Data and tools for improving the environmental performance of buildings and cities

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Modern city view with beautiful buildings on green grass

This research is comprised of two distinct, but related projects. KU Leuven is the home institution for one project and the University of Melbourne will host the second.

KU Leuven-based project:

Environmental benchmarks for residential buildings in Belgium based on a hybrid LCI and modelling approach

Buildings and cities make a significant contribution to global environmental issues, including greenhouse gas emissions, resource depletion, waste and pollution. Life cycle assessment (LCA) enables the assessment and optimization of the environmental impact of buildings over their entire life cycle. In Belgium, various steps have been taken to integrate LCA in building practice including developing a national LCA method, a national database established with specific data for Belgian construction products and a web-based calculation tool was launched in 2018.

Environmental benchmarks, as point(s) of reference against which any comparison can be made, are still currently lacking and are seen as an important next step to support policymakers in the definition of environmental targets for buildings. In the building sector, operational energy use benchmarks have been introduced in all EU member states in the context of the European Directive on the Energy Performance of Buildings (EPB). In contrast to energy benchmarks, only a limited number of EU countries have defined broader environmental benchmarks for buildings.

The aim of this research project is to define environmental benchmarks for residential buildings in Belgium considering their whole life cycle. Firstly, long-term targets will be defined, representing the maximum impact the construction sector may cause to remain with the carrying capacity of the Earth regarding environmental loads. The second aim is to understand the environmental performance of current buildings (both existing and new ones).

Based on a statistical analysis of the results, limit values (worst performance), reference values (average performance) and best-practice values (best performance) will also be defined. For the calculation of the environmental impact of the existing stock, data on the embodied environmental flows of construction materials are needed (besides data on operational flows). However, the majority of these data sources suffer from system boundary truncation, which means that a large proportion of the embodied emissions, energy, water etc. associated with the production of these materials are unaccounted for.

Therefore, a hybrid approach to the compilation of embodied environmental flow data for materials uses a top-down approach and macro-economic data to address this issue and fill in any data gaps.

Project aims:

  1. Development of a methodology for environmental benchmarks
  2. Modelling environmental benchmarks using a top-down approach
  3. Modelling environmental benchmarks using a bottom-up approach
  4. Comparison of benchmarks based on top-down and bottom-up approaches
  5. Dissemination of research findings

Graduate researcher: Lise Mouton

Supervision team (Leuven)

Principal Investigators (PIs):

Associate Professor Dr Karen Allacker (KU Leuven)

Professor Robert Crawford (The University of Melbourne)

Melbourne-based project:

EPiC Europe: a construction material environmental flow database for Europe

Our buildings and cities are responsible for a significant proportion of global environmental issues, including greenhouse gas emissions, resource depletion, waste and pollution.

Efforts to address these issues have predominately focused on operational performance such as improving the energy efficiency of building use. The environmental issues associated with material production are rarely considered as part of building and city design or construction. However, they represent an increasingly significant issue. Global interest in addressing these issues is rapidly growing.

For example, the World Green Building Council has called for all new buildings and infrastructure to have net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, which includes material production‐related or embodied emissions. Reliable and comprehensive data is essential for informing decision‐making to reduce these and other embodied environmental flows (e.g. energy, water etc.) associated with material production.

The recently released EPiC Database was developed to provide embodied energy, greenhouse gas emissions and water coefficients for the production of common construction materials in Australia, which had previously been lacking.

While applicable to Australia, this database is less relevant to other regions of the world due to variations in material types, fuel mix and manufacturing processes. This project will develop a similar database for common construction materials used in Europe.

Material production and national environmental account data will be collected for several European countries, beginning with Belgium, and used to develop the coefficients using the same unique and comprehensive hybrid technique used to produce the existing EPiC Database. The coefficients will then be analysed and tested on building projects in Belgium.

Project aims:

  1. Develop hybrid environmental flow coefficients for common construction materials in Europe
  2. Compile EPiC Europe database
  3. Testing and sensitivity analysis at material and building scale
  4. Dissemination of research findings

Graduate researcher: Fabian Prideaux

Supervision team (Melbourne)

Principal Investigators (PIs):

Professor Robert Crawford (The University of Melbourne)

Associate Professor Dr Karen Allacker (KU Leuven)

Co-Principal Investigators (Co-PIs):

Dr André Stephan (Université Catholique de Louvain)

Other joint PhD projects