Project-based learning on life-cycle management
– A case study using material flow analysis
Michael Lettenmeier1,2, Sakari Autio3, Reetta Jänis3
1 D-mat ltd., Purokatu 34, 15200 Lahti, Finland
2 Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy, Döppersberg 19, 42103 Wuppertal, Germany
3 Lahti University of Applied Sciences, Niemenkatu 73, 15140 Lahti, Finland
Speaker: Sakari Autio
Corresponding author: Michael Lettenmeier, firstname.lastname@example.org
Project-based learning can help to improve know-how on resource management while
simultaneously providing opportunities for companies and other organisation to test new
approaches in cooperation with universities and other experts.
The paper presents a case study on the application of project-based learning in relation to
life-cycle management. A student class of environmental engineering at the Lahti University
of Applied Sciences assessed the material flows of the renovation and enlargement of a
building. A former building and laboratory of wood sector education was renovated and
enlarged in order to turn it into a centre for gastronomy education. The project was the
cooperation between the Lahti University of Applied Sciences, the real estate department of
the Lahti Region Educational Consortium as the building developer, different building
companies involved, and D-mat ltd. in cooperation with the Wuppertal Institute as an expert
in material flow analysis. The cooperation was done under the framework of the Ecomill
Keywords: project learning, life-cycle, material footprint, natural resource use, building.
1 Project learning challenges all partners involved
Project learning has become topical especially in universities of applied sciences because
students need a lot of working life skills. Project learning provides multifaceted learning
experiences, in opposite to just sitting in lecture theatres. Hence, project learning offers
motivating problem-solving challenges in a real working life context (Silius-Ahonen et al.
The process, however, demands engagement and quite extensive background work in
advance on the part of the teacher. Teachers in these situations need to update their subject
knowledge thoroughly, which in turn contributes to improving the quality of what is being
taught. Small and medium-sized enterprises benefit from university cooperation. Long-term
partnerships also can result in valuable internship opportunities and final thesis subjects for
students. The enterprises for their part can then positively influence the quality and expertise
level of the future workforce.
However, all the partners must understand a certain need of flexibility and resiliency when
implementing this kind of learning project. Chancing schedules and partly unexpected
multidisciplinary problems require good orientation to the communication and cooperation
between the companies, organizations, students, teachers and other experts involved. It is
important to emphasize that it is in the first hand a question of learning – ideally to all
2 Approach of the learning project on life-cycle management and resource
efficiency of renovated buildings
2.1 Partners of the Lahti School of Gastronomy learning project
The background for this case study was a course on life-cycle management for the students
of environmental engineering at the Lahti University of Applied Sciences. The cooperation
started with a meeting between teacher, the coordinator of the Ecomill project and a
representative of the building unit of the Lahti Region Educational Consortium. As an
outcome of this a contract was drawn up. The building unit agreed to facilitate the
involvement of the students. This included hosting a construction site visit by the students,
allowing them access to all relevant site and material information and making a suitable
member of staff available to answer further questions via e-mail throughout the process. The
teacher of the class, on the other hand, committed himself to providing a number of results
within the specified timeframe. EcoMill provided the support of the learning project by an
external consultancy company called D-mat ltd. Figure 1 shows the structure and the tasks of
the different parties involved.
Figure 1. Structure of the collaborative learning project.
The Lahti Region Educational Consortium provides educational services for 10,000 students
in a region of 200,000 inhabitants in 13 municipalities. The consortium has an environmental
strategy but its implementation has turned out complex. For example, so far a
comprehensive approach is still to develop that takes life-cycle aspects sufficiently into
consideration when planning buildings or their renovation. Also the question of renovating
buildings or building new ones is of constant interest.
Ecomill is a project improving the eco-efficiency of companies and other organizations by
organising cooperation projects based on student projects supervised by teachers and other
experts. So far 13 collaborative projects have been realized within the framework of the
Ecomill project. Ecomill is funded by the European Social Fund.
D-mat ltd. offers consulting and training in the field of resource efficiency and material flow
accounting. It works in close cooperation with the German Wuppertal Institute.
