Life cycle assessment is increasingly being used worldwide to quantify the environmental performance of buildings, set impact reduction targets, and ensure a safe environment for future generations.

With global greenhouse emissions growing by two per cent in 2017, reaching a new record high of 37 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide, the global property and construction industry will need to have a greater focus on life cycle assessment (LCA) if it is to meet global and national emissions reduction targets.

In Australia, the built environment is responsible for 23 per cent of Australia’s greenhouse emissions, so the property and construction industry has a central role to play, with all new buildings to be emissions neutral by 2030 and all existing buildings to follow by 2050.

Whilst LCA has always been widely accepted as the ultimate method of measuring environmental performance, it has historically been seen as a complex, time consuming and expensive methodology to use in projects. Fortunately, there has been significant change in recent times with the introduction of new low-cost software, enabling LCA to become common practice for designers achieving truly sustainable, life cycle building performance.

The LCA trend is on the rise in all regions, and the construction industry is embracing the methodology with open arms. Green building rating systems are driving the revolution by encouraging LCA practice at project concept stage combined with Environmental Product Declarations, Health Product Declarations, newly available life cycle inventory data and robust yet user friendly LCA tools. Advocacy and general public education are taking LCA into urban planning policies to support the government and community in creating a high environmental performance built form.

Green building rating systems are helping to promote LCA practice and to create a revolution in sustainable design. In Australia, LCA is embedded as a core credit in the Green Star rating tools and requires an impact reduction, as such LCA points may now be easier to achieve for some projects provided there is early engagement of LCA consultants.

The Green Star framework adopted a whole of building approach with the operational energy points capped to drive more emphasis on materials life cycle impact reduction. The UK BREEAM certification is ramping up the use of LCA applied to materials with multiple credits available depending on performance against local benchmarks, design changes at early stage, integration with life cycle costing and third party verification.

In the US, LEED certification is pushing LCA in multiple fronts from product disclosure and optimization to whole building LCAs. Although there’s still a lot of focus on materials, the methodology supports integrated design to quantify, compare and improve the project performance as a whole following ISO 14044 and EN15978 international standards.

“Modern LCA, delivered with user friendly software is disrupting environmentally sustainable design practice,” said Richard Haynes, co-founder of eTool, a leading global LCA software provider.

“If you deploy it at project concept stage and during design development it just provides so much insight, huge opportunities for life cycle environmental and cost improvements, it’s so much more valuable than any other approach. We are thrilled to be part of the movement, helping designers unlock all this opportunity to decarbonize buildings and infrastructure”.

Market transformation requires leadership and professionals working on building rating systems are leading the way.

“LCA really is an exciting discipline and I genuinely expect it to end up in enshrined in planning policy at some point in the future,” said James Wrixen, sustainability consultant at Aecom. “All it will take is for a forward thinking planner to put in place a policy requiring an LCA assessment to be submitted with each planning application.”

This is already happening. The City of Vincent in Western Australia is a good example where defined performance targets were implemented into their planning requirements. It’s also happening at national government level; for example, Holland has brought LCA into regulations since 2013 and France is another early mover in regulating LCA for buildings and the Positive Energy and Carbon Reduction program is already under way.

Historical barriers are quickly being toppled. Product level data is growing rapidly, and initiatives like the ECOEPD platform are ensuring comparability across regions and programs. LCA software tools are moving quickly to integrate with other design tools and deliver life cycle costing functionality. International standards are maturing and industry is settling on consistent reporting requirements to increase transparency on environmental sustainability. With this convergence of positive trends, LCA is now an essential ingredient for sustainable design best practices.

Are you using LCA? If not, maybe it’s time to consider doing so, so you can play your part in meeting national and international emissions targets – and so your organization remains relevant and competitive.