Global ranges of building material intensities differentiated by region, structure, and function

Prepared by Tomer Fishman, Institute of Environmental Science (CML), Leiden University

The construction materials that compose buildings – like concrete, steel, and wood – are associated with lots of environmental impacts, and have big circular potentials. We created 3072 material intensity ranges of construction materials in buildings, using over 900 datapoints from the literature and augmented by synthetic data for locations that have so far not been studied in detail. This first-of-its-kind dataset is the result of the first collaboration of CIRCOMOD with its sister project CIRCEULAR. The new fully open-access data will be used in these two research projects and beyond, for estimating historical and future material flows and emissions, assessing demolition waste and at-risk stocks, and evaluating urban mining potentials.

What’s in a building?

Strangely enough, despite buildings being all around us, we usually don’t know exactly how much materials they contain. After all, we don’t want to break them apart just to discover which materials are inside the walls and measure their weight!

That’s why sustainability research like material flow analysis (MFA), integrated assessment models (IAM), life cycle assessments (LCA) all use material intensity coefficients: the expected mass of material per square meter of a building.

After gathering over 900 material intensity coefficients from dozens of databases, reports, and journal articles, we found that there’s a lot of variance and interesting patterns in these data. Materials vary by building function (for example residential), and structure type (for example reinforced concrete, or steel frame), but there’s a whole lot of variation even within these categories!

Different buildings, different materials

There’s some relationship between the structure type and the mass of certain materials, but less so for the function of the building. For example, in the figure below, one can safely assume that the building marked with a + is a reinforced concrete structure because it’s in the orange clouds of other reinforced concrete structures. In the bottom half of the figure the clouds of the same points are colored by function. That same building’s function is probably not single-family residential, but it’s much harder to say whether its function is nonresidential or multi-family residential.

Creating new material intensity data

We used all of these data and insights, augmented by synthetic data for locations that have so far not been studied in detail, to create RASMI: the Regional Assessment of buildings’ Material Intensities. Our new dataset – and accompanying assessment method – provides ranges of the amounts of construction materials expected to be found in buildings, covering for the first time all global regions. Each material intensity range represents one of the unique combinations of:

·       8 materials (concrete, steel, bricks, wood, glass, copper, aluminum, and plastics).

·       4 structural construction types (reinforced concrete structure, masonry structure, timber structure, and steel frame structure).

·       3 functional use types (Residential single-family, residential multifamily, and non-residential).

·       32 global regions compatible with global IAM applications like the Shared Socioeconomic Pathways (SSP).


And so yielding 8×4×3×32=3072 material intensity ranges. The figure below shows the resulting material intensity ranges in the EU15 and Indonesia as examples.

This is the result of a collaborative effort with Alessio Mastrucci, Bas van Ruijven, both from IIASA, Yoav Peled from Reichman University, and Shoshanna Saxe from the University of Toronto. This marks the first joint publication of CIRCOMOD with its sister project CIRCEULAR.

This new dataset is completely open access, to support studies of material flows, resource efficiency, at-risk buildings, and the environmental impacts of the built environment.

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