Ep 118 - Navigating Sustainability in Construction

19 min 54 sec

In this episode of Timber Talks, we are joined by Melissa Gaspari, an Associate at Andefena. Melissa shares valuable insights on the importance of Life Cycle Assessments (LCAs) and how they are becoming more accessible through new tools and infrastructure. We delve into the role of Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) and discuss key considerations for timber buildings from a sustainability perspective. Melissa also addresses the tradeoff between operational energy and embodied carbon in building design. We explore the current trends in sustainability and conclude with Melissa's thoughts on the future of the construction industry in the next five years.


Timber Talks Series 6

Series six of WoodSolutions Timber Talks, provides the latest informative and entertaining information about the best design practices, latest innovations and interesting case studies and interviews with world leading experts in timber design, specification and construction.

Episode transcript

Adam Jones (00:09):

Thanks so much for coming on the podcast. Mel, can you please start by telling us just a little bit about yourself and what you do?

Melisa Gaspari (00:15):

Yeah, absolutely. So, hi, I'm Mel and I work for a small strategic resiliency company called Andefena. I'm associate there and we do kind of everything and anything in the sustainability space. But our main goal is sort of where my background comes in lifecycle assessment, embodied carbon scope three and greenhouse gas reporting.

Adam Jones (00:38):

Cool. And I think to bring everyone up to speed, probably just some definitions like scope three embodied carbon, how's that different and what's an LCA and what does that sort of capture?

Melisa Gaspari (00:50):

Yeah, absolutely. So greenhouse gas emissions come or scope three kind of comes from GHG protocol and the corporate reporting standard. And it looks at what your emissions are from a corporate perspective. So it's really looking at a company, what their value chain is, where they make profit and what their upstream. So buying goods and stuff to make their product or service and then selling stuff and where their emissions kind of flow through that process. Where embodied carbon is more a term that's kind of coming from the product base when you're looking at a specific creation of a thing, you're looking at what emissions kind of go into the making up of that thing. And the term embodied carbon kind of comes from lifecycle assessment, which is really just a way to analyze the whole life of a product from its very raw materials came out of the ground all the way through to, I'm going to throw it back in the ground.

Adam Jones (01:48):

Yeah, yeah, I love that. So one of the topics where going into detail is the area that of your expertise, and I'm sure there's a lot of people doing LCA's now, but you were right there early days when no one knew what the acronym was. So maybe can you just start by telling us what an LCA is, what the scope is and why is it important?

Melisa Gaspari (02:11):

So an LCA is really all about getting that whole of life perspective. It's really about saying I'm creating a thing and I want to look at how that thing came to be, how that thing gets used and then how that thing then gets put in a waste process or reused if it can be. There's a whole host of international and local standards around how you do that and what's involved. And a lot of them are process based in terms of setting up, let's define what the thing is, let's define how we're going to look at it, let's define what our goal is in terms of what we're trying to look at it. But I guess the best part about LCA is that it allows you to cut the pie in multiple different ways. So that process of going, let me define the thing and let me define what I'm looking at, gives you all the data to, okay, well what if I need a new perspective? What if I need to look at the backend? What if I need to look at waste? It allows you, because you've got the whole process there of this thing to go from start to finish and then kind of look at things you didn't think you could see before.

Adam Jones (03:14):

Yeah, makes sense. Are they becoming easier? Cause I, I'm guessing for an LCA you require EPD's environmental product declaration. So maybe if you can part of the answer, you can talk about what they are, but you're sort of relying on the supply chain as well to sort of be transparent and stuff like that. So is that there is a dependency there, so is that getting easier over time and what are your thoughts on that?

Melisa Gaspari (03:37):

Yes and yes and no. So environmental product declarations I'm a huge fan of because essentially they are a lifecycle assessment at the core of a thing and they're a company that's going right into the detail of the creation of that thing and saying, I'm going to measure the stuff and then report it and give you an answer for my product so that when you go and do your LCA on something bigger or you use my product, you've got real data there to use. So EPDs do make LCA easier in saying that the comparison of how many EPD's there are for a particular product or if there's good data in there or if a company is trying to kind of greenwash gets a little bit murky in whether or not it creates an easier LCA or not.

