Life Cycle Analysis

Green is a dangerous word.

Green may be the most misused word in the english language as companies and organizations scramble to jump on the band wagon and avoid being seen as environmental outcasts and become green pariahs. The misuse of Green has been so pervasive that it has led to pending legislation to regulate green claims. This is extremely unfortunate as it has led people to make bad decisons and undermined their faith in any claim of  merit if it includes the term Green. We must do better, there is too much at stake.

There are very few methods to sort out all the claims of environmental friendly products, sustainable practices or Green. In the world of building where serious progress has been made to extablish legitimate standards for Green building, there are still serious problems for builders and home buyers in sorting out the most sustainable products, systems and practices. 

An example I have used repeatedly is bamboo flooring. Bamboo is generally perceived to be a very Green material due to its rapid growth with minimum energy and chemical input. It is also percieved to be Green because of apparent durability. I say apparent here because this product has only been on the market for a decade or two. There are many acres of bamboo flooring covering floors in the the Northeast US and Eastern Canada, much of it installed because of the perception of it being the Green thing to do.

But is it really? 

I have never seen a comprehensive Life Cycle Assessment performed on flooring choices. Are these Green claims for Bamboo based on science or perception. I would suggest that there is a distinct possibility  it is not the best choice in the Northeast or Eastern Canada where we a blessed with a hardwood resource that has been growing faster than harvest rates since around 1900. Hardwood floors have a long history of durability and the infrastructure is in place to produce huge quatities of flooring without depleting our Eastern forests or even more at risk old growth forests and rain forests. Hardwood floors also do not require the use of adhesives to glue together small pieces of bamboo to make useable sizes of flooring. Bamboo may well be a fine sustainable choice in bamboo growing regions, but I have a hard time seeing how it is superior to hardwood growing, literally, in the backyard.

There are tools for making evaluations of relative Green. In the end all Green is relative. Most all products have some Green attribute, but some have many more than others. In some cases certain attributes outweigh others when for instance durability is of more importance than the amount of embodied energy in a material. If you must replace a material or a building in a relatively short period of time because the materials or systems selected were not durable then picking a material with more embodied energy such as concrete might be the better choice.

So if you are following this line of reasoning you may be quickly overwhelmed by all the tradeoffs. But there is a tool that helps us considerably in this evaluation process, the Life Cycle Analysis or LCA. If you have followed Michael McDonough and his book Cradle to Grave, you are familiar with the concept that we must consider all material and energy inputs from first creation of a product to its ultimate disposal or preferably reuse This is the essence of Life Cycle Analysis, to comprehensively evaluate all inputs and outcomes of  product (system or service) choices.


BASF in conjunctin with Insulspan have performed Life Cycle Analyses of most of the most common residential building systems to determine if we were on the right track with Stuctural Insulating Panel Systems and Insulating Concrete Form Systems. The energy saving attributes of SIPs and ICFs were well understood to be outstanding. We also believed that the material resources and energy inputs to SIPs and ICFs were less than other systems but we needed a way to evaluate our hunches. It was also important to understand the many other impacts of material and system selections such as health effects to both building occupants and workers processing and handling the materials, environment impact from resource extraction, etc.  No matter how energy efficient a material, if other impacts are unacceptable then there may be better choices.

Ok, so how Green are SIPs and ICFs? The simple answer would be, ‘very‘. But it is never as simple as we might like. The more appropriate but elusive answer is ‘it depends’.  As you will see, it depends on factors like where the building is located and many other factors.

Thus I would like to explore the BASF/Insulspan Eco-Efficiency analysis in Frank’s Green Speak and solicit your questions, comments and input along the way. There is a link to one of the first studies here and we will be introducing others later. In future postings I will explore the many facets of the LCA and how things vary with different inputs. Hope you find this interesting and stimulating. I look forward to your comments.

View the Insulspan /BASF Life Cycle Analysis here: insulspan_LCA

5 Responses

  1. Great input and insight from one of the brightest minds in this industry.Another well articulated case for common sense thinking that needs to be applied to the building process. Which will by default create “greener” building.

  2. This reminds me of the original emphasis of Log home building and timber framing which using job site natural resources as much as possible. Of course now we import timber from Thailand and build monuments to vanity in Florida with the timber.

    Utilization of resources in a sustainable manner is possible but human nature is such that we do so most generally when there becomes a necessity or especially an emergency.

    As the “Green Revolution” evolves into a business and the free market takes over as it should and inevitably will the emphasis will again shift to a want instead of a need. A zeitgeist would be needed to maintain the better green goals over the purely supply and demand. That zeitgeist comes from education and cultivating a desire to have green as the prerequisite of any consumer choice.

  3. Hey there I discovered this website by accident, I was searching the net for Hawaii flooring installers when I came upon your website, I must say your blog is very interesting I just love the content, its astounding!. I’m in a bit of a rush in this instance to entirely browse your webpage but I have favorited it and also subscribed for your RSS feeds. I will be back when I have more time. Thanks for a great webpage.

  4. Concerning the LCA of the SIP, where and how exactly is the insulation supposed to be removed from the panel before going to the dump and are panel s filled with glue a great item for landfills? What about straw bale construction? 200 million tons wasted each year. Just because it is not something that can be pre-fabricated in a warehouse and put together in 2 days, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t receive serious consideration. R value of 44 and higher. Use your head and keep the moisture out. There are IBC parameters in place.

    • Sam, I assume your question of relates to a cradle to grave scenario for SIPs. When a structure is at the end of its life for reasons of obsolesence or just worn out the SIP structure could be dismantled and some of the SIPs reused. If reuse is not possible then the EPS insulation can be stripped from the OSB by use of a heated wire drawn through the EPS at the OSB interface. this technique is used regularly in the SIP shop for recycling the SIP drops. The foam is then reground if it is too small for other reuse and blended into new foam. the OSB can also be reused if in good condition for various applications. the adhesive film is only a few mils thick and constitutes only a miniscule part of the panel volume. when the foam is stripped from the OSB the adhesive layer stays with the OSB and does not inhibit the reuse fo the OSB.
      Straw bale construction is also a very viable and energy efficient alternative. SIPs are commonly used as roofs on straw bale walls and make a great complement to one another. Not all straw is wasted since it is valuable organic matter for building soil. however more straw is generated than is needed for soil maintenance thus in areas where straw is plentiful it is another alternative. Straw construction is labor intensive and poorly understood by the vast majority of builders thus not widely available to consumers. SIPs most alternatives suffer similar barriers to adoption, that is lack of familiarity by the building trades. However the learing curve with SIPs is relatively short and familiar to most carpenter trades since it is a panelized product which goes up quickly with common carpentry tools.

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