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New Tools for Whole Building Life Cycle Assessment

By Jonathan Rowe

Globally, there’s an important shift in what it means for building materials and products to qualify as “green.” Familiar single-attribute proxies like recycled content, regional availability and low-VOC are gradually progressing towards more transparent environmental and health performance disclosures across a product or project’s entire lifecycle. Green building certification schemes are integrating life cycle assessment (LCA) as a tool to quantify, communicate and manage environmental impacts from the scale of individual products to whole buildings. The problem is, very few architects are experts in LCA and need help making good decisions with unfamiliar datasets.

In today’s building construction sector, design moves incredibly fast. Building Information Modeling (BIM), a data-rich 3D model-based process for delivering high performance real estate and infrastructure, is now the standard approach for architecture, engineering, and construction industries in North America. Along with supporting better coordination and visualization among multidisciplinary teams, BIM models can serve as the basis for deep sustainability analyses through simulation at key project milestones. This virtual feedback is particularly potent when flowing at the speed of design.

Most designers prioritize implementing sustainability strategies that save energy during a building’s use phase, and with good reason.  For conventional, code-compliant buildings, energy consumption during occupancy represents the lion’s share of life cycle impacts. But as energy codes and industry adeptness drive better operational efficiency, there emerges a corresponding need to better manage environmental impacts associated with—or “embodied in”— the extraction, manufacture, transportation, assembly, and end-of-life disposal of building materials.

Through a partnership with Autodesk, KieranTimberlake tackled this need head on by studying extensively how a virtual 3D model could help rapidly quantify the embodied environmental impacts of their materials-related decisions. KieranTimberlake is one of the few architectural firms in the U.S. certified by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) for the research, management, and delivery of architectural services. They created an early prototype that, when integrated with Autodesk Revit™, supported a set of retrospective embodied energy and carbon footprint studies for already built projects like the Loblolly House and Cellophane House™.  This new workflow provided surprising insights into materials decisions that countered intuition and traditional best practice principles.

Recognizing opportunities for environmental improvement after project completion was frustrating. Could they have made a difference with access to this information at the right stage of design?

The KieranTimberlake Research Group advanced their prototype towards tighter BIM integration, so that real-time tracking could empower architects to proactively understand and reduce the embodied environmental impacts of their building designs.

With Autodesk’s support, KieranTimberlake worked to gather extensive industry feedback during a series of technology previews.  Participants in these previews echoed a strong need for BIM-based workflows to support life-cycle design decision making and emphasized a need for the most credible underlying environmental to support it.

KieranTimberlake recognized that high-quality materials life cycle data can be difficult to find, translate, authenticate and manage over time, especially in the U.S. construction materials supply chain. To overcome that problem, KT partnered with PE International—a global leader in LCA consulting, software, and data management—to ensure their methodology is consistent with the best available information for the building sector.

The result is Tally, a new analysis tool to help BIM users keep better score of their projects’ complete environmental footprints. When used alongside other critical studies like daylighting simulation and energy modeling, whole building LCA and tools like Tally can help construction professionals move towards a future state where rules-of-thumb are wholly substituted with data-driven analysis.

At the same time, we’re seeing a new version of LEED—the most widely adopted green building certification protocol—advance its approach to low-impact materials by incentivizing project teams to conduct whole building life cycle assessment. As the requirements for how to conduct this kind of study become standardized throughout the building industry, one thing is certain: BIM technology will play a pivotal role in democratizing this important aspect of sustainable design.


Jonathan Rowe is a Program Manager for Autodesk’s Sustainability Solutions team. His career in green design spans architecture, engineering, technology, business strategy, and education. Based out of the San Francisco office, he enjoys riding his bike, relaxing in Dolores Park, and seeing breaks in the fog.

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