Life-Cycle Assessment for Dummies? New LCA Guides Available

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Two new resources explain the strengths and limitations of life-cycle assessments for practitioners and the general pubic.

By Candace Pearson

Comparing Impacts of Whole Buildings

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Much like a comparative energy model, a whole-building LCA compares impacts of a proposed building and a reference building in order to find leverage points and guide design decisions.

Source: Athena Sustainable Materials Institute

Two free resources are now available to help demystify life-cycle assessment (LCA) for different audiences.

The “Athena Guide to Whole-Building LCA in Green Building Programs” is intended to help designers understand LCA provisions across various rating systems and codes—LEED v4, Green Globes, general federal compliance for new construction, the 2012 International Green Construction Code (IgCC), and the 2010 CALGreen building code—as well as to give direction on how to incorporate LCA into the design process. The report provides details on the inner workings of the Athena Impact Estimator, explains how to build a reference design, and shows what inputs to include in a whole-building LCA.

A second report, which is authored by the Sustainable Materials Management Coalition, offers advice for governments and businesses that may be seeking to use LCA to buy more environmentally friendly products. “Guidance on Life-Cycle Thinking and Its Role in Environmental Decision Making,” explains life-cycle thinking and provides examples of how LCAs can be used appropriately and how poorly chosen boundaries for this type of assessment can lead to misleading results (see “Whole-Building Life-cycle Assessment: Taking the Measure of a Green Building” and “The Product Transparency Movement: Peeking Behind the Corporate Veil”).

While both reports emphasize LCA’s potential to bring to light the environmental impact that materials, products, or whole buildings may have, they also remind readers that LCA should be viewed as a limited estimating tool. The Athena report states, “LCA addresses only some of the environmental impacts of interest in a sustainability agenda” and forewarns that “it is a predictive science with uncertainities and data gaps.”

As EBN has noted previously, other impacts need to be measured with other tools, such as certifications that gauge social equity or worker and occupant health.

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May 5, 2014