Actionable insights with less data: guiding early building design decisions with streamlined probabilistic life cycle assessment



Two obstacles that impede wider use of life cycle assessment (LCA) are its time- and data-intensiveness and the credibility surrounding its results—challenges that grow with the complexity of the product being analyzed. To guide the critical early-design stages of a complicated product like a building, it is important to be able to rapidly estimate environmental impacts with limited information, quantify the resulting uncertainty, and identify critical parameters where more detail is needed.


The authors have developed the Building Attribute to Impact Algorithm (BAIA) to demonstrate the use of streamlined (not scope-limiting), probabilistic LCA for guiding the design of a building from early stages of the design process when many aspects of the design are unknown or undecided. Early-design uncertainty is accommodated through under-specification—characterizing the design using the available level of detail—and capturing the resulting variability in predicted impacts through Monte Carlo simulations. Probabilistic triage with sensitivity analyses identifies which uncertain attributes should be specified further to increase the precision of the results. The speed of the analyses allows for sequentially refining key attributes and re-running the analyses until the predicted impacts are precise enough to inform decision-making, such as choosing a preferable design alternative.

Results and discussion

Twelve design variants for a hypothetical single-family residential building are analyzed. As information is sequentially added to each variant, the significance of the difference in performance between each variant pair is calculated to determine when enough information has been added to resolve the designs (identify which design is preferable) with high confidence. At the sixth step in the analysis, all variant pairs whose mean impacts differ by at least 4% are resolvable with 90% confidence, even though only six attributes are specified and dozens of attributes remain under-specified. Furthermore, the comparative results for each variant pair are validated against a set of conventional LCA results, showing that BAIA identifies the correct preferable design among each resolvable pair at this step.


Iterative specification guided by probabilistic triage can help identify promising early-design alternatives even when details are only provided for key attributes. The analysis of hypothetical design variants demonstrates that BAIA is both efficient (arrives at statistically defensible conclusions from design variant comparisons based on few pieces of information) and effective (identifies the same preferable design variants as conventional LCAs).

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Attribute to activity model


Building Attribute to Impact Algorithm


Building Energy Optimization, NREL software


Building information modeling


Bill of activities


Comparison indicator


Coefficient of variation


Fully specified


Global warming potential


Heating, ventilation, and air conditioning


Athena Impact Estimator


Statistical software from SAS


Life cycle assessment


Monte Carlo


National Renewable Energy Laboratory


Electronic Supplementary Material


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This research was supported by the Concrete Sustainability Hub at MIT, with sponsorship provided by the Portland Cement Association and the Ready Mixed Concrete Research & Education Foundation. Thanks also to Paolo Tecchio and Carla Rodrigues for their feedback and assistance in conducting this research.

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Corresponding author

Correspondence to Joshua Hester.

Additional information

Responsible editor: Holger Wallbaum

Electronic Supplementary Material


(DOCX 310 kb)

BAIA paper SI.docx: Formulas for assembly area calculations, details on construction and performance of regression model for energy consumption, details on under-specification method and hierarchies, design variants used in case study, sequence of design decisions made in case study, sample breakdown of embodied impacts, and summary of agreement between BAIA and conventional LCA at each step of sequential design.


(XLSX 112 kb)

AAM-E regression coefficients.xlsx: Coefficients for stepwise regression models used in estimating building energy consumption.

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Hester, J., Miller, T.R., Gregory, J. et al. Actionable insights with less data: guiding early building design decisions with streamlined probabilistic life cycle assessment. Int J Life Cycle Assess 23, 1903–1915 (2018).

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  • Buildings
  • Early-design guidance
  • Life cycle assessment
  • Sensitivity analyses
  • Streamlined
  • Uncertainty