Apr 5, 2022

LCA Tools for Carbon Negative Buildings

ARPA-E $3.7 Million Grant to Fund Core LCA R&D

by Stephanie Carlisle, Senior Researcher for the Carbon Leadership Forum

The promise of radically decarbonizing the building sector lies, in part, with replacing high carbon materials with lower carbon alternatives. One of the most promising areas of research has been on materials that are not simply less carbon intensive, but those which actually draw down atmospheric carbon and store it over time. Building materials that make use of agricultural feedstocks, wood products, and direct carbon utilization all have these properties. Still, evaluating their merits has been challenging since these processes fall outside the standard practice of carbon accounting for building materials, which tends to focus more on emissions in the factory, and less on those in the forest, the field and the landfill.

As new carbon-storing materials come on the market, how much of a difference will they make at a building scale? Is it possible for the math of “net-zero” or carbon-negative buildings to actually pencil out? For a long time, the answer to these questions was — we don’t know. In the tools that the AEC community relies on for rigorous, comparable carbon accounting, data on novel materials has been trapped behind paywalls, uneven in quality and methods, and often simply missing. How can we evaluate new materials and help them move from the bench to the market if we can’t compare them to normative building practices? Thanks to  a new research initiative from ARPA-E, the Carbon Leadership Forum will start work this fall answering these questions by digging deeply into the science and methods of carbon drawdown and storage, and developing a robust LCA framework and ecosystem of tools that can support the flow of data on novel materials into robust, comparative WBLCA tools.

Parametric Material Models & Comparative WBLCA Models

In the coming months, ARPA-E will announce a cohort of material and building design teams for the “Harnessing Emissions into Structures Taking Inputs from the Atmosphere” (HESTIA) program, each developing a negative carbon and/or building solution. CLF, along with a team of researchers at the University of Washington, has been awarded $3.7 MM over 4 years to lead the Parametric Open Data (POD) | LCA project during which we will work closely with each HESTIA material and building design team to develop custom, parametric LCA screening tools to evaluate their performance at a material and building scale. The CLF team will also be working on a holistic framework for comparative LCA modeling of building materials that includes biogenic carbon, dynamic LCA and carbon storage over the full life of a building.

This work will be deeply collaborative, drawing from a team of UW researchers with expertise in climate modeling, forestry, dynamic LCA, material science, design, engineering, data science, and tool development. This grant will support CLF in growing its research team and continuing its commitment to accurate, trusted, rigorous, and open access LCA data and tools.

One of the most challenging aspects of tracking biogenic materials as potential carbon sinks is that their carbon benefit is tied to what happened on the landscapes from which they came. While we know that these ecosystem services and processes are both real and essential, they have long been considered “out of scope” for our models and reporting. This project will help us finally connect land use, management, regional specificity of supply chains, and temporal dynamics of carbon accounting into a far richer picture of how buildings shape the environment and their potential for positive change.

This work will be deeply collaborative, drawing from a team of UW researchers with expertise in climate modeling, forestry, dynamic LCA, material science, design, engineering, data science, and tool development. This grant will support CLF in growing its research team and continuing its commitment to accurate, trusted, rigorous, and open access LCA data and tools.

Stephanie Carlisle

Stephanie Carlisle

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