Op-Ed

Life-Cycle Assessment "A Powerful Tool When Used Right"

A leading voice on life-cycle assessment offers a call to action for responsible use of LCA for sustainable design.

It was nice to see your recent piece, “Whole-Building Life-Cycle Assessment: Taking the Measure of a Green Building,” and I appreciated the thoughtful quotes from some leading-edge practitioners out there. You rightfully are cautioning that we need to use—and not abuse—life-cycle assessment (LCA). 

LCA is a powerful tool when used right. How do we ensure it’s used right? With exploding interest in LCA and many new users of tools like our Impact Estimator, we may have to step up our collective efforts towards continual improvement of the tools, the data, and the protocols. I think we’re all aiming for a robust performance basis in sustainable design, but there’s work to do before we get there. 

I see your article as a call to action:

• Standards and other protocols are needed for how whole-building LCA is conducted and reported. Some work is under way, but it’s slow. What can the construction sector do to move this along?

• Maybe the codes and rating systems organizations can lead a collaborative effort towards standardization. A few of us in the LCA world have ideas for a robust system suitable for code or rating-system compliance, to replace the first-generation LCA approaches now in LEED, the International Green Construction Code, CalGreen, ASHRAE 189.1, and Green Globes.

• The Impact Estimator is the Athena Institute’s contribution to the mission—provided for free, thanks to our supporters—but we need more support if we are to ramp up its sophistication soon. Want more flexibility, more materials, better reporting, linking with building information modeling? Then help us find funding.

• Key to whole-building LCA is massive data collection on all the materials, products and processes involved in construction. Whether intended for the Impact Estimator, for environmental product declarations, or for product improvement, manufacturing data is critical. Help motivate the suppliers in this sector to undertake product LCA.

• LCA practitioners (including Athena) should perhaps more aggressively guide the manufacturing sector in the proper use of LCA data, so that LCA doesn’t become the basis for an advanced form of greenwashing.

I hope EBN will continue to track LCA and help guide its evolution in the construction sector. 

Jennifer O’Connor, President

Athena Sustainable Materials Institute

 

Published June 27, 2013

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