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The business case for building life-cycle assessment

As a green building expert, can you afford to ignore building LCA? 

In this article, we look at why demand for building LCA is soaring and how you can include it in your offer, even if you are new to it. 

Life-cycle assessment (LCA) is a scientific methodology that provides a numerical assessment of a project’s lifetime environmental impacts, from raw material extraction and manufacture, through construction, use and repair and replacement, all the way to demolition and disposal. 

As a scientific approach, governed by international standards, it guarantees the reliable, objective, and actionable results that businesses and consumers need.

Life-cyle assessment (LCA) focuses on environmental indicators, while life-cycle costing (LCC) offers an overview of the costs of the project over the whole lifetime (usually 60 years for a building). Throughout this article, LCA is used as shorthand for the two.

5 factors driving demand for building LCA

1. Net-zero targets need a lifetime perspective

The environmental impact of buildings, real estate and construction cannot be ignored. The sector uses 50% of the world’s processed raw materials, is responsible for 40% of all energy consumption in the EU, whilst in Germany, it accounts for 50% of all waste.

To meet net-zero targets, it is important to understand the difference between embodied and operational carbon.

  • Embodied carbon refers to the emissions arising from the extraction, manufacture and transportation of building products and materials. It contributes approximately 11% of all global GHG emissions.
  • Operational carbon describes emissions from the use of the building: for example, the energy needed to heat, cool and maintain it. It contributes approximately 28% of global CO2.

Efforts to reduce the impact of the construction sector have long focused on operational carbon. However, as building operations and energy grid efficiency improve, embodied carbon is becoming recognised as a dominant climate impact driver.

Building LCA is the most effective way of quantifying and reducing embodied and operational carbon.

Developing expertise in building LCA demonstrates a commitment to measuring and reducing the environmental impact and enables construction professionals to establish a market niche in sustainable construction.

2. Regulatory demands

France, the Netherlands, the UK, Finland, Denmark and Sweden are among the countries that have introduced laws requiring the embodied carbon of new buildings to be measured and reported. Other countries are expected to follow suit.

Here are just a couple of examples of what these regulations require. For more, read our article on the changing face of embodied carbon regulation.

  • The UK: any development of more than 150 residential units or buildings over 30 m in height and commercial buildings over 2500 m2 within London requires Whole Life Carbon Assessments according to the London Plan.
  • France: mandatory whole-life carbon (in other words, including embodied and operational carbon) impact limits for most building types are planned for 2022. Supporting regulation for product environmental data is already in place.
  • Sweden: embodied carbon declarations are expected to be mandatory by 2022, likely to be followed by mandatory emission limits.
  • Finland: whole-life carbon impacts need to be calculated for most building types as part of the low-carbon construction roadmap.

3. LCA in green building certification schemes

Life cycle-related credits make an appearance in many national and international schemes green building certification schemes like BREEAM and LEED, driving demand for LCA. Our Embodied Carbon Review found that 105 sustainable construction schemes include measures addressing embodied carbon directly.

Building LCA credits have two main goals within green building certification schemes:

  • To assess and reduce the building’s carbon footprint and other impacts throughout the whole lifecycle.
  • To promote early emissions-reduction decisions. This makes sense as the highest potential to reduce the emissions of a building lies in the early design phase. The ability to influence the life cycle emissions dramatically drops as the life cycle stages progress.

Read One Click LCA’s guide to LCA credits in green building certification schemes for an analysis of LCA credits in BREEAM and LEED

4. Corporate GHG reporting requirements

Businesses and real estate investors that are required to report their portfolio emissions need the level of robust data offered by LCA. Corporate reporting responsibilities will increase further under the EU Sustainable Finance Taxonomy, which places great emphasis on lifetime impacts.

5. A backlash against greenwashing

Across the construction value chain, clients are increasingly looking for verifiable evidence of environmental efficiency, rather than vague eco-labelling. LCA provides the reliable, objective, and actionable results that businesses and consumers need.

The Business Case for the Use of Life Cycle Metrics by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) analyzes in more detail how and why LCA has grown to become an integral part of sustainability services.

How to sell life-cycle metrics services

1. Choose the right tool

LCA used to take weeks and even months, which made it an expensive and time-consuming option especially when the data collection process took a long time. Both these problems have been solved by automation and the evolution of databases. Therefore, one of the most efficient ways to sell LCA and LCC services is to select a tool that enables automated data import to cut down the time required for calculations and has a database with relevant and reliable data, most importantly EPDs.

One Click LCA provides access to the world’s largest construction sector environmental database, integrates with a wide range of design tools to speed up processes and supports over 50 green building certifications and regulations.

2. Harness the potential of LCA – across the value chain

The use of life-cycle metrics is not limited to new construction projects. The methodology can be used to quantify the impact of any construction product, project or entire real estate portfolio.

Product manufacturers and their clients increasingly require verified product LCA data, often published as an Environmental Product Declaration.

Read more about the EPD and product solutions we offer for manufacturers and consultants providing services to them.

LCA data can also be used to inform public tenders, infrastructure projects, renovation and refurbishment, city planning, low carbon policy development and GHG reporting.

3. Harness the potential of LCA – throughout all project stages

No matter what kind of project, setting carbon targets early using LCA will result in more significant emissions reductions. The more a project progresses, the more opportunities to cut carbon and other impacts are effectively lost. LCA can also be repeated throughout the project to monitor progress.

Developers and investors are in a particularly strong position to set requirements at the earliest phases of a project to ensure that best practices are used throughout to achieve the lowest emissions.

Read the One Click LCA/WBCSD report Decarbonizing construction which provides over 50 embodied carbon reduction  policies, specifically tailored for developers and investors.

4. Emphasise the bottom line

Where there is carbon, there is cost. However, it is not always clear to budget holders that reducing lifetime environmental impacts can also improve their bottom line.

By performing LCA and LCC in combination, it is possible to identify the design and material choices that result in the lowest emissions and highest cost savings for a project while avoiding sub-optimization.

Ebook

7 steps guide to Building Life Cycle Assessment

Article

Unregulated energy use and carbon emissions from buildings – and how it is changing

Research

Embodied Carbon Review

Embodied Carbon Review One Click LCA

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