STEEL FRAMING ALLIANCE | FRAMEWORK ONLINE
November 4, 2009
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LCA And The Cold-Formed Steel Industry

Just what is LCA, or Life Cycle Assessment? What does it mean for members of the steel framing industry? How can I be prepared to address it when or if I need to? These are just a few of the questions the Steel Framing Alliance (SFA) hears from members of the industry. To understand these questions, it is important to understand some background on LCA and especially what LCA is and what it isn’t.

LCA is one of those tools that started with admirable intentions but is slowly being adopted for uses not initially envisioned or perhaps even being applied inappropriately. The ISO Standard 14040:2006 that addresses LCA provides an introduction that, among other things, states that “The increased awareness of the importance of environmental protection, and the possible impacts associated with products, both manufactured and consumed, has increased interest in the development of methods to better understand and address these impacts. One of the techniques being developed for this purpose in life cycle assessment (LCA).”

In basic terms, LCA is a process of accounting for emissions, resource use, and other inputs and outputs along the supply chain. At some point, the LCA practitioner is responsible for establishing the boundaries of the assessment. Most often the boundary will include all of the stages of the life of a product, sometimes called “cradle to grave.” The accounting part of the process, called LCI or Life Cycle Inventory, is a separate stage from the assessment, but it needs to be conducted with the assessment in mind. Sometimes, the LCI stage is intended to be the final product, although the use of LCA being discussed in the regulatory and codes environment includes a full LCA consisting of an inventory (the LCI stage) and an assessment.

There are other acronyms you may see related to the LCA discussion including LCIA (Life Cycle Inventory Analysis). To keep things clear, in this article we will only address LCI and LCA, with LCI being the accounting or data collection part of the process and LCA being the analysis part. As the name implies, LCI is the stage where data for certain variables is collected. Although not universal, the variables are often called eco-indicators or environmental impacts because they are intended to represent items that impact some part of the environment. Typical eco-indicators might include impacts from pollution released to water or air, land use impacts, energy use, eco-system impact, or human health impact. There is no universally accepted list of specific indicators.

Manufacturers are some of the primary users of LCI and LCA. In fact, one intention of early developers of LCA was to enable manufacturers to identify areas where they could improve their production processes. The steel industry might be a good example of this concept. In the late 1980s and early 1990s the industry realized that their use of energy was a significant part of the cost to produce a ton of steel. Based on early data collection, mills were able to focus on methods to reduce energy use. American Iron & Steel Institute (AISI) recently released data showing that steel produced today requires 33% less energy to produce than in the early 1990s. When one uses less energy, similar benefits are realized in releases to air, land and water.

Despite the early intentions of LCA developers, the use of LCA has begun to creep to include product comparisons. When comparing very different process or materials, some limitations in the previously mentioned ISO standard are worth noting:

  1. LCA is a relative approach. It does not predict absolute environmental impacts. Nor does it identify risks or thresholds that imply a certain risk or adverse condition.
  2. Comparing products via a single score or number has no scientific basis. (It requires subjective decisions or value judgments.)
  3. Comparisons of process or products must be made on a common basis. (This is a key point to consider when attempting to compare building materials. The most detrimental impact from one product may not even be part of the process for another product, making direct comparisons extremely difficult if not meaningless).
  4. There is no single method for conducting LCA. (This allows for flexibility but also introduces problems with a lack of standardization).

With this background about LCA, we can get back to the question of “What is LCA?” From the above text and the ISO standard 14040, one can see that there is no exact definition that applies universally. Much of the definition depends on what the user wants to get out of the study by how they set the scope and goals. However, the most important point is that even if everyone can agree on the way to collect data and which data to collect, the use of that data to compare across process or products requires subjective decision making.

So if we can’t define LCA exactly and it was originally intended to be used to identify inefficiencies related to environmental impacts and not to compare building or other products, LCA really does not have any significant meaning for the CFS industry. While that seems like a logical conclusion, it is not a correct one. Despite its limitations, green building programs, bid specification writers, and codes and standards are wading into the LCA pool at an alarming rate. At some point in the future, if it is not already the case, you will need to react to a specification, code, or regulation that requires an LCA. Rating systems and other green building programs have struggled with the concept of incorporating some form of life cycle assessment into their programs. Since 2004, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) has explored and researched the issue. This year USGBC initiated a pilot credit for Life Cycle Assessment of Building Assemblies and Materials. The credit is available for pilot testing by New Construction projects. Similarly, proposed standard 189.1 by ASHRAE – Standard for the Design of High-Performance Green Buildings Except Low-Rise Residential Buildings, contains a performance option for LCA in accordance with ISO 1044 for a minimum of two building alternatives. The LCA includes three steps; conducting an LCI, comparing the results using a published third party impact indicator, and having a third party independent expert conduct a review.

