Life Cycle Calculators: A Good Green “Idea”

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The sudden greening of many industries – whether optics or reality – is creating an urgent demand for quick fixes to complex problems. One such need is for life cycle assessment tools, some of which have sprung into existence almost overnight. Others have been under development since the pre-commercial stage of today’s mushrooming environmentalism. This is especially true in the building materials industry where product life cycle calculators look like they might soon challenge the materials themselves for the number and variety of products on the market. Yet there isn’t one that is, by any honest assessment, more than a work in progress. All of them work on a theory of continual improvement, which if you’re an idealist is a good thing, and not so good if you’re a realist.

For the sake of time, let’s look at just one that is widely seen as a leading product in North American building. BEES (Building for Environmental and Economic Sustainability) is developed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and is available from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. BEES 4.0 was released in 2007, five years after its previous version. In that span of time, it added a mere 32 building products for analysis and comparison. Not to fault the good work being done – but at this rate the general utility of the tool is years, if not decades, away.


There are life cycle inventories for building products being developed by governments in several countries. It might seem to make more sense for a world-wide collaboration in order to speed up the whole process, but we know how fast international bureaucracies work. And like every other environmental problem, it is rife with contentious issues. According to Environmental Building News (June 1, 2007) BEES 4.0 “reflecting an emerging scientific and public consensus … assigned much more importance to climate change than to other impact categories.” Maybe that’s a good thing, but it also illustrates that whatever was more important in the previous version can give way to new priorities. More specifically, if it is weighted according to “public” consensus, well… what’s the point? Just trying to understand the assumptions built into a calculator can be a full time activity if you take the matter seriously.


Consider this parallel issue of continual improvement in building material assessments. The GreenSpec Directory 7th Edition , a leading source of green building materials, proudly advertises:


  • Tighter GreenSpec product standards, raising the bar for green
  • More than 230 new green products added
  • Nearly 70 products removed because they no longer meet our standards

Continual improvement! Idealistic indeed! But what does it really tell you about the assessment of those 70 dumped products? And does it inspire confidence in the 230 new ones?

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Colin Laughlan