Like the vibrant natural environment that surrounds UBC, each building on campus has a life cycle of its own, and a unique study is underway to understand the creation of University buildings and measure their environmental impact.

Whole Building Life Cycle Assessment (CIVL 498C) has been running for two years and is a fourth year course offered through the department of Civil Engineering. With plans to continue in the 2010/2011 winter session, the course introduces civil engineering and architecture students to Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), a powerful tool used to quantify the environmental impacts of products and services from the beginning to the end of their life cycle (also known as cradle to grave).

LCA is an emerging practice in North America—though it’s more established in Europe—and the UBC course is the only undergraduate level LCA class for buildings offered at a Canadian university. Students apply LCA methodology and use construction drawings and specialized software to conduct a comprehensive and detailed study of the impacts resulting from the construction of UBC academic buildings. 

This includes consideration of the environmental impacts associated with the extraction of raw materials, their manufacturing into construction products and assembly into a building—while accounting for all the transportation activities that happen in between. The research being carried out by the students over the last two years has resulted in North America’s largest building environmental impact study.

Course creator and instructor Rob Sianchuk, a Wood Science Master’s student, discovered LCA through his undergraduate thesis research. He found that a sustainable manufacturing certification tool was missing from North American sustainability practice, and his exploration led him to LCA and the industry leaders in Europe, who opened his eyes to the potential LCA holds as an effective environmental impact analysis tool in Canada.

“It’s a lot easier to tell if your sustainable development strategies are working if you can compare your progress against a transparent benchmark,” says Sianchuk. “By using LCA to study buildings at UBC, we’re finding out what the environmental impact has been of our construction activities. With an impact baseline to compare future building projects to, we can start getting more specific about what we consider to be a sustainable building and developing more sophisticated strategies for achieving our impact reduction goals.”

Sianchuk is now a leading player in moving LCA practices forward—and he says a large part of his work is spreading the word about what it is. “That’s the biggest thing, even though I love telling people about LCA, it really highlights the lack of education out there about something that can empower consumers to demand and promote actual ‘green’, rather than marketed ‘green’, products.”
“Right now we have products being marketed as ‘green’ based on single attributes, like recycled content, that really tell us little about the range of impacts that a product is creating,” says Sianchuk. “We need to know more about that product’s life cycle because, for instance, if that recycled material has been shipped all over the globe, taking in account the amount of fuel burned is something that could make the claimed environmental benefit of using recycled content meaningless.” 

An LCA requires a comprehensive and transparent dataset about manufacturing companies’ processes. However, this data can be difficult to come by in North America and Sianchuk says it’s restricting the development of the LCA. The comprehensive database of LCA studies generated by Sianchuk’s students is an inventory of the environmental impact of UBC buildings that he hopes can be used to stimulate this area and transform green building practices in North America.

“At this stage of development, the UBC LCA database is largely a tool to engage and educate people both in and beyond the classroom, to increase the capacity of minds literate in the science and benefits of LCA. To make this work, we really need the momentum of people asking the right questions and demanding this type of information. Only with the consumers and professionals behind it can we can start getting serious about developing performance-based green building assessment schemes, where all manufacturers would be producing certified LCA data in the form of ISO type III environmental product declarations (EPDs),” says Sianchuk.

For students in the course, the project-based experience is intense and they must conduct a lot of research in a limited amount of time. Sianchuk says they embrace the challenge, and they power through the curriculum with a genuine interest in learning about LCA and contributing to the development of the green economy and the next generation of sustainable practices.

“We really need to get these ideas in the minds of people who are motivated to use them,” Sianchuk says. “Because most of these students are graduating, they can walk into a company and confidently propose something radical. The course is helping them create a bigger impact because we need people who can think un-traditionally right now.”

Man-Hin Lo, a fourth year Civil Engineering student who went through Sianchuk’s course, says the experience gave him the understanding and new mindset he needed to enter confidently into his civil engineering career. “Prior to CIVL 498C, I had little knowledge on what Life Cycle Analysis was about,” Lo says. “In previous courses, we had learned some topics on green design, and the emphasis had always been on defining ‘sustainability.’ It wasn’t until I took this class before I began to understand how to actually assess and achieve sustainability.”

The final presentation for this year’s course took place on April 8, 2010, to a standing-room-only audience of representatives from a broad range of interest groups from UBC and industry. The presentation is available for viewing on YouTube.

Story by Madelen Ortega, UBC Sustainability website writer