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review: lifecycle tools

This article, from August 2009, describes a range of now “classic” LCA tools along with more recent offerings, including attempts to “open source” some aspects of LCA. Lifecycle Assessment is an approach to design that tries to take a product or building’s entire lifecycle into account at the time of conceptual design to try to reduce environmental impacts throughout. The “lifecycle” starts with the initial designer ideas and includes harvesting materials, manufacture, packaging, distribution, use, and end-of-life.

Joel Makower recently highlighted the resurgence of Lifecycle Assessment (LCA) as a strategic and supply chain management tool, but he didn’t mention some of the newer LCA/Eco-design tools aimed more specifically at designers. For those new to LCA, Makower references an interesting (downloadable) Deloitte report that highlights the strategic role of LCA.

The offerings for buildings/architecture appear to be slimmer (Makower doesn’t even mention them) so let’s start there. LISA (LCA in Sustainable Architecture) is a streamlined LCA decision support tool for construction. It was developed in Australia in response to requests by architects and industry professionals for a simplified LCA tool to assist in green design.

A Canadian offer comes from the Athena Sustainable Materials Institute. The EcoCalculator offers architects, engineers and others access to instant LCA results for hundreds of common building assemblies. The results are based on ATHENA’s own datasets and data from the US Life Cycle Inventory Database.

The U.S. offer is BEES (software Building for Environmental and Economic Sustainability) which as the name suggests, tries to balance environmental and economic criteria.

Autodesk, a company known for Building Information Management systems, also offers a “Guide to Sustainable Design for Architecture, Engineering & Construction” which is tied to a 6 stage “lifecycle” that covers: requirements development, conceptualization, design, implementation docs, construction , own/operate/sell.

I’ve asked before, but will ask again here…am I missing anything on the architecture side?

Lifecycle software tools have been around for a while now, and the classics include SimaPro, Gabi and Ecoindicator (versions 95 and 99). But two recent offerings, Greenfly and Sustainable Minds, take a more design-oriented approach (full disclosure, I have colleagues working on each of these new offerings).

the materials in jeans and their sources (from The Designer's Atlas of Sustainability)

US-based Sustainable Minds bills itself as web-based software that, as a design decision support tool, targets the earliest stages of design. Industrial designers who worked on the Okala Design Guide are involved in the development of this software and probably behind its emphasis on being designer-friendly. Greenfly is another online ecodesign support tool, developed in Australia, which also targets designers specifically and aims to inform new product development. The team there includes contributors who pioneered the successful ecoredesign program at RMIT’s Centre for Design.
the materials in jeans and their sources

There’s also a push toward making the data to support LCA more accessible, which parallels efforts to share other environmentally positive “intellectual property” through efforts such as Greenxchange. Two examples of “open” LCA are OpenLCA and Earthster.

OpenLCA is an effort coordinated by the nonprofit group Green Standard, and interestingly is sponsored by a consortium that includes two of the most well known LCA software producers in Europe, PRe consultants (SimaPro and ecoindicators), and PE Int’l (GaBi). The group aims to complement existing software, but plans to create a “converter” that allows free exchange of data among software formats. The developers note, “In the end, the project will disclose considerable know-how on life cycle calculation and format exchange.”

Another effort is Earthster, an initiative of New Earth, which aims to be a web-based, free and non-proprietary system to enable the collection of data which can then be run through any sort of LCA software to create customized reports for companies, buyers, and managers. It also envisions feedback to the LCA system from buyers and consumers who can “send signals” back up the chain indicating desired product characteristics.

a few more LCA resources

From the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency…the guide “Better by Design” (undated?) combines a look at environmental impacts with inspiration from the natural world to innovate. The report contains useful appendices covering area such as restricted materaisl (such as asbestos, certain pigments, textile treatments, wood preservative etc.), alternative flame retardents, eco labelling systems, plastics labeling and so forth. The web site also offers a series of short info sheets on issues such as fasteners, power, chemical and materials as well as successful case studies.

This industrial design engineering wiki hosts the Bachelor degree design guide from the Industiral Design Engineering department at Delft, The Netherlands. The guide includes general information about industrial design, but also some detailed resources on eco design.

from the university of Leiden in the Netherlands there is a guide, found at the bottom of their website, that looks in detail at LCA methodology. It’s a very technical report but might support someone who is trying to get to grips with what LCA software is trying to do. l

A UK group called the Industrial Design Consultancy offers a free LCA calculator that helps estimate the carbon footprint and embodied energy of any product;

The ecodesign pilot, from the engineering design group at the Vienna University of Technology, is an interactive website that helps identify and prioritize ecodesign strategies. the emphasis is on improving an existing product and the pilot starts by determining which aspects of the production process are most intensive, for example is it transport intensive, use intensive or materials intensive.

IDEO has produced a booklet called “Using Lifecycle Awareness Tools” (2008?) which presents LCA as a “lens” through which to brainstorm, ask questions and gain new perspectives. The lens consist of these stages in the lifecycle: materials acquisition, materials manufacture, product manufacture, product use or consumption, disposal.

LUNAR Elements produced “The Designer’s Field Guide to Sustainability” (2008) which simplifies the lifecycle into four stages: conception, making, use, end-of-life.

RMIT’s “Introduction to EcoReDesign” (1999) was a forerunner to the book Helen Lewis and John
Gertsakis later produced called Design + Environment (Greenleaf).


Special thanks to contributors to this compendium: Curt Macnamara and Simon O’rafferty

8 Responses to review: lifecycle tools

  1. glenn says:

    update on your reference to the guide “Better by Design” (Minnesota Pollution Control Agency); date: 2006; URL:

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  8. A very insightful article, looking at various LCAs. This all fairly new to me, so it made for an interesting read, to be honest.

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