MIT Research Examines Life-Cycle Assessment of Concrete Roads, Structures

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) last week released preliminary research findings that will help set a new standard in life-cycle assessment (LCA) modeling. The studies, which are part of an ongoing research initiative at the MIT Concrete Sustainability Hub, will quantify the cradle-to-grave environmental costs of paving and building materials, and will ultimately result in the most comprehensive LCA model produced to-date.

The study combines data on the full range of environmental costs – construction, maintenance, reconstruction, user, direct, and indirect – with a timeframe that reflects the real world life of pavements and building materials. The research examines a timeframe of 50 years for pavements and 75 years for buildings and provides assessments that align with structures’ actual emission totals over the course of structures’ real world lifetimes.

“This study is unprecedented in that this LCA focuses on the ‘use phase’ of materials – the period between construction and demolition that makes up the actual in-use life of the road or building,” Brian McCarthy, Portland Cement Association (PCA) CEO and president said. “The research represents the best available data on building and paving materials from one of the world’s preeminent institutions of higher learning.”

Initial findings in the Buildings LCA have shown that more than 90 percent of the life-cycle carbon emissions from residential buildings are due to the use or operational phase. The study also showed that in residential structures, the use of insulating concrete forms instead of code compliant wood-framed construction can produce operational energy savings of 20 percent or more, with the highest energy savings occurring in colder climates.

The Highway Pavement LCA showed that for high-volume roads, the use phase of the lifecycle can account for up to 85 percent of total carbon emissions.

MIT is set to release a follow-up study in 2011 that will examine the economic costs to provide the most comprehensive analysis of the total costs of building and paving materials.

Established in 2009 in collaboration with PCA and Ready Mixed Concrete (RMC) Research and Education Foundation, MIT’s Concrete Sustainability Hub is a collaborative effort to integrate the best science on concrete and similar materials into industry practices. The MIT Sustainability Hub includes researchers from MIT’s School of Engineering and School of Architecture and Planning.

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