With global temperatures steadily increasing, sustainable design is more important than ever. But beyond constructing energy-efficient buildings, embracing biophilic design and finding clever ways to capture and recycle rainwater, architects must also consider the life cycle of their building materials for minimal impact on the environment. The problem, however, is that determining the environmental effects of material production has always been problematic, with the resource inputs (energy/water) and outputs (greenhouse gas emissions/waste etc.) difficult to quantify. That is – until now.
The Environmental Performance in Construction (EPiC) database is a new resource which has been developed to provide easily accessible, consistent and transparent data on the environmental performance of a broad range of common construction materials in Australia. The initiative is the culmination of a four-year, multi-institutional research project funded by the Australian Government through the Australian Research Council, created as a way to address the issue that in Australia, in particular, our understanding of the broad effects of material production is often hindered by limited, incomplete and inaccessible data.
Dr Robert Crawford - an Associate Professor from the School of Design at the University of Melbourne – is the lead researcher and creator of the EPiC Database. We sat down with Dr Crawford to get more insight into the creation of EPiC and how it can benefit architects wanting to design more sustainably.
He said, “I have been working on aspects relating to the environmental performance of the built environment for over 20 years. EPiC aims to help address the limited information available on embodied resource demands and emissions within the built environment, which makes it difficult for built environment professionals to make well-informed decisions on material selection. The hope is that by detailing the environmental flows associated with construction materials, such as energy, water and greenhouse gas emissions, we can help to improve the environmental performance of our built environment on a more holistic basis.”
Transparent supply chains
There’s an increased focus on looking in-depth at supply chains to get a true understanding of the environmental impact of products – this is true across fashion and food production, right through to construction materials. The EPiC Database is an open-access repository that combines data collected from the companies involved in material production, measuring the embodied energy, embodied water, and embodied greenhouse gas emissions of over 250 construction materials used in Australia.
Dr Crawford explained, “The EPiC Database provides an unprecedented insight into the environmental performance of construction materials. We’ve been able to provide data on the amount of energy, water and greenhouse gas emissions associated with producing a range of construction materials, from concrete, glass, insulation, metals, plastics, stone and timber.”
And while for some products there is no data readily available - meaning that generic or representative data is currently the only option – this is likely to change. As data becomes more freely accessible, this will improve the relevance of data to specific materials being specified, further enhancing the breadth of information available via EPiC.
Reducing our footprint
The implications of the EPiC Database are indeed epic. There is no doubt that building design and construction has a significant role to play when it comes to addressing global environmental challenges, and this incredible resource will allow those responsible to make well-informed, sustainably focused decisions.
According to Dr Crawford, simply by having access to information about the environmental implications of different materials, we will be able to make significant changes to the way we design and build moving forward.
“The EPiC Database will help us to more rapidly make the deep cuts in resource demands and environmental effects that are associated with our built environment. This might include a shift away from certain materials, rationalisation of designs to reduce demand for those materials, a deeper questioning of suppliers, and more conscious sourcing of materials that help to lower the environmental footprint of our construction projects.”
Since its release in November 2019, the EPiC Database has been used by numerous organisations, ranging from small architectural practices to large international environmental design consultants. While it is still too early to see the level of performance improvement from its use on a project level, it is being used in initial decision-making on projects such as the University of Melbourne’s new Fisherman’s Bend campus.
Greening the globe
The environmental performance of materials can vary considerably depending on a range of factors, including the source of raw materials, location of production, fuel types used, manufacturing processes, and location of final use. This can limit the applicability of any material environmental data to a specific geographic location.
Because of this, Dr Crawford and his team of specialists are working on expanding the EPiC Database into other countries. They are currently working on a version of the database for Chile and have begun working on EPiC Europe with their European colleagues; and are also exploring the creation of EPiC versions for other key global regions, such as Asia and the Americas. Once created, the multi-regional data will provide a more realistic indication of the environmental performance of materials based on where they are produced.
Designing a sustainable future
As the global population and living standards grow, so does our immense environmental challenge. And although there is a lot being done across various areas of the industry, we can’t help wonder if enough is being done to help create a sustainable future. Dr Crawford certainly doesn’t think so.
“I don’t believe we are doing nearly enough to improve the environmental performance of construction projects. Most of the materials we use in the industry are either non-renewable or being used at an unsustainable rate; using fossil-fuel-based energy in their production, destroying natural habitats, polluting the environment through the release of pollutants and deteriorating valuable land resources through the disposal of waste materials to landfill.”
“A much larger effort is needed across the construction supply chain in a broad range of areas, including development of new materials that have much lower effect on the environment across their life, specification of low impact materials by designers, reduction in construction and demolition waste, and prioritisation and incentives given to the reuse or recycling of materials.”
“As much as the intention to design sustainably might be there, without data and information, we are designing blind. Built environment professionals need reliable, comprehensive data to inform critical decisions and ensure that not only is the operational performance of our buildings and cities optimised, but that we ensure the sustainable use of our natural raw material, energy and water resources, and reduce the emission of greenhouse gases, pollutants and waste throughout the material life cycle. The EPiC Database brings the, often rarely considered, material production-related environmental issues to the fore.”
In design, every decision is the collation of diverse information to deliver a desired outcome. The complex world of material science and manufacture has obscured the information required by designers to achieve sustainable outcomes. The EPiC Database provides a clear, accessible and informative tool, which Hames Sharley and other designers can use to interrogate our design decisions to ensure our projects achieve our aspirations. Armed with defined, researched metrics for energy, water and greenhouse gas emissions, we are able to push conversations beyond construction costs, to how our built environment impacts our broader community and planet.
The EPiC Database is freely available for anyone to use and can be accessed at www.epicdatabase.com.au.