Adam Jones (04:25):

Yeah, well do you, I mean some traditional because when you're doing a comparison with the business as usual, sort of building what, because I guess if you don't have a clean product then you're probably not going to do an EPD because it's just going to make you look as bad. How do you overcome that Or is that the supply chain pretty good that are there gaps?

Melisa Gaspari (04:47):

Definitely. I mean there's definitely gaps but I mean if you take steel as a product that goes into buildings, a lot of steel manufacturers are creating EPDs even when their steel manufacturing process isn't the cleanest. And part of that is so that they can make it cleaner and figure out how to do that. So kudos to them for being transparent in that so that they only can do that. Cause there is comparison in for that product. So you only know that that steel is bad because there's another steel supplier out there go doing the same thing and you can compare the two when you're kind of the first in the group to do it. Doing an EPD is kind of a way to give yourself a green stamp irrelevant of whether your product's actually good or bad.

Adam Jones (05:35):

Yeah, yeah. Gotcha. One of the things, and I'm a novice of course, but to do an LCA, you need a fair bit of work done. You need a structural design done, you might need your Qsix system sort out, you need a lot of things done. But the catch 22 is you got the highest leverage on choosing sustainability options at the very start before it's done. So it's sort of like you have it designed, do the LCA and it's in the rear view mirror pretty much. So what are your thoughts on, is that an issue? Is that a thing or is it solvable? What are your thoughts on that?

Melisa Gaspari (06:12):

Yeah, absolutely. I feel like it's LCA is just another discipline in the building design process. So quite often people will say that to me like, oh, LCA comes in the end and is just a measurement tool. And I'm saying well really they're another designer, they're your sustainability designer. And through your process as your structural engineer is working out, do I use a post tension slab or do I use a steel concrete timber hybrid or is there another material out there? Your sustainability or LCA consultant should be sitting alongside them and say, okay, on a product by product basis, here's your comparison. When we scale that up to the building based on some preliminary numbers, you've done the ballpark at that stage you're looking at just like you would with the structural design, you're trying to get a feasibility assessment.


You don't need to be super accurate, but it does rely on someone with an LCA background being able to come in and come of do that because LCA is so academic, it's so detailed, you need so many pieces of information, you kind of have to have done the measurement piece later on at the end of a process to come back and come in early and say, okay guys, from all the stuff I've done before, I've learned that product's not so great when you scale it up like this or this product doesn't work in a building of that kind. So I would often say don't let your QS be your lifecycle assessment person. Don't let your structural engineer do it. Get someone whose job is just that and use that specialty because they have a wealth of knowledge in their brains that we're not tapping into at the moment.

Adam Jones (07:44):

Yeah, great. And I guess at the very start, do you think getting sustainability consultant on at the very start is adds to that sort of real auctioneering get, making sure you got the highest bang for buck?

Melisa Gaspari (07:56):

Absolutely. And it allows you to incorporate new products because then it allows you to go out to suppliers and say, we want to try this on. What if we help you get your EPD through the process of using our building and everybody wins. You can only do that when you come in really early.


Adam Jones (08:11):

Yeah, a hundred percent. Cause I guess that's where there is discussions on who does that and there is a school of thought that a QS should, but as you said, that's just measuring, it's not actually acting change for the building. Whereas a sustainability consultant measuring is one thing, but doing that supply chain research, having those relationships, knowing what to choose is is perhaps the only thing that makes the improvements.

Melisa Gaspari (08:33):

Yeah, absolutely. We couldn't do it without a QS and we absolutely need to be alongside them, but I don't think it's their specialty to know how emissions work and how they're calculated and whether or not we should be capturing things like biogenic or sequestered carbon in products like timber. And that's not their specialty. We want 'em to measure and measure so that we can give them the low down on emissions.

