Over the last two decades, creating environmentally friendly "green" buildings has gone from a quirky fringe activity to mainstream.
Increasingly, everyone from new home builders to major companies like PNC Bank have embraced the green credo of buildings that are not only energy efficient but use environmentally sustainable products.
But exactly what environmental impact those buildings have over the life of their existence from construction to operation to demolition and disposal is not fully understood.
A team of Pittsburgh engineers and architects, led by University of Pittsburgh engineering professor Melissa Bilec, will try to get at that very notion -- known as "life cycle assessment" or LCA -- with a $2 million grant recently won from the National Science Foundation.
"Right now, once people understand life cycle assessment, they agree it's a good approach," said Dr. Bilec, "but the data to make it practical to use for most buildings is lacking."
It's that data, and a method of collecting and applying it to newly constructed buildings, that Dr. Bilec's team will try to provide.
Her research team is made up of three engineering professors from Pitt and two architecture professors from Carnegie Mellon University, but also involves collaboration with other organizations, including the Green Building Alliance here in Pittsburgh.
"We like this work because this project will try to fill that gap between the builders and academia," said Aurora Sharrard, the Green Building Alliance's director of innovation, who will work with the team.
To do that, the team will use a three-step process:
• First, the alliance will help them survey architects, engineers, construction companies and others in the field to figure out how they can make life cycle assessment more usable.
• Then the team will develop criteria that those in the field can use to determine the LCA of a building, as well as everything in the building.
• And, finally, they will create a digital platform that will estimate the environmental footprint of construction decisions, such as which type of building material to use, or which brand of linoleum, or what type of lighting to use.
"I see it as a huge opportunity for architects," said Steve Lee, the head of CMU's school of architecture and a member of Dr. Bilec's team. "It could help them make better buildings and better cities in the future."
Ultimately, what the team creates could be plugged into the building information modeling that is now used in the field to understand how a building is constructed and used.
The information Dr. Bilec's team hopes to create could provide LCA impact, for example, for every conceivable type of flooring you might be thinking about using. But the information the team hopes to gather would not only be able to tell you about the environmental impact of the flooring, based on what it's made of and how it's made, but also the effect its adhesives have as they are emitted over their life cycle, Dr. Bilec said.
That would be a huge change, she said, because while LCA has been used for years, it has been focused on the products and things that go into a building, not how the building is then used.
One major advance that this project also will tackle in determining a building's LCA will be to try to determine the impact a building has on its occupants.
"We'll look at day lighting, indoor air quality and what effect it is having," she said.
To do that, the team has chosen three local green buildings -- the Mascaro Center at the University of Pittsburgh, the Phipps Conservatory "living building" and Carnegie Mellon's Solar Decathlon House.
Sensors in each building will be monitored to track the air and light and other interior environmental factors, and the team will try to assess the performance of the people who work there.
Exactly how they'll determine "performance" isn't exactly clear. Dr. Bilec said one idea has been to count keystrokes on computers, but she isn't sure yet what method they will use.
Christopher Pyke, research director for the U.S. Green Building Council -- a not-for-profit group in Washington, D.C., that oversees the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (or LEED) standards -- said his organization is hoping Dr. Bilec's team can determine how best to evaluate performance.
"What happens is we often have too much data and we have difficulty understanding what matters," he said. "Every building is unique. And the question becomes, this is how they're doing, compared to what?"
The U.S. Green Building Council, which wrote letters in support of Dr. Bilec's grant application, also will watch the results for any help the project will be to making LEED certification standards more thorough.
"The results of this study could help us create new tools for LEED," he said. "The impact will be far beyond Pittsburgh."