5 Things You Need to Know about Life Cycle Assessments

ellie_colorEllie Troxell
Sustainability Associate, Civil Engineering


There has been discussion for a number of decades about the environmental impacts of materials and processes, but only recently has a tool been developed in an intentional way to measure those impacts.  The newest addition to the life cycle toolbox is the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA).  LCA’s provide valuable information for exploring decisions related to the environmental impacts of buildings, materials, products, and services.

  1. A Life Cycle Assessment is an evaluation of the environmental impacts of products, processes or services through their life cycle.

The International Standard for Organization (ISO), a world-wide federation of standards bodies, has standardized the LCA framework.  ISO-compliant LCA is the most reliable and referenced technique used to verify environmental impacts.  According to ISO 14040 and 14044 standards:

Life cycle is defined as the “consecutive and interlinked stages of a product or service system, from extraction of natural resources to the final disposal.”

lifeLife Cycle Assessment (LCA) is defined as a “systemic set of procedures for compiling and examining the inputs and outputs of materials and energy and the associated environmental impacts directly attributable to the functioning of a product or service system throughout its life cycle.”

In simpler terms, LCA is a systemic evaluation of the environmental impacts of products, processes or services through their life cycle, and—most importantly—provides a tool that supports making sound, considerate environmentally-relevant decisions. It is also worth noting at this juncture that LCA’s do not analyze economic or social impacts—they focus exclusively on the environmental considerations for a product or service.

  1. Life Cycle Assessments are driven by environmental accountability, corporate sustainability, and procurement policies.

In short, pretty much everyone that makes anything has a reason to use LCAs.  LCAs have been conducted on a variety of products and services across a number of sectors—from jeans to jet engines, trash disposal, and computers.  Various factors are driving this new trend.  First, regulations are moving towards “life cycle accountability”, the idea that the manufacturer is not only responsible for the direct production impacts of a product or service, but its inputs, use, transport, and disposal.  For example, the LEED rating system currently has two MR LCA-based credits in LEED v4, following a now-retired LCA pilot credit.  Green Globes, the International Code Council (ICC), the International Green Construction Code (IGCC), ASHRAE, and Calgreen now all provide alternative LCA compliance paths.  Second, business is voluntarily participating in initiatives that involve LCA and other elements of stewardship.  Third, consumer markets and government procurement parameters have started to cite environmental precedence.

  1. Life Cycle Assessments follow a 4-phase process.

So now you know what an LCA is, and why they are useful.  But how might you go about actually doing a Life Cycle Assessment?  The following four main phases briefly define the LCA process:

Goals & Scoping – Identifies the purpose of the LCA, determines which environmental concerns will be included in the study, and notes all assumptions based on the goal definition.

Inventory – Quantifies the life-cycle for all environmental inputs and outputs of the parts of the building, material, service, or product system involved in the LCA.

Impact Assessment – The assessment takes inventory data given the inputs and converts the information to indicators for a given category. Typically, LCA reports on these environmental effects due to a product, building or service:

  • Fossil fuel depletion
  • Other non-renewable resource use
  • Water use
  • Global warming potential
  • Stratospheric ozone depletion
  • Ground level ozone (smog) creation
  • Eutrophication of water bodies
  • Acidification and acid deposition (dry and wet)
  • Toxic releases to air, water and land

Interpretation – This last step is an analysis of the data evaluating opportunities to reduce waste at each step of the product life-cycle and defines whether the conditions of the goal and scope have been met.

For a typical product, the environmental life cycle impacts (commonly known as “cradle-to-grave” impacts) include the extraction of raw materials, the processing, manufacturing, and fabrication; the transportation or distribution of the product to the consumer; and the disposal or recovery of the product after its useful life.  It is worth keeping in mind, however, that these may not be applicable to every product; there may be instances where one or more are not of particular environmental concern.

  1. There are a wealth of tools to make Life Cycle Assessments easier and faster to conduct.

There are a few tools already available for anyone interested in conducting an LCA.  The following tools differ due to the purpose of the LCA.  Explore which might be the best fit for your purpose:

  1. The two-sides to Life Cycle Assessments: Benefits & Pitfalls.

While LCAs highlight important considerations in the development of a product, they are not yet a silver bullet for environmental concerns.  Thus, it is worth keeping in mind both the benefits of LCAs, as well as those areas where they may fall short.

