Environmental impact of buildings - what matters?
Journal article, 2015

The goal of this study was to identify drivers of environmental impact and quantify their influence on the environmental performance of wooden and massive residential and office buildings. We performed a life cycle assessment and used thermal simulation to quantify operational energy demand and to account for differences in thermal inertia of building mass. Twenty-eight input parameters, affecting operation, design, material, and exogenic building properties were sampled in a Monte Carlo analysis. To determine sensitivity, we calculated the correlation between each parameter and the resulting life cycle inventory and impact assessment scores. Parameters affecting operational energy demand and energy conversion are the most influential for the building’s total environmental performance. For climate change, electricity mix, ventilation rate, heating system, and construction material rank the highest. Thermal inertia results in an average 2-6% difference in heat demand. Non-renewable cumulative energy demand of wooden buildings is 18% lower, compared to a massive variant. Total cumulative energy demand is comparable. The median climate change impact is 25% lower, including end-of-life material credits and 22% lower, when credits are excluded. The findings are valid for small offices and residential buildings in Switzerland and regions with similar building culture, construction material production, and climate.


Niko Heeren

Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich (ETH)

Christopher L Mutel

Paul Scherrer Institut

Bernhard Steubing

Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich (ETH)

York Ostermeyer

Chalmers, Civil and Environmental Engineering, Building Technology

Holger Wallbaum

Chalmers, Civil and Environmental Engineering, Building Technology

Stefanie Hellweg

Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich (ETH)

Environmental Science & Technology

0013-936X (ISSN) 1520-5851 (eISSN)

16 9832-9841

Driving Forces

Sustainable development

Areas of Advance

Building Futures (2010-2018)


Subject Categories

Environmental Analysis and Construction Information Technology

Energy Systems



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