2.2 Methodology and case study: The material flows and natural resource use of the
complete renovation of the Kulinaari building
Buildings are relevant in terms of material and resource use. According to the European En-
vironment Agency (Watson et al. 2013), the construction of buildings and other infrastructure
is responsible for 22 per cent of the Total Material Requirement (TMR) and 29 percent of the
Direct Material Input (DMI) of final consumption in 9 European countries. In addition, energy,
gas and water consumption and real estate services, both closely related to buildings,
account for another 12 per cent of TMR and 8 per cent of DMI. In Finland, 28 per cent of the
Material Footprint of an average household is due to housing, half of it from construction and
half of it from energy and water use while using the building (Kotakorpi et al. 2008).
As buildings are besides relevant also complex and durable goods, their life-cycle
management is especially important. Building materials cannot be easily exchanged and
once used they influence the use of a building for a long time. Therefore, material efficiency
and natural resource use are a relevant approach for the life-cycle management in building
sector. While there exist plenty of approaches and tools for assessing and managing the life-
cycle of buildings, not all of them are sufficiently easy to use in the context of a limited,
learning-oriented exercise. Therefore, the MIPS methodology (Ritthoff et al. 2003) was
choosen for assessing the life-cycle-wide resource use of the Kulinaari building and as a
basis for reflecting the most important aspects in terms of life-cycle management.
The MIPS methodology allows the assessment and comparison of buildings and their
components in a handable and understandable manner (Sinivuori & Saari 2006). MIPS
considers the whole life-cycle of goods including the use of energy (Schmidt-Bleek et al.
1998). It includes the extraction of both used and unused natural resources (see Aachener
Stiftung 2011). This means that any material flows are considered regardless of their
economic utility. Therefore, MIPS can be used as a tool for the general dematerialisation
regarded as a prerequisite for decreasing environmental impacts (Ayres & Knees 1969).
MIPS covers the general need for reducing environmental pressure on the environment but
is not directly related to specific environmental impacts. These would have to be tackled by
using more specific and also output-related indicators.
MIPS means Material Input Per unit of Service ( MI / S ). The material input (MI) is the sum of
the natural resource use for a product. The MI is calculated separately for five different
resource categories: abiotic and biotic resources, soil movement in agriculture and forestry,
air and water (Ritthoff et al. 2002). The MI is expressed in mass units like kilograms. Air
consumption is also related to CO2 emissions, climate change and carbon footprints. The
MIPS value is obtained when dividing the MI by the unit of service (S), which means dividing
the total resource use required by the total benefit obtained from using these resources.
In order to avoid extremely complex and labour-intensive calculation procedures, the material
footprint calculation for products is often based on average material intensities taken from
publically available, ready-calculated coefficients (Liedtke et al. 2013). This helps to make
life-cycle calculations feasible in the context of project learning and to meet the objectives of
the project in a handable manner.
In the Kulinaari case study, the direct material consumption and the material input (MI) and
MIPS were calculated for the complete renovation of Kulinaari. The MI and MIPS values
were presented as material footprint (Lettenmeier et al. 2009), water backpack, and air
consumption. The results were compared to a newly built university building studied by
Sinivuori and Saari (2006) and to the renovation of the Fellmannia building in Lahti a couple
of years earlier. The Fellmannia renovation had been studied in a similar cooperative project
learning scheme. While the Fellmannia renovation added useful room space by 17 per cent,
the Kulinaari facilities grew by 29 per cent.
2.3 Implementing the case study with the students
The learning project was implemented during five months from January till May 2013. The
students were allocated 3-6 hours per week time resources for the project. The challenge in
the beginning was that most of the the participating environmental engineering 3rd year
students were not familiar with construction and building technologies and had tested the
MIPS assessment methodology just briefly during their previous studies.