Benefits Pitfalls
• Pragmatic standard for green design (performance-based)

• Ability to evaluate opportunities to affect environmental improvements

• Introduces the notion of calculating the environmental footprint of a product/service/building

• Greater awareness of environmental implications

• Creates common metrics that can be shared and compared to help choosing one path over another

• Improve product/ corporate image

• Reduce environmental impact & waste

• Difficulty in assessing the environmental effects of resource extraction (biodiversity, water quality, soil stability not easily measured and only minimally addressed in LCA)

• Can be costly and time-consuming limiting their use as analysis techniques

• Quantity of assumptions (all rough estimates)

• Limited ability to account for land-use impacts


 

References:

Athena Institute (2016). About LCA. Retrieved from http://www.athenasmi.org/resources/about-lca/who-does-lca-why/

Williams, Aida S. (2009). Life Cycle Analysis: A Step by Step Approach. ISTC Reports. http://www.istc.illinois.edu/info/library_docs/tr/tr40.pdf

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Expanding your Knowledge and your Network One Conference at a Time

amelia_colorBy Amelia Howe
Sustainability Associate, Environmental Communications

There are many benefits that come from attending an educational conference. As a student in particular, you will have much to gain from these events. You are taking your first introductory steps into an industry, and in these beginning stages will be able to absorb knew knowledge, be inspired by your peers, and meet people who have the potential to change your future for the better.


Learning

Attending a large international conference like Greenbuild as a student is an eye-opening experience. It introduces you to new concepts and ideas; from industries you never knew existed, to having the first look into this year’s newest technology being showcased in the exhibition hall. Not only are you introduced to these new exciting things, but the leaders of industry are teaching your educational sessions, and the technological innovators are standing next to their exhibit ready to answer questions and enlighten you further.

Inspiring

Through each educational session, and conversation held with a new acquaintance, the knowledge being absorbed will be sure to inspire new ideas within yourself. Many attendees you meet around tables during sessions or grabbing a bite to eat, are creative minds full of ideas of how to move the green building industry closer to success. Being surrounded by people with similar passions working within your industry is a powerful thing. The conversations had with these newfound acquaintances will offer an unconventional kind of educational session. It will move you to become the next genius innovator, builder or educator of your generation. The whole experience will leave you feeling inspired to say the least, and ready to take your fresh ideas back to the office or the classroom.

Networking

Not only will you leave the conference feeling inspired, but you will leave with a handful of business cards. Small, 3 ½ by 2 inch pieces of cardstock that could possibly lead you to an open door full of opportunity. These cards may have been handed to you across the table of an educational session or over a cup of coffee in the lobby; with a proper follow-up email, that card may have solidified your next internship. The job market is extremely competitive, and every contact matters when it comes to building your network, you never know, the man or woman sitting next to you at lunch may be able to help you find the job you are looking for. Not only could a potential job opportunity arise from expanding your network, but it opens additional lines of communication with potential mentors and colleagues who could share information regarding what particular companies are looking for, and if they know of an employer looking for someone with your skill set.

Everyone attending university has heard the phrase “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” a thousand times over. It is extremely important to build your network in a competitive job market, and attending a conference is an opportune time to do so. As a student, you will leave the doors of an educational conference with a brain full of new, exciting knowledge, armed with passion-driven inspiration, and a handful of new contacts. All that you are certain to gain attending a conference will push you that much closer to the career you are searching for.

DC Microgrids

6610b-austinBy Austin Good | Sustainable Building Associate

The Institute for the Built Environment (IBE), in partnership with the Center for Energy and Behavior, the Energy Institute, Positive Energies (PosEn), the Colorado Clean Energy Cluster (CCEC), and Schneider Electric have come together to research the use and benefits of DC microgrids. The proposed collaboration includes construction of a new DC microgrid laboratory facility at CSU’s PowerHouse Energy campus and the initiation of new research directions in social science, built environments and DC microgrids.


