Who is this for: Architects, engineers, and builders who are trying to understand the embodied environmental impacts of materials and products as part of a BIM workflow.
Takeaway: Most of the time, AEC professionals lack the resources and expertise to deeply analyze embodied environmental impacts when designing high performance buildings. But as buildings become more energy efficient operationally, it becomes more important to proactively understand and manage embodied energy, carbon, and other impacts as early in the design process as possible. While life cycle assessment for whole buildings is a new—and often overwhelming—space for the building community, future BIM tools and workflows can help make this kind of assessment accessible to those wanting to take their sustainable design analyses a step further.
By: Jonathan Rowe - Zero Energy Building Program Manager, ISM- SIR
Has your firm ever tried evaluating the embodied energy, carbon, water, and other environmental impacts of the materials and products that make up a building? If you’re one of those that have, you know what a painful process this can be. Especially early in the design process, it’s not easy to predict what systems you’ll use to build your design, how it will all go together, and from where the contractor will source all the components. Even if you’re able to create a realistic bill of materials, you then have to convert the volumetric quantities to weight based on density conversion factors. Only then can you assign the appropriate environmental impact values, if you can find the right data, that is. And finally—if you’re not completely overwhelmed by this point—you then have to look at the results and ask yourself: “What does this all mean, and what can I do to improve without breaking the budget?”
Rarely do architectural offices have the in-house expertise to take an analysis like this, or the project funds to bring on an outside consultant. For this reason—along with the fact that getting the right life cycle data is a challenge, and that for most buildings the operational energy footprint dwarfs the embodied footprint—designers don’t devote a lot of time doing this kind of assessment. But that might change soon, if the product transparency movement continues gaining momentum within the green building industry. The key idea here is moving away from single-attribute environmental claims (recycled content, regional sourcing) to a more holistic understanding of environmental performance across a product’s entire life cycle, from cradle to grave. This kind of thinking—daunting as it may seem—becomes increasingly important as buildings become more operationally efficient (think Net Zero Energy) and as our electricity sources become less carbon intensive with Renewable Portfolio Standards (most states in the U.S. have them now). The new version of LEED is pushing for credits that reward teams for assessing whole building life cycle impacts and using products that reveal embodied impacts through standardized disclosure mechanisms called Environmental Product Declarations.
Will this be enough to elevate the consciousness of designers to think holistically about their material and product choices? Time will tell. But some firms are proactively diving in and developing databases and BIM-enabled workflows to integrate whole-building life cycle assessment as part of their routine sustainability analysis. I’m excited to share some of the work that KieranTimberlake, an internationally acclaimed Philadelphia architecture firm certified by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), is doing on this front. Last summer, KieranTimberlake’s Research Group—building on an existing Revit-based workflow—partnered with the Sustainability Solutions team through the Autodesk Developer Network to build a plug-in that calculates embodied environmental impacts through all phases of project delivery. Recognizing that design moves fast—and all flavors of sustainability analysis have to keep up with that pace to provide actionable feedback—KieranTimberlake have created an early version of the Real Time Environmental Impact Tool (or RTEI™ for short).
A screen shot from the Real Time Environmental Impact (RTEI™) Tool.
Based on encouraging feedback from several tech previews over the past few months, there appears to be a growing need in architecture practices of all sizes to have better visibility into the life cycle impacts of materials and products. This information can serve as another data point to be considered in parallel with other important sustainability studies like energy modeling and daylighting analysis. KieranTimberlake is beta testing the current version of RTEI™ on a couple of live projects in-house, and prioritizing software functionality requirements for the next cycle of development next month. They hope to have a version ready for a beta test in late spring, so if you’re interested in being part of that, please leave a comment and I’ll get in touch.
A rendering of Building 7R for Penn State University's School of Engineering in Philadelphia. KieranTimberlake used the RTEI™ Tool for material selection as part of an integrated BIM design workflow.
Tell us what you think: Does your firm have a methodology for quantifying embodied energy, carbon, or other environmental impacts? Do you wish you had a tool to help? Are clients asking for it? Or is it driven internally from an aspiration to build more sustainably? I’d love to hear from you! Please leave a comment and I will follow up with you soon.