The students had to learn and understand the material content of the case building, as well
as how much and what kind of materials were removed and assembled during the complete
renovation. Also energy consumption and efficiency issues as well as maintenance, using
phase and time of that particular school were in the center of the agenda. The design of a
modern building with all the electricity, heat, water, air conditioning and IT infrastructure is
very complicated. Plenty of information sources were there to fullfill the data needs of the
student group. Site visits and revisits, interviews, construction manuals, consultants and all
the available questions asked by the students were utilized during the project. It was clear
that the time frame for all this was tight, and from time to time certain confusion and
exhaustion among the students was guaranteed. Nevertheless, they managed to do it.
After learning the case the next step was to prepare resource efficiency calculations by using
the MIPS methodology. As a basis for that calculation, tens of pages long lists of different
kind of building parts (walls, roof, doors, cables, etc.) were used. From each of the main
parts they had to find out what it is made of, e.g. what kind of metals, plastics, minerals and
biomaterials were involved and what was their amount in mass units. Also the energy
consumption before and after the renovation was studied.
After knowing the material flow out of and into the building, its energy consumption and the
useful lifetime anticipated, the group was able to calculate the life-cycle-wide natural
resource use for the case building as a whole and separately for different parts of it. The
results were presented in kg, kg/m2 and kg/m2/year. For this phase the group again needed
plenty of information from different sources and had to do excel calculations.
Each student group prepared a presentation of their results, conclusions and suggestions for
a summarizing workshop. Simultaneously the teacher and the external expert prepared a
summary presentation on the resource use of the building in total and pointing out overall
conclusions related to life-cycle management. This workshop provided the final synthesis for
the students after having focused on their “own” building parts. Therefore, the workshop
played a major role in terms of the overall learning results. The summarizing workshop was
organized together with the Ecomill project and the building department but the building
department representative had to cancel his participation due to last minute urgencies.
A summary session with the teacher, the external expert, the Ecomill project and building
department representatives will be held after the summer break. After this, another session
will be organized for the students that once more summarizes the results and includes the
feedback and conclusions from the building department. This will ensure that the students
will be provided the holistic view on the building and the renovation project as a whole as well
as the lessons learned by the different parties in terms of life-cycle management.
3 Results – The resource use of the Lahti School of Gastronomy renovation
While concrete is the material dominating the direct material consumption of the building
itself (without the yard areas), aluminium and copper became also important materials in
terms of life-cycle-wide resource consumption. In terms of life-cycle management
alternatives to the use of these materials might be interesting. Concrete could be replaced by
wood to a certain extent, whereas the use of aluminium and copper appear difficult to reduce
as long as the copper-intensive “electrification” of buildings is still increasing and the role of
air conditioning is growing in order to save energy in the use phase of the building.
When considering the whole life-cycle of the building, the material footprint per square meter
for the energy use during the use phase is slightly higher than the material footprint of the
building materials (Fig. 2). This relation changes when looking at air consumption. Air
consumption is mostly due to the energy use of the use phase. If low-energy building
standards were met and wind power were purchased instead of average electric power, the
resource use from use phase energy consumption could drop considerably in both material
footprint (see Fig. 2) and air consumption. In that case it should be ensured that increased
energy efficiency would not affect a serious rise in resource use from building materials.
Figure 2: Material footprint of the Kulinaari building and energy scenarios.
The useful life time of a building greatly influences the MIPS results of buildings. This is
especially interesting in the case of renovation. The Kulinaari building was enlarged
substantially in the course of the renovation. This imposes the question if the additional
lifetime of the 60 year old basic structure of the old building part can be extended to
correspond to the lifespan of the newly added part or if the resources used for the new part
will be in use less time than they could be when the building as a whole is becoming too old
at a certain stage. If the latter is the case, a complete renovation might save less natural
resources than commonly assumed. In the Kulinaari case this assumption of “only” 110 (and
not 160) years of useful life for the old parts of the building and 50 and not 100 years for the
new parts both raised the material footprint per square meter by 50 per cent.