What is AC & DC Power?

There are two types of electricity, Alternating Current (AC) and Direct Current (DC). These two types of electricity describe the types of electric current that flow through circuits. Each type of current has benefits and limitations. AC power, the power that flows through our current power grid, was chosen as the main form of electricity over 100 years ago. AC became the current of choice because of the ability to transmit power long distances without losing much energy to heat.  AC power is also able to be transmitted at high voltages then put through a transformer to reduce the voltage for the end use of the customer. DC voltage on the other hand cannot be scaled and was much more costly to transmit over distances.

Why DC power?

So why are we talking about DC power? AC power is becoming extremely inefficient for today’s uses. Our world has moved toward increasingly higher uses of semiconductors. Semiconductors are essential components in the electric circuits many devices, including computers, smartphones, televisions, and electric vehicles.  And semiconductors require the use of DC power. Because the power coming into our homes and offices is in the form of AC, conversion is required. During this conversion excessive power is lost to heat making conversion inefficient.

This problem is becoming more pragmatic today as people begin to generate their own power close to home through solar or other renewable means. These renewable sources output electricity in the form of DC power. However, because of the way our infrastructure is built, the power generated by renewables must be converted to AC power, transmitted through the current power grid, and then converted back to DC power within the device that is using the electricity, making the power subject to two inefficient conversions before reaching its end use.

emergediagram

Via recool.com

Enter DC microgrids. The idea behind DC microgrids is that we can begin embracing power that is generated nearby instead of the power generated at far away central power plants. These DC microgrids could optimize our systems to accept DC power directly, from generation to use, without going through two conversions. Other DC microgrid projects have demonstrated energy savings in the double digits, ranging from 10%-42% (Nextek Power 2010). One such system, called a MEG (Modular Electric Generator), is a truly next-generation DC power generation and distribution system. By coupling sources and loads using DC, the MEG improves efficiency and reduces the cost and complexity of power conversion systems. It utilizes PV power generation and battery storage to reduce grid coupling to an absolute minimum.

What is IBE studying?

Studies on green building technologies have identified three primary barriers to the adoption of innovative strategies: individual, organizational, and institutional (Hoffman and Henn 2008).  Additionally, many promising energy technologies, including DC microgrids, are not scalable. Initial user reactions and/or slow adoption prevent technical solutions from achieving their design goals. For example, often times building owners and clients are not aware of up-to-date research or the potential benefits of deploying these systems at scale. When it comes to DC microgrids, user expectations, building codes, and utility interconnections have been identified as the primary barriers to widespread adoption.

This study aims to understand barriers to the adoption of DC power systems in commercial buildings by creating an interdisciplinary team of academics, practitioners, industry professionals, and non-profit leaders to examine the technical issues and social barriers. The research that IBE conducts will be done in concert with the development of new laboratory facilities at the CSU Powerhouse Campus, which will test a MEG DC microgrid system. The resulting white paper will provide valuable information on the development, deployment, and acceptance of large scale DC microgrid technologies.

References

Fortenbery, B., EPRI, E. C., & Tschudi, W. (2008). DC power for improved data center efficiency.

Hoffman, A. J. and R. Henn (2008). “Overcoming the social and psychological barriers to green building.” Organization & Environment 21(4): 390.

Nextek Power. “AC vs DC Power?” YouTube. YouTube, 15 Sept. 2010. Web. 30 Aug. 2015.

