How can we better understand embodied environmental impacts in order to expand the boundaries of sustainable design?

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Architects, engineers, and contractors have begun to focus more of their efforts on reducing the amount of energy used to operate buildings. However, the energy and environmental impacts related to the manufacture, transportation, and construction and demolition of building materials are not yet widely understood or tracked during the design process. While many architects and engineers are aware of these embodied environmental impacts, few have the resources and expertise to be able to examine and compare the overall sustainability of different building material choices.

Understanding LCA

Understanding the impact of building materials involves Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), an in-depth form of analysis performed on whole buildings, manufactured building products and materials, and material assemblies. While LCAs provide a complete picture of the environmental impacts associated with a building, the practice of LCA is relatively new and confounding for most building professionals. Until recently, LCAs were typically conducted after construction, rather than during the design and planning process when the data could actually influence design decisions.

Building a Better Model

In principle, architects and other building professionals should be able to conduct LCAs using the Building Information Models (BIM) that are a part of standard architectural practice. In reality, building models do not contain all the ingredients that go into a building. A BIM model might recognize a steel assembly, for example, but it would not take into account that most steel assemblies use a significant amount of concrete as well. In order to address this challenge, KieranTimberlake's affiliate company, KT Innovations, partnered with Autodesk and thinkstep to create Tally, a Revit plugin that allows Revit users to imbue their BIM models with information about the building materials and architectural products their completed structures will ultimately contain. In addition to quantifying emissions to land, air, and water, Tally also factors a building or material's embodied environmental impacts. Essentially, Tally adds another layer of detail to BIM models by recognizing materials that are not modeled explicitly, like the concrete in steel assemblies, and by taking into account a model's diverse range of material classes. In doing so, Tally gives its users the power to conduct whole building LCAs or to use LCA data to run comparative analyses of various design options.

Tally provides life cycle data as a building is designed, allowing designers to make meaningful decisions about material selections.

LCA at the Speed of Design

As Tally users design their BIM models in Revit, they assign building materials and quantities to create a Bill of Materials for the full building or constituent parts. This Bill of Materials automatically updates as the design changes, allowing architects and engineers to see in real-time the impact their design choices have on their buildings' overall sustainability. Consequently, Tally allows designers to move from typologies and “rule of thumb” environmental impact calculations to real-time assessments at pivotal moments. No other environmental assessment tool currently available can achieve this kind of inventory at the same speed.

Tally can summarize the environmental impacts of two different design options according to up to nine different categories. These results can then be broken down further by life cycle stage, Revit category, and Construction Specifications Institute (CSI) division.

Tally also facilitates communication between different groups within a project team by presenting its generated data clearly and legibly. By sorting, grouping, and displaying information simply and succinctly, Tally allows users to produce data graphics that are readily comprehensible, transparent, and customizable. In this way, information that is normally abstract becomes very well defined, allowing clients, contractors, architects, and engineers alike to make accurate and nuanced decisions. 
As energy efficiency becomes more and more crucial to the built environment—and as energy codes become increasingly stringent—the embodied energy, carbon counts, and other environmental impacts of building materials will inevitably become a proactively calculated and well understood factor in reducing the total amount of resources buildings consume. Tally helps building professionals stay ahead of this curve. To learn more or to request a free trial, visit

Additional Publications

This project has been shared via the following peer-reviewed publications: