by Gail Young and Theresa Backhus, Sustainable Building Partners
As an organization dedicated to advancing science and ensuring a sustainable future, AGU set lofty environmental goals for the renovation of their headquarters building. AGU’s commitment to sustainability is exemplified by their decision to conduct a whole-building Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) in order to determine the building’s lifetime environmental impact. AGU partnered with Sustainable Building Partners, LLC to analyze the consequences of numerous potential design decisions, materials, and construction practices. One of only a small number of projects in the U.S. to conduct a whole-building LCA, AGU is demonstrating leadership and showing that the modernization of the headquarters building will result in an impressive 95% reduction in greenhouse gases!
The Whole-Building LCA
A life-cycle assessment is an analysis that determines the environmental impact throughout the life of a product or service. A whole-building LCA is performed to evaluate the environmental impact of a building over its anticipated life expectancy. Thus, the carbon footprint associated with the building’s design, materials, and construction can be determined.
The AGU building is being built to LEED v2009 standards, and is on track to earn Platinum certification, the highest level awarded by the U.S. Green Building Council. Not only that, but it is actually on track to earn 96 points, well over the 80-point Platinum threshold. The LCA is not a requirement for LEED 2009 – it’s an entirely new component to the LEED v4 rating system – but AGU chose to pursue this study to ensure the building does everything it can to be environmentally sustainable.
The LCA for AGU analyzes the entire life cycle of the building’s structure and enclosure materials – each product used – and potential environmental impacts, or outputs, of each product. Structure and enclosure materials include concrete, steel framing, walls, doors, carpet and flooring, paints, insulation, windows, the roof, and more. By looking at these products together, the entire life cycle of the building is assessed. The product assessment includes environmental affects resulting from the manufacturing or extraction of materials all the way to their transportation, use, maintenance and end of life (also referred to as “cradle to grave”).
What does this mean?
LCA results are generated by comparing two scenarios – a “baseline” case and a “proposed” case. SBP developed a baseline model that represents industry-standard impacts of materials in similar building types and compared these to the proposed model – the actual AGU building design and materials.
The LCA compares the impact of the following six areas of concern, and LEED v4 requires that projects demonstrate a 10% improvement in a minimum of three of the following areas:
- Global warming potential (greenhouse gases)
- Depletion of the stratospheric ozone layer
- Acidification of land and water sources
- Formation of tropospheric ozone
- Depletion of nonrenewable energy resources
The AGU headquarters didn’t just meet the minimums, it far exceeded them. The modernization design yields an average improvement of 89% across all six impact categories!
A Model for Change
AGU’s commitment to sustainability has the power to inspire other buildings to consider how today’s construction impacts future environmental conditions. The project’s completion of an LCA and incorporation of a large variety of other green practices demonstrate incredible leadership in design and construction. The project exemplifies sustainability and proves that although it can seem daunting to implement certain measures, the long-term benefits outweigh the challenges. When it comes to analyzing the environmental impact of a building such as this, we can appreciate the holistic, comprehensive results as an inspiring achievement.