Zero Waste or the Six R’s

By: Allison Smith

Sustainable Associate
In primary school I was introduced to the three R’s: reduce, reuse, and recycle. At school and at home, we sorted cans, glass, and cardboard for recycling. All the messages focused on recyclingwith a secondary emphasis on reusing, and little to no focus on reducingour waste. Zero Waste is a whole systems approach to waste reduction.
Today, advocates have expanded on the three R’s and frequently include a variant of the following: redesign, refuse, and rot.
Redesign: goods should be designed to minimize their resource use, including packaging. A smart manufacturer should understand that waste is wasted profit. Though this is corporate responsibility, as consumers we can ‘vote with our dollars’ and buy long lasting, durable goods.
Refuse: As consumers we should refuse freebies (pens!), refuse printed receipts (opt for an emailed receipt), and refuse purchasing products with excessive packaging.
Rot: In lieu of throwing out compostable items, compost organics and encourage your community to establish curbside compost and/or biodigesters.
Your compostable waste is packed so tightly at landfills that it will not decompose. As I continue to learn more about sustainability and regeneration, I’ve learned it’s not about the last two R’s I learned about as a kid, but really about the first neglected one: reduce. We need to focus on REDUCE-ing our resource use to create a truly sustainable society.  
Zero Waste, as defined by the Zero Waste International Alliance, is a means of “designing and managing products and processes to systematically avoid and eliminate the volume and toxicity or waste and materials, conserve and recover all resources, and not burn or bury them.” The process is similar to that found in nature, wherein resources aren’t disposed of to never be used again but are truly reused and recycled into new life.
Last year, following the lead of other worldwide communities, the city of Fort Collins adopted a Zero Waste plan. The plan focuses on four priorities:
Culture Change: raise awareness!
Reduce and Reuse: those other two R’s we learned in primary school!
Compostable Organics Out of Landfills: Rot!
Construction, Deconstruction and Demolition: divert debris from construction related activities!
The expansion of the city recycling requirement for construction projects and the development of a waste management plan is a move in the right direction. This is addressing the third-R and for those of us working with the built environment we should look for ways to promote zero waste throughout the design, construction, operations, and deconstruction of projects.
As we move forward we need to adopt zero-waste sensibilities at home, at work, and in the community. If you follow design blogs and periodicals trend pieces, you are aware that minimalism and tiny house living are gaining traction and are closely aligned with zero-waste principles. Many of us are unlikely to achieve the levels of BeaJohnson and her family’s trash reduction to less than a quart a year or of Beth Terry’s eschewing of plastic from her life, but each decision in reduction is a move towards a community I want to belong to. Perhaps Mahatma Gandhi said it best, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.”
Additional Resources:
Books:
Connett, P. (2013). The zero waste solution: untrashing the planet one community at a time. Chelsea Green Publishing.
Humes, E. (2012). Garbology: Our dirty love affair with trash. Penguin.
McDonough, W., & Braungart, M. (2010). Cradle to cradle: Remaking the way we make things. MacMillan.
Royte, E. (2007). Garbage land: On the secret trail of trash. Back Bay Books.
Blogs and websites:
Plastic Free Life by Beth Terry http://myplasticfreelife.com/
Zero Waste Home by Bea Johnson http://www.zerowastehome.com/
Zero Waste Fort Collins http://www.fcgov.com/zerowaste/
Movies:
Trashed (2012) documentary with Jeremy Irons

Biophilia and Placemaking: Influencing Design Decisions

Sustainable Building Associate
What role does nature and our inherent need for natural connections or biophilia play in placemaking?  To understand the relationship between placemaking and sense of place and biophilia, we must first understand biophilia, biophilic design, and placemaking.
According to E. O. Wilson (1984), biophilia is defined as “the connections that human beings subconsciously seek with the rest of life; the urge to affiliate with other forms of life”.  Wilson and Kellert (1993) take this definition one step further, and define it as “the inherent human inclination to affiliate with natural systems and processes, especially life and life-like features of the non-human environment”.   So if biophilia is the connections we seek with the rest of life, it would make sense that biophilic design would be the “deliberate attempt to translate an understanding of the inherent human affinity to affiliate with natural systems and processes (known as biophilia) into the design of the built environment” (Kellert, 2008).
Placemaking or sense of place as it is sometimes called is thought to be “an overarching idea and a hands-on tool for improving a neighborhood, city or region” (What is Placemaking, 2015) that is “a multi-faceted approach to the planning, design and management of public spaces” that “capitalizes on a local community’s assets, inspiration, and potential, ultimately creating good public spaces that promote people’s health, happiness, and wellbeing” (Placemaking, 2015).
How might we use biophilic design to promote people’s health, happiness, and well-being?  According to the text Biophilic Design: The Theory, Science, and Practice of Bringing Buildings to Life (Kellert, 2008), there is an element of biophilic design that specifically addresses place and place-based relationships.  This element and the corresponding attributes can be used to connect the built environment to the area in which it is located.  Kellert (2008) defines place-based relationships as “the successful marriage of culture with ecology in a geographical context”.  Through biophilic design you can create place-based relationships through a historical, cultural, geographical, and/or ecological connection to place.  You can also use the landscape and materials of the location to create place through the use of indigenous materials, use of the landscape in defining the building form, and creating wildlife corridors and promoting biodiversity.
While the Biophilic Design text gives wonderful descriptions of these elements and attributes of biophilic design, it was still somewhat theoretical and conceptual to me as a designer and educator, so I sought out images of that I thought exemplified some of these attributes.
 