Adam Jones (08:57):

Awesome segue there Mel. So I was going to ask you what are the key considerations for the timber in general and also for a designer?

Melisa Gaspari (09:06):

I think for a designer initially it's about being open to new materials and a different way of design. The design process in a building is like, it's pretty consistent wherever you go, we kind of start with a concept and then we refine that down all the way through to a plan you can detail off. So getting in early with the sustainability consultant, understanding how to take that concept in new directions is really important for designers, for timber, I think there's a bit of a industry need to come together and make a decision on how we feel about sequestered carbon because there's a huge debate around whether or not the carbon that was incorporated as the tree grew, gets counted. There are reasons to count it and there are reasons not to count it and they're both equally valid. I think it's just as an industry, we need to make a call on what that is and why at the moment, the guests from the academic sense, the rule is we don't count it unless you can guarantee where that timber is going for a greater period of a hundred years.


So if you think about a building, we designed them for 60 years, we fall short of that, but that's not always the case. The average life of a residential building in Australia is 80 plus years. So it's not really, really reflective. Whereas the commercial building's the opposite. It's like 20 or 25 years, but you're kind of getting this huge bang for buck by using timber in an office building because you have the ability to reduce all this concrete or this steel, use a different product, not have to have finishes. People enjoy the experience more of being in a timber building. You get all of these huge benefits and we don't get to count this sequestered carbon. So I think there's a bit of work on less about how to do the math. I think we know how to do that. And more about let's make a call from a kind of, are we going to count this or not perspective or are we going to discount it and say, okay, let's only count 50% of it because we're not sure where it's going to go at the end because we know holistically timber's going to be a better product to recycle, reuse, go back in the ground at the end of a building's life than something like concrete.



Adam Jones (11:20):

Yeah. And it's a huge one, isn't it? Cause you just say yes, no biogenic carbon, the swings just like crazy and it's and huge everyone and no one wants to greenwash no one. No one really. That's not a good outcome for anyone. But it's sort of like both extremes are not including it all is ridiculous because it's at the end of the day, you are growing and replanting trees at a sequestering carbon and that's a true reality. But then you're right, you can't just assume it's sequestered forever. But having said that, there is research around there, but it is a hard one. It's a hard one.

Melisa Gaspari (11:55):

Yeah, absolutely. But the other thing is the research sometimes tends to steer you down the wrong path. A few of the buildings I've looked at, we've done some sensitivity analysis around the end of life and said, okay, this building's going to be cut up and put in landfill or reused. And right now the way the LCA works, you get a better benefit by putting all of that timber in landfill because of the way it de carbs. And it's like that's a dangerous road to go down.

Adam Jones (12:23):

I understand. Yeah, yeah, totally. So yes, for designers, just like that, having a mine on design for disassembly is just a good sustainability practice I guess. And then speculate what we want. Who knows in a hundred years both going to be dead by the end you think?

Melisa Gaspari (12:40):

Yes. Well

Adam Jones (12:41):

Hopefully morbid maybe. Can you tell us about the tradeoff between operational carbon and then body carbon? If there is any trade offs optimized for one, the other goes up optimized for the other, the one goes up. And do we need to be looking at things holistically?

Melisa Gaspari (12:58):

Absolutely. We need to be looking at things holistically. I think in the history, at least in the Australian market, we've focused a lot on operational carbon and an operational energy for years for I believe the last 10 or 12 years. And we've gotten really good at it. So the buildings we build for the most part are really functional operationally, but that's doing a disservice to the materials that go in to create that. So we are putting in say, double glazed windows in temperate climates that don't really need double glazed windows in order to get this marginal benefit in an operational energy perspective. So there is absolutely a trade off, but there's also some flexibility. So I think it's the sort of thing you want to look at both, but you kind of want to look at them separately. It's the sort of thing go away, come back together, go away, come back together. It's very iterative in that sense.

