concrete and life cycle assessment

To minimize the environmental impact of our built environment and maximize its cost-effectiveness and overall sustainability value, we need robust and transparent ways to measure and optimize decisions at all phases of a building, road or other infrastructure project.

Using a holistic Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) approach is key in helping us design, build and maintain buildings and infrastructure with a significantly lower carbon footprint. LCA recognizes the complexity hidden behind sometimes deceptively simple questions about the sustainability of a product or service by examining all stages of its life, from “cradle-to-cradle” — i.e. raw material extraction through materials processing, manufacturing, distribution, use, repair and maintenance, and end of life (repurposing, reusing, recycling or disposal).

For example, LCA studies have shown that depending on location and service life, over 90% of our buildings’ emissions come from operational energy use. Similarly, multiple studies have shown that the environmental impact of the “in use” phase of our highways and roads outweigh all other phases of a pavement’s lifecycle, including construction.

The Canadian concrete industry has been working with experts from MIT, the Athena Sustainable Materials Institute and others to identify and measure concrete’s contribution to the lifecycle sustainability performance of our buildings, roads and other infrastructure projects.   

MIT studies show that the passive energy efficiency of concrete’s thermal mass — gains of 8% over other building materials — more than make up for the embodied impacts of the cement and concrete manufacturing process. Similarly, studies by Athena Sustainable Material Institute show that over a 50-year period, the construction, maintenance, and rehabilitation of concrete pavement uses one third the energy required for asphalt pavement.