Cultural and Historic Connection to Place:

Mesa Verde Visitors Center, Mesa Verde National Park, CO   Design by: Landmark Design and ajc architects

 Indigenous Materials:

Myrick Hixon EcoPark, La Crosse, WI  Design and Photo by: Whole Trees Architecture & Structures
 

Ecological Connection to Place:

Nest Home, Onomichi, Japan  Design by: UID Architects   Photo by: Hiroshi Ueda
References:
Kellert, Stephen R., and Edward O. Wilson. The Biophilia Hypothesis. Washington, D.C.: Island, 1993.
Kellert, Stephen R., Judith Heerwagen, and Martin Mador. Biophilic Design: The Theory, Science, and Practice of Bringing Buildings to Life. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2008.
Placemaking. (n.d.). In  Wikipedia. Retrieved February 27, 2015, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Placemaking
What Is Placemaking? (n.d.). In Project for Public Spaces. Retrieved February 27, 2015, from http://www.pps.org/reference/what_is_placemaking/
Wilson, Edward O. Biophilia. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1984.

Self Driving Cars & the Future of Urban Environments

By: Austin Good

Sustainable Associate 

Self driving cars are coming. It’s not a question of if but when. Google has recently unveiled its latest self driving machine which will soon be hitting public roads for testing . It is theorized that these self-driving cars will be far safer than human operated cars as they are able to constantly survey their surroundings and are programed to take less risks than a person might. What if the introduction of self-driving cars could reduce the 1.3 million deaths from car crashes each year – most of which are largely due to human error. In addition, self-driving cars could also create huge advances in efficiency by communicating with each other on the road. The benefits seem overwhelmingly positive. But what will this mean for our cities?

Public car pools

Googles Latest Self Driving Car Prototype via Google

Once self-driving cars take hold, one likely scenario is that people won’t own private cars anymore.
Instead, whenever you would need to get around you would simply summon a car from the public pool, probably with your smartphone, and then be taken to your destination. This ‘ride share’  system could be run by private companies or by municipalities. This scenario would not only be more efficient than today’s private car model, but would be much more cost effective. Socially, this could mean more equal access to transportation regardless of wealth, ability, or age. This is also a huge win for the environment as only a fraction of cars would need to be manufactured.

Fewer parking lots, more parks

The urban environment we have built is largely based off of our love affair with the car. The infrastructure that cars require for parking and driving has shaped our cities. So what will self-driving cars and the likely outcome of car pools impact this infrastructure? Simply put, we would have a lot more space. Without the need for so many parking lots and parking garages per capita, imagine what we could design. Former parking areas would create  new infill opportunities within our current city boundaries, helping to rein in urban sprawl. We could create more walkable neighborhoods or reintroduce natural areas in the hearts of our cities. The amount of impervious area in our built environment could be cut down drastically, allowing for better handling of storm water and urban runoff. The safety and efficiency of self-driving cars could allow cities to reduce the number of lanes on roads, which could be reclaimed for green areas, expanded sidewalks, or bike lanes.  Self-driving cars would make it much safer to ride a bike or walk near roadways by reducing collisions. This could create new bike and pedestrian networks allowing people to live healthier lifestyles.
Space once used for parking and road lanes could
become urban gathering places, much like
Denver’s 16th St. Mall.

One potential challenge of the self-driving can could be an increase in urban sprawl. Just as the car helped to create the suburbs, self-driving cars could allow people to live even further from work – due to increase driving speed, safety, and decreased congestion.  This could perpetuate the problems with urban sprawl, such as taking away farm land and natural areas.

