Quantifying the global warming potential of materials

Life cycle analysis (LCA) is a critically important tool in quantifying the environmental impacts of structural materials and helping designers make the right choices.

However, the challenge is to make sure that when comparing materials, you’re comparing apples-to-apples.

We wanted to share an interesting new paper from US structural and civil engineering firm MKA, which used LCA to compare the global warming potential of four different structural materials, including glulam and steel.

They were surprised with their findings. They couldn’t name an all-round winner in the low GWP stakes, because of inconsistencies in the scope and datasets of materials – which include Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) and Product Category Rules (PCRs).

They set out to compare apples with apples, but found they were comparing apples-to-pears.

Some key points the research makes around the shortcomings of comparing one material solution over the other:

  • variance in EPD methodologies and scope: cradle to gate versus cradle to grave (and ultimately the need to focus on the circular economy and cradle to cradle methodology)
  • inconsistent PCRs across materials: even in US the timber sector does not include land use impacts such creating access roads

Keep in mind that the data used in the report is US and New Zealand data may differ significantly

Ultimately, the report has affirmed that designers should choose materials that are most materially efficient for the intended building use, and then optimise and economise the design to save on quantities while also finding ways to decrease the embodied emissions.

This is something we have always advocated for and given steel is highly efficient, light, strong and infinitely recyclable – it stacks up pretty well.

You can read the report MKA Paper – Case Study for Material Comparison Carbon Studies