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Photo showing construction cranes. By Ej Yao via Unsplash

Life cycle stage

Life cycle thinking is a crucial part of planning, decision making, and actions to improve the sustainability of construction and building and construction materials. ​​A whole life cycle approach requires consideration of the environmental impact of material choices before the materials are even extracted, and then at each phase of the building lifecycle, from extraction to processing, installation, use and demolition. This means thinking about how the choice of materials affects everything from the functioning of regional ecosystems, to the amount of heating or cooling needed, and how, at the end of their use, these materials can provide a bank of resources to then be re-used. 

This approach is core to tackling the challenges of reducing whole life carbon emissions of buildings, improving material efficiency and the circularity of processes, making building materials chemically safer, and addressing social hotspots in the material life cycle. Failing to consider the whole life cycle in decision making can lead to unintended trade-offs between environmental, social or economic issues that inhibits progress towards sustainable development.

Policymakers play a crucial role to support stakeholders in decarbonizing materials throughout their entire life cycle, from extraction and processing to installation and demolition. Although there are various recommendations for individual stakeholders like manufacturers, architects, owners, and builders to improve the carbon footprints of buildings, these efforts often face challenges due to interdependencies, which means they cannot achieve significant impacts on their own. Instead, stakeholders need simultaneous support to take complementary actions.

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Source: United Nations Environment Programme (2023). Building Materials and the Climate: Constructing a New Future. Nairobi

For instance, designers, owners, and communities may want to use more recycled materials, but they are hindered by the gap between supply and demand. Closing this gap requires cities to introduce and enforce building codes that promote the use of 'circular' material components, enabling the re-use of materials at the end-of-life. Even incremental improvements across different life cycle phases can synergistically contribute to reducing emissions more effectively than focusing on isolated changes.

Yet, to scale up and have a meaningful impact, all these shifts and improvements require coordinated efforts across producers, designers, builders, and communities, considering the entire life cycle of buildings.

The Hub features a range of research papers, guidance on methodology and case studies that demonstrate taking a whole life cycle approach to improving the sustainability of building materials. Additionally, some resources focus more on a particular life cycle stage, such as recommendations for end-of-life actions to improve circularity. These can be accessed by selecting a particular life cycle stage from the menu.

The Hub also supports the approach of the UNEP Life Cycle Initiative. This is a public-private, multi-stakeholder partnership enabling the global use of credible life cycle knowledge by private and public stakeholders, with building materials being a key focus area for promoting best practice in life cycle thinking.

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2023-09-25

This whitepaper focuses on the tradeoff between operational savings and embodied carbon, which are resulting from retrofit activities. The research presented in this report marks the starting point to shed a light on the relevance of embodied-carbon emissions resulting from energetic retrofits.

2023-09-22

Plastic pollution and climate change are serious and interconnected threats to public and planetary health, as well as major drivers of global social injustice. Prolific use of plastics in the construction industry is likely a key contributor, resulting in burgeoning efforts to promote the recycling or downcycling of used plastics.

2023-09-22

This tool allows architects and designers to analyze and estimate the carbon equivalent of emissions associated with all aspects of the project. The Zero Carbon Tool gives an overall picture of how key decisions made at early stages of design can impact the project's total carbon use.

2023-09-22

Whole life carbon assessment 2nd edition will enable professionals to make prudent decisions to limit the whole life carbon impact of buildings and infrastructure. It facilitates carbon measurement from the production of construction materials to the design, construction and eventual end of life of built assets.

2023-09-19

This work highlights the reactivity of soda-lime glass powder on cement CEM IV-B-L 32.5R. Three colors of soda lime glass were used with varying amount of powder from 0 to 35 wt%. The water demand for standard consistency have increased from 28.40 to 45.93 wt%. The compressive strength increased from 26.46 to 31.66 MPa and the flexural strength also increased from 5.89 to 7.14 MPa after 28 days. The optimal value of 10 wt% of glass powder gave the maximum value of mechanical strength at 28 days.

2023-09-12

This report highlights the urgent need to develop new models for cooperation on the decarbonisation of building materials, if the world is to reach its goals for net zero emissions from the built environment sector by the mid-century.

2023-09-11

Developed by Brussels Environment, the Reversible Design Checklist is a voluntary design tool which aims to help building owners and designers in Brussels to create reversible and circular buildings.

The Checklist is available in:

2023-09-11

Procedure to record building materials as a base to evaluate the potential for a high-quality reutilization prior to demolition and renovation work (pre-demolition audit).

Text in German and English.

2023-09-11

Construction and Demolition Waste (CDW) is by volume the largest waste stream in the European Union. Although a vast majority of CDW is recyclable and reusable, one of the common barriers to recycling and reuse of CDW is the lack of confidence in the quality of recovered materials and components.

2023-09-08

Limiting global warming to 1.5°C requires immediate and drastic reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. A significant contributor to anthropogenic global GHG emissions is the production of building materials. Biobased materials offer the potential to reduce such emissions and could be deployed in the short term. Timber construction has received the main attention from policy and industry. However, the implementation of timber construction at the global scale is constrained by the availability of sustainably managed forest supplies.