In all likelihood, self driving cars are the future. This future presents many opportunities for us to strengthen our cities economically, socially and environmentally. In order to insure success, we need to begin imagining a new transportation system and a vision for our cities. Through innovative design and smart planning we’ll be able to create truly sustainable places in our transition to a more automated world.

Social Networks and Innovation

By Reanna Putnam

Sustainable Behavior Associate

Social networks can tell us a lot about how organizational structure promotes innovation. And don’t worry, this post is not about optimizing Facebook and Twitter to boost creativity. The term social network can be used to describe the relationships between any collection of two or more people, groups or organizations with common goals or interests(1).

Figure 1: Structural Holes(6)

There are different theories as to what produces innovation in social networks. One common explanation is that the presence of structural holes, defined as places of disconnection in the network, promote creativity in the individuals nearest to the structural hole(2, 3,4). Individuals who are near structural holes are more likely to have access to diverse, often contradictory, information and interpretations because they are able to draw on information from outside of their immediate connections(2). Encouraging indirect ties that bridge structural holes is a cost effective way for organizations to access diverse knowledge and contribute to innovation without adding to project expenses(5).

Another, perhaps conflicting, way to increase innovation in a network, is through strengthening relationships among members of a design team and creating a more densely connected network. This is important because it can increase performance(7,8,9), reduce conflict among team members(10), and increase in the duration of group membership(11).
Figure 2: Core Periphery Structure (12)

So how do we bridge these two contradictory concepts? One way is through promoting a core-periphery structure. A strong project team will consist of a densely connected core of key decision makers who are loosely connected to a peripheral network form which they draw ideas and information into the network. These loose connections to the periphery network allows for the network to be larger, bringing in new and diverse ideas. Because not all members of the core are connected to the periphery, innovation producing structural holes are formed.

Integrative design teams often take on this core-periphery structure. They do so by having a densely connected decision making core who are loosely connected to a diverse periphery of building users, facilities and operation staff, design specialists and construction professionals. The core-periphery structure allow for integrative design teams to come up with innovative design solutions that produce efficient buildings and increase occupant satisfaction.

(1) Anklam, P. (2007). Net work: a practical guide to creating and sustaining networks at work and in the world. Routledge.

(2) Burt, R. S. (2004). Structural holes and good ideas1. American journal of sociology, 110(2), 349-399.

(3) Walker, G., Kogut, B., & Shan, W. (1997). Social capital, structural holes and the formation of an industry network. Organization science, 8(2), 109-125.

(4) Powell, W. W., Koput, K. W., & Smith-Doerr, L. (1996). Interorganizational collaboration and the locus of innovation: Networks of learning in biotechnology. Administrative science quarterly, 116-145.

(5) Ahuja, G. (2000). Collaboration networks, structural holes, and innovation: A longitudinal study. Administrative science quarterly, 45(3), 425-455.

(6) Farral, Kenneth. (2004) Web Graph Analysis in Perspective: Description and Evaluation in terms of Krippendorff’s Conceptual Framework for Content Analysis (version 1.0). Retrieved from: http://farrall.org/papers/webgraph_as_content.html.

(7) de Montjoye, Y. A., Stopczynski, A., Shmueli, E., Pentland, A., & Lehmann, S. (2014). The strength of the strongest ties in collaborative problem solving. Scientific reports, 4.

(8) Balkundi, P., & Harrison, D. A. (2006). Ties, leaders, and time in teams: Strong inference about network structure’s effects on team viability and performance. Academy of Management Journal, 49(1), 49-68Lazega 2002

(9) Nelson, R. E. (1989). The strength of strong ties: Social networks and intergroup conflict in organizations. Academy of Management Journal, 32(2), 377-401.

(10) McPherson, J. M., Popielarz, P. A., & Drobnic, S. (1992). Social networks and organizational dynamics. American Sociological Review, 153-170.

(11) Borgatti, S. P., & Everett, M. G. (2000). Models of core/periphery structures.Social networks, 21(4), 375-395.