently, the average development uses a 1.5 planet equivalent, a figure we cannot collectively globally sustain beyond 2030.

TFC’s research and development is ongoing. Of the company’s five current full-time personnel, there is always one or two engaged in ongoing investigations into materials and their footprints, to add to the data.

The calculators themselves are also evolving constantly, with a new aspect of the application enabling real-time feedback on the design decisions being made by architects using the calculators for projects.