Pitt researchers lead $2 million effort to revamp scientific method behind green construction

September 22, 2010

PITTSBURGH--As green buildings sprout up with increasing regularity, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh will lead a four-year, $2 million federally funded project to revamp sustainable construction by investigating the true environmental presence of current green buildings and redesigning the scientific method that guides sustainable construction. The researchers will then integrate their work into a digital simulator that would predict a structure's ultimate footprint based on construction and performance decisions.

Melissa Bilec, a professor of civil and environmental engineering in Pitt's Swanson School of Engineering, received an Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation grant in Science in Energy and Environmental Design (EFRI-SEED) from the National Science Foundation to lead a group of Pitt and Carnegie Mellon University researchers in evaluating and expanding the scope of life-cycle assessments, or LCAs. When used in construction, LCAs analyze a building's environmental impact throughout its entire existence, from the production of its basic components and raw materials to its eventual demolition and disposal.

Coinvestigators from Pitt include Alex Jones, a professor in the Swanson School's Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering; Amy Landis, a professor of civil and environmental engineering; and Laura Schaefer, a professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science. Also included is Stephen Lee, head of the Carnegie Mellon's School of Architecture. The team received one of only 10 EFRI-SEED grants awarded this year, joining such other recipients as the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Virginia. Initial work on the project was supported by the Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation, Pitt's center for sustainable engineering and sustainable neighborhood design.

The current LCA model has not developed in step with sustainable engineering research, Bilec explained, meaning that important considerations are not factored into a building's construction. Notably absent is a method for quantifying a structure's potential effect on the people who use it every day, Bilec said. For instance, LCAs currently consider the emissions produced when carpeting is manufactured, but not the gases slowly released by the carpeting and its adhesives over time, gases that people inhale.

"The LCA model needs to go further, especially in the area of building construction," Bilec said. "For our study, we first want to make sure sustainable buildings perform as they should. If they do not, we need to modify the design. Our second goal concerns the human aspect. We spend 90 percent of our time inside, and we know very little about the real quality of indoor air. The interaction between people and the indoor environment needs to be considered if we want to understand overall sustainability."

To improve the LCA model, the researchers will first identify its weakest components--those that need to be more thorough, considerations that are overlooked, and cumbersome aspects of the model--through electronic surveys distributed to people and trade groups in the architecture, construction, and engineering fields who use the assessments most, as well as an evaluation of current case studies on sustainable building.

The team will then develop criteria that engineers and architects can use to determine the long-term sustainability of a building and its components. In addition, the group plans to integrate the revised LCA template into a digital interface they have named "the BUILD dashboard." This simulator would predict the possible environmental footprint of various construction decisions. Bilec said the group will then test the dashboard on structures in Pittsburgh.

The final prospective step in the project is to incorporate the new LCA into the Building Information Modeling, or BIM, process, real-time software widely used to design and construct buildings.

University of Pittsburgh

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