Athena Sustainable Materials Institute

Athena Sustainable Materials Institute

The ATHENA Sustainable Materials Institute is finding answers to critical questions about the environmental impact of buildings and building products. The not-for-profit Institute is a world-leading source of data, expertise and tools for designing buildings with the environment in mind. Athena`s research teams follow common building materials from cradle-to-grave and calculate the environmental effects at each stage in the product`s life cycle. ATHENA v2.0 uses that data in a building systems context to capture the full environmental story for a conceptual building design.

Company details

119 Ross Avenue, Suite 100 , Ottawa , K1Y 0N6 Canada
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Business Type:
Research institute
Industry Type:
University / Academia / Research
Market Focus:
Internationally (various countries)

An objective think tank, the Athena Institute is working with leading edge construction sector practitioners, product manufacturers and policy makers in partnership towards the next generation of green buildings.

Athena’s reputation as a credible, objective organization is built on its science-based, transparent collaboration and clear, robust information. It ensures claims are supported by facts to achieve verification for the highest sustainability objectives.

The construction sector and its product suppliers are moving rapidly towards life cycle assessment (LCA)—the Institute was formed to help them get there. Athena does so largely through work for the common good, such as the continued development of its LCA design tools, the Impact Estimator and the EcoCalculator. These tools, and the environmental footprint data behind them, require constant maintenance and updates. Financial support from members facilitates an unmatched depth and breadth of  information that couldn’t otherwise be achieved. Membership also supports education, advocacy and expertise as North American codes and standards evolve towards LCA.

With a highly specialized team of experts, the Institute is frequently contracted for custom research projects that require a particularly deep level of knowledge and experience in construction sector LCA. Whenever possible, results of these research projects are linked back to the core goal of delivering LCA tools to the construction sector as a whole.

The Athena Sustainable Materials Institute has a vision of a verifiably sustainable built environment.

Its mission is to advance the application of life cycle thinking in construction.

Its purpose is to provide tools and data enabling smaller footprints in the production and consumption of construction materials. The Athena Institute is a bridge from product manufacturers to downstream stakeholders.

Its method involves a life cycle perspective that takes into consideration environmental, economic and societal values. The Athena Institute takes a long term view in its actions and advocacy for better quantification of sustainable construction. Change is often necessarily slow to allow for moderation of risk, and the Athena Institute is a patient partner to the construction and industrial sectors as they move towards the next generation of sustainability.

From its earliest days, the Athena Institute has been recognized as the North American leader in construction sector LCA.

The roots of Athena date back to work that began in 1989 at Canada’s national wood products research institute, Forintek Canada Corp (now known as FPInnovations).

At Forintek, researcher Jamie Meil led a project focused on broadening the environmental dialogue about forest products. Consultant Wayne Trusty was engaged by Forintek as an advisor.

In 1991, Forintek received funding under Environment Canada’s “Green Plan” to undertake further research on the environmental footprint of building materials. This work included the formation of a stakeholder group with representation from the steel, cement and wood industries, from Natural Resources Canada, the University of British Columbia (UBC) and Trent University. Each participant in this consortium provided input, including UBC’s renowned architectural sustainability expert Ray Cole, who also provided technical guidance and fairness oversight. Wayne Trusty managed the consortium.

The consortium team developed research guidelines in alignment with the then-evolving ISO standards for LCA and produced data for structural and envelope building materials. The resulting research reports, published under the title Building Materials in the Context of Sustainable Development, were globally accepted as credible, definitive and scientific—particularly in Europe, where LCA in construction was already established. This was likely the first significant effort in Canada investigating the application of LCA to the construction sector.

In the mid-90s, this work became known as the “Athena Project,” and the early data was packaged in a spreadsheet as the first step towards developing a usable tool for North American designers. The ultimate goal was a decision tool that would help the construction sector reduce the embodied environmental impact of buildings. Natural Resources Canada was the primary funder through this period.

In 1996, the Athena team initiated a separation from Forintek to ensure total objectivity of the team. The Athena Institute was formed in 1997, co-founded by Wayne Trusty as President and Jamie Meil as Vice President, and acquiring all intellectual property from Forintek.

The original spreadsheet tool was converted to a full software application with significant funding from the Climate Change Secretariat of the Canadian government, among others. It was released as a commercial product in 2002, originally known as the Environmental Impact Estimator. Now called the Athena Impact Estimator for Buildings, this software and data package has evolved through many updates and is now in its fourth iteration. A second tool, the Athena EcoCalculator for Assemblies, was released as a free product in 2007. This spreadsheet tool, derived from the Impact Estimator, contains pre-calculated LCA results for common building assemblies and was developed under funding by the Green Building Initiative as a component of the Green Globes™ green building rating program, which is an ANSI Standard.

Today, the Athena Institute is supported by a broad range of material industries and stakeholders and is working towards continued development of LCA data on materials and systems and continued evolution of the software tools to meet changing needs in the construction world.

The Athena Institute’s work includes development of LCA data for construction materials and systems, LCA-based software tools, and LCA advocacy.

Athena aims for increased sustainability in the production and consumption of construction materials. Data and software from the Athena Institute helps leaders in sustainability (architects, engineers, builders and manufacturers) get accurate, essential information about the footprint of their projects or materials. Athena’s work enables informed environmental decisions within a whole-system and life-cycle context.

Athena develops ISO-compliant LCA data and software tools specifically related to construction, such as the Impact Estimator and the EcoCalculator. Athena also provides education, advocacy and expertise as North American codes and standards evolve towards LCA. With a highly specialized team of experts, the Athena Institute is frequently contracted for custom research projects that require a particularly deep level of knowledge and experience in construction sector LCA. This includes carbon footprinting and environmental product declarations.

The Athena Sustainable Materials Institute recognizes that sustainability is a business imperative that will define how building products are perceived, manufactured and consumed in the twenty-first century. Athena is a measuring organization—using life cycle thinking and applying life cycle management tools, it provides the necessary sustainability metrics to help its members and clients to benchmark their performance, signal their commitment to sustainability and identify areas for improvement. Athena supports education on sustainability issues and product attributes that help all stakeholders make more informed decisions about appropriate technology, development and use of products within a holistic life cycle system framework.