The Reversing Climate Change podcast with Nori
A podcast about the different people, technologies, and organizations that are coming together to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and reverse climate change. We also talk about blockchains.

#61: Leveraging the Life Cycle Assessment for Useful Carbon Accounting with Professor Kate Simonen

February 19, 2019


The processes of building material extraction, manufacturing, transportation and construction are ALL responsible for carbon emissions. So, how do you compare these embodied costs to make the best choices around which materials to use? How do you know whether it’s better for the environment to retrofit an existing building or build a new, passive one? How do you determine whether a building truly qualifies as zero-carbon? The primary tool we use to measure environmental impact is the life cycle assessment.

Kate Simonen is a carbon accounting expert and professor in the Department of Architecture at the University of Washington. As a licensed architect and structural engineer, she has an extensive background in high-performance building systems, seismic design and retrofitting, and net-zero energy construction. Kate’s research is focused on environmental life cycle assessment and innovative construction materials and methods. She is also the founding director of the Carbon Leadership Forum, a research effort focused on advancing low-carbon construction.

Today, Kate joins Ross and Christophe to share the ins and outs of life cycle assessments, or LCAs. She explains how to draw systems boundaries in a useful way and describes what makes for a good versus bad LCA. Kate walks us through the stages of building, discussing how LCAs can be applied in each phase and sharing the CLF’s aim to increase awareness around why material choices matter. Listen in for Kate’s insight on the trend toward green building, the opportunities for storing carbon in the built-environment, and the three ways you can get involved in the life cycle assessment space!


Carbon Leadership Forum

I, Pencil

Jimmy Jia on RCC EP057

Klaus Lackner

Andrew Himes on RCC EP011

US Green Building Council

ISO Standards for LCAs

The EC3 Tool

Interface Carpet

Embodied Carbon Network

Architecture 2030 Carbon Smart Materials Palette

Connect with Ross & Christophe


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Key Takeaways 

[1:39] Kate’s path to reversing climate change

  • Trained as architect/structural engineer
  • Zero carbon buildings team
  • Impact of manufacturing of materials

[4:06] How to draw systems boundaries in a useful way

  • Standardized methods (e.g.: people exist no matter what)
  • Depends on goal of LCA (global impact vs. process comparison) 

[7:17] How LCAs are applied in the stages of a building

  • Embodied costs
  • Use costs (operating, repair and maintenance)
  • End-of-life

[12:35] The rise of construction in the developing world

  • Equivalent of Manhattan every 35 days for 30 years
  • Potential to be material efficient + carbon sinks

[17:53] The practical uses of LCAs

  • Product-specific (environmental product declaration)
  • Whole-building LCA to make improvements

[20:47] What constitutes a good LCA

  • Defines systems boundaries, consistent data
  • Follows ISO Standards(transparent processes)

[25:48] The use case for the EC3 Calculator

  • Differentiate between materials up supply chain
  • Makes product procurement decisions easier 

[28:57] The trend toward green building in architecture/engineering

  • Understand complexity of environmental impact
  • Work toward zero operating energy by 2030

[32:40] The opportunities for storing carbon in the built environment

  • Conventional materials like carpet
  • Carbon fiber furniture

[34:04] Why wood is making a comeback

  • New manufacturing techniques
  • Renewed interest in material
  • Changes to building code (allows taller)

[36:58] Kate’s insight around forest management

  • Reduce fires and improve air quality
  • Harvest wood for buildings when fires threaten

[38:11] How to get involved in the LCA space

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