Sustainability calculations rarely guide building design

HEAL researched how sustainability is taken into account in the early design phase of buildings. We interviewed experts along the entire value chain to gain deeper understanding of the processes required for sustainability calculations, design process, pain points and opportunities.

HEAL researched sustainability in building design phase

Currently, building Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) seems to be the most thorough tool for impact calculations that exists, yet it is rarely used as a driver for change. LCA was originally created for materials and has been later on adapted for entire buildings, raising contrary opinions of how useful it is for as complicated products as buildings. LCA in construction is also critisised for it does not take into account social or economic impact or the emissions of travel and transportation of workforce. Nevertheless, many professionals still believe in the potential that building LCA offers for sustainability improvements.

LCA was originally created for materials and was later adapted to buildings

It is fairly common that building LCA is used solely to achieve sustainability certifications such as LEED or BREEAM or to fulfil other standards like Level(s). The impact calculations are usually applied only after the design phase, so they seldom guide design.

The building LCA is not simple and straightforward to calculate. Along the process, various professional tools and the input of several experts within the value chain are required. Although the process of impact calculations is quite collaborative by nature, firms have not leveraged the potential to jointly develop calculation technology or ways for information sharing. Most calculations are secured with NDAs and firms are investing resources to develop own tools to their specified needs.

Calculating building LCA is relatively collaborative by nature

Based on the pains and gains raised in the interviews, three opportunity areas were defined.

1. Carbon as a driver for more sustainable building

Carbon is a priority in environmental impact calculations. Nevertheless, calculations, as well as the wider public dialogue, focus heavily on carbon emissions rather than embodied carbon. This affects especially the timber building industry where carbon intake is a significant sustainability aspect.

Despite the emitted carbon is emphasised in the building LCA, tools to simply measure and estimate emissions are relatively sparse. Many professionals see that there would be an opportunity to develop digital tools and databases that enable simpler ways to measure, compare and communicate environmental impact to help assessing sustainable design.

2. Open source to make information and tools accessible

Many companies are developing their own impact calculation tools to meet their specified needs and foster internal development. Collaborative, open source development could help firms to release resources from developing new tools to actually improve sustainability. Joint development has the potential to increase affordability so that impact calculations would also be accessible for firms with fewer resources.

3. Understanding of economic advantages of sustainability

Environmental values and sustainability portfolios are often seen as an advantage for investors. The awareness that economic advantage can be boosted by investments in sustainability is steadily increasing. Understanding how environmental assessment can improve products could support this trend further and encourage firms for more sustainable design.

Companies often go as far as just meeting sustainability values.

By setting regulations, governments have a strong influence on the way sustainability calculations are implemented to use. Although regulations can be used to set minimum requirements for sustainability, they are not always an effective way to encourage for decreasing environmental impact. New regulations often push smaller players down since tools are usually not catered for their needs and small firms might not have the resources to access the systems needed. Additionally, when given minimum requirements, many companies settle for just meeting the threshold values and don’t go beyond what is required by law. In the attempt to increase the development and use of environmental impact calculations, it would be critical for governments to find ways to support the implementation of sustainability practices in encouraging in addition to restricting manners.

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