Instead of heavily renovating a building one could also be pull it down and build a totally new
one instead. Therefore, we calculated the material footprint for getting into use one square
meter of space in an educational building and found relevant differences between different
ways of construction. The newly built Info Centre at Helsinki University required 16.3 tonnes
of natural resources (material footprint) per usable square meter. The relatively lightly
renovated Fellmannia building required only 2.2 tonnes per usable square meter, which is
factor 7.4 less resource-intensive than in the Info Center case. The heavily renovated
Kulinaari building required 9.4 tonnes of resources per usable square meter. This is less than
in the new building but much more than in the case of lighter renovation.
Project-based learning brings problem-solving methods into the environmental and societal
teaching of engineers. Through the real project students learn interaction skills by working
and solving problems together, which are important skills for the constantly changing working
life. In the case study the students got more supervision and attention than they would have
during the case of a traditional learning situation. It also requires dedicated teachers and
external consultancy. The external help was enabled by the EcoMill-project. This shows the
importance of the cooperation with different partners and of funding opportunities.
A successful implementation of the project is very important and in most cases well possible.
The risk of failure can fully avoid so that it must be accepted. It is reasonable for the ones
coordinating the process to be prepared to unexpected events. Most of us know that in real
life projects do not always work as planned. Thus, we can name this kind of project learning
Learning by Doing with Difficulties (LDD). It can offer top class experiences, “lessons to
learn” and project results.
From a life-cycle management point of view, renovation seems to be reasonable but a heavy
renovation can raise resource use considerably. Although one could argue that a new
building will be in use for a longer period of time, the actual use and usefulness of a building
might be difficult to predict and ensure for a period of 100 years. Therefore, renovation
appears a reasonable alternative to building totally new buildings. Second, the material
footprint if a useful approach to illustrate the potential trade-off between energy and material
efficiency. In different energy scenarios (see Fig. 2) resource use can drop considerably.
However, this might affect even considerable increases in building materials use. We were
not able to study them during this project but this could be one possible topic for another
project learning course on life-cycle management.
Aachener Stiftung. (2011). Factsheet Measuring Resource Extraction. Sustainable Resource Management Needs to Consider
Both Used and Unused Extraction. Aachener Stiftung Kathy Beys: Aachen.
Ayres, R. U., Knees, A. V. (1969). Production, Consumption, and Externalities. In The American Economic Review 59, 282-297.
Kotakorpi, E., Lähteenoja, S., Lettenmeier, M. (2008). Household MIPS. Natural resource consumption of Finnish households
and its reduction. The Finnish Environment 43/2008. Ministry of the Environment, Helsinki.
Lettenmeier, M., Rohn, H., Liedtke, C., Schmidt-Bleek, F. (2009). Resource Productivity in 7 steps. How to Develop Eco-
innovative Products and Services and Improve Their Material Footprint. Wuppertal Spezial 41; Wuppertal Institute for
Climate, Environment and Energy, Wuppertal.
Liedtke, C., Wiesen, K., Teubler, J., Bienge, K., Greiff, K., Lettenmeier, M., Rohn, H. (2013). Resource intensity analysis at
micro level: Measuring dematerialization at product, company and household level. Manuscript under review, Journal
Ritthoff, M., Rohn, H., Liedtke, C. (2002). Calculating MIPS - Resource Productivity of Products and Services. Wuppertal
Spezial 27e; Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy, Wuppertal.
Schmidt-Bleek, F. et al. (1998). MAIA Einführung in die Material-Intensitäts-Analyse nach dem MIPS Konzept, 1st ed.;
Silius-Ahonen, E., Rosengren, Å., Brantberg, B. (2012). Promoting participatory learning opportunities in higher education. In
Poikela, E. Poikela, S. Competence and problem based learning. Experience, learning and future. Publications A no 3.
Rovaniemi University of Applied Sciences.
Sinivuori, P., Saari, A. (2006). MIPS analysis of natural resource consumption in two university buildings. Building and
Environment 41, 657-668.
Watson, D., Acosta-Fernandez, J., Wittmer, D., Gravgård Pedersen, O. (2013). Environmental pressures from European
consumption and production. A study in integrated environmental and economic analysis. EEA Technical report No
2/2013. EEA, Copenhagen.