Adam Jones (13:51):

Yeah. Yeah. That's awesome. One of is almost a bit of a rant. I felt like the net zero or the net zero definitions as well, I remember years ago net zero there was a lot of claims, but it was only on operate operational energy, which is hats off. But until it's a holistic one and the definitions there of operational and embodied carbon and then you got absolute zero. What's the importance of definitions? Cause I feel like that's where some greenwashing can creep in almost.

Melisa Gaspari (14:25):

Oh, absolutely. And net zero is probably one of my biggest pet peeves. Same with carbon positive and carbon negative. It's like what do these terms mean? And every different certification rating, every different kind of third party rating tool you use has a different definition. So I think we need to move away from this idea that sustainability is a star rating system. It doesn't work just like you can't go to the grocery store and compare the star rating of an apple to the star rating of an orange. We shouldn't be doing that for buildings. It doesn't make any sense. And I think it does a disservice to your customers really as developers and builders, I think your customers are smarter than you think they are, and if you treat them accordingly, they'll come up to speed because quite often customers are driving, they want PV on their residential buildings, they want smart meters, they want some of that stuff that is not kind of considered business as usual, especially in New South Wales.

Adam Jones (15:32):

Yeah. What do you see is the trends in sustainability right now and let's just looking forward on where things are heading in the next five, 10 years and what are some of the changes we're going to see in your opinion?

Melisa Gaspari (15:46):

I think we're going to see a lot more companies disclose their scope three emissions, which is all the stuff they buy and all the stuff they sell and what impact that has. And in doing that, we're going to see probably a period of a lot of confusion in the short term before we get some clear and consistent measures around what is included in those estimates and what, there are already some companies out there doing that, so shout out to them and doing it well. They're really disclosing clearly what they're doing and how they're trying to be accurate about it. But I think what we'll see is a move away from star ratings and net zero ratings and these quantified tools to a more, we did this and this is why, and we know you as a customer are going to understand that this is relevant to our business. So more bespoke definitions of this is what sustainability means to us as a building business or as a developer or as a tenant or an insurance company, those type of things.

Adam Jones (16:47):

One of the things that comes on my mind is there's a lot of developers and engineers making these net zero targets and embodied carbon targets of 40%, 50%, some, a hundred percent. So you've got those targets and then you've got what the solutions are. Yes, it's great for timber, but timber's not going to solve everything. Obviously there's that much concrete that goes out and it'll be a small chunk of the pie. So I feel like there's this, all these targets and then the actual amount of solutions that can be done. Do you see it sort of a crash in terms of there or do you think it can be done? There's plenty of innovation that's going to come from the supply chain across all materials that can sort of cater for all these targets?

Melisa Gaspari (17:31):

I'm a little bit of a pessimist. I don't think it can be done. Maybe I should say realist. I'm a little bit of a realist. Yeah. I don't think that some of the technology advances that we're predicting are going to realize. I think what's the, I think the solution is going to be us changing how we build buildings and how we approach things like shelter in general. The largest group of homelessness is the largest growing group of homelessness is women over 55 single women. Where is the residential buildings for those people? That's just something now, right at this moment. But that's going to continue to shift and change as we take a different approach to what individual apartments look like and working from home and how do we manage covid risk and all of those things. I think how we design and what we design is going to be the key thing that moves us forward. Not necessarily whether it's timber solving the problem or concrete solving the problem. Because in the end, materials wise, it's going to be a happy hybrid of everything. That's the reality. Yeah,

Adam Jones (18:38):

That's a great note to end on. So thanks so much, Mel. If people want to find out more about yourself or anything you want the listeners to go and check out, where should they go?

Melisa Gaspari (18:47):

Absolutely. Head over to Wood Solutions. They've got a great wealth of resources on timber and EPD's for timber industry in Australia, and you can head over to our website andefena.com.

Adam Jones (18:58):

Awesome. Thanks so much Mel.

Are you looking for a supplier?

Start Your Search

Social Media Feeds