One additional caution about LCA in general if being used to compare products – it can lead to very poor decisions if the upfront data collection is not consistent with the intended end use. For example, data for many industries has been collected based on industry averages. By definition, some products will come from sources that are better than average and some will come from sources worse than average. Yet all of them are treated as average. Because LCA does not address risk except in relative terms, one could pick a product that performs well in an LCA but that in reality is harming the environment in one way or another.

A poor decision using LCA can also result if the assessment part of the study is limited to only a couple of eco-indicators. If the study is not comprehensive, the indicators with the most impact may not even be considered. This is certainly the case with studies often cited by the wood industry claiming superiority over steel and concrete. The Life Cycle Environmental Performance of Renewable Building Materials in the Context of Residential Construction Research Report, updated 2005, by the Consortium for Research on Renewable Industrial Materials (CORRIM) funded by the USDA and other wood interests focused on air pollution, water pollution, embodied energy, global warming potential and solid waste. Absent from the study were environmental impacts such as habitat disruption and land use. Whether the decision to leave these critical impacts out was a matter of convenience or simply an oversight is debatable, but none-the less, a very different picture would emerge if they had been included. Arbitrary decisions by those conducting the LCA on what impacts to consider can be tailored to meet preconceived outcomes. Although the flexibility with LCA in selecting what impacts to assess is beneficial when the study is being conducted for product development or improvement in manufacturing, when LCA moves into regulations or specifications that require product comparisons for the purpose of selecting a product, a comprehensive and comparable study is necessary. Otherwise, the results can be meaningless or lead to faulty decisions. In the instance of the CORRIM report, steel studs were substituted on a stick for stick basis using spacing at 12 inches on center replacing their wood counterpart, while in the real world steel framed design is very different. Further, if the LCA process does not take into account the differences in impacts on the environment from temporal and spatial variations in emissions, the results can be suspicious. All emissions are not necessarily equal in their impact. A point release can often be more harmful than a non-point source of pollution. Likewise, existing conditions where an emission occurs are not considered in an LCA even though this is a significant factor in determining risk or impact on the environment. For example, if a body of water is already in trouble, even a little more pollution can cause great harm.

Given the limitations and a little about what LCA is, let’s move on to the questions “What isn’t LCA?” Perhaps the most important point related to this question is that LCA is not a quick and easy computer program like those being considered by green building programs and some codes and standards. The very definition of LCA in the ISO standards would preclude a canned program from qualifying. Rather, these programs, such as BEES 4.0, developed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology which looks at products or the EcoCalculator for assemblies by the Athena Institute represent attempts to assess and compare building materials, assemblies and processes by moving the value judgments and subjective decisions from the LCA practitioner to the software developer. Thus, it is unlikely that one would even get comparable answers if using more than one computer based tool.

Given the current state of LCA and that it is being used or proposed for purposes that are not always appropriate, what should the industry do to address this issue? Unfortunately, there is probably not much an individual can do by themselves other than to keep informed as LCA advances. Know what may be expected of you. SFA will continue to identify codes and standards that are considering LCA as a compliance tool. From an industry perspective, SFA has identified the following steps we need to do:

First, continue to educate specification writers and governmental agencies on the appropriate use of and limitations of LCA. We have found at various code committee meetings that the very people making decisions to adopt LCA have little or no experience or understanding of it. Once they are presented with credible information, many rethink their position of requiring LCA and instead look at it as an optional tool that should be encouraged but not made mandatory.

Second, be diligent in rebutting the misinformation being circulated by competing materials. SFA is establishing a section on our website providing members with tools to combat attacks on CFS. The information will be useful at the local level in rebutting negative claims about steel framing.

Finally, the industry needs to know how the various tools being proposed will impact our competitive position. SFA’s 2010 budget includes funds to study several of the better known tools to determine their potential impact. The study will also address ways to improve the data used by the software tool developers.

Often, it is difficult to determine how much if any attention one needs to apply to issues like LCA. It can seem abstract in nature or maybe even a little bit intimidating. Hopefully, this article provides some introductory information on LCA as it relates to CFS framing. As more information becomes available, especially on the codes and standards front, we will be sure to provide updates through Framework Online and on our website at www.steelframing.org.

Source: Steel Framing Alliance

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Brought to you by the Steel Framing Alliance (SFA) on the first Wednesday of each month, Framework Online arms you with the latest news and commentary on the steel framing and construction industries. In addition to industry headlines, trends and project profiles, Framework Online provides information and ideas that will better enable members to increase their participation in the residential and commercial construction markets.