Tackling environmental problems with TOTEM

By Pieter chys – Data Scientist

Nowadays, environmental considerations have become interwoven in nearly all aspects of society. The next generation of cars will be greener than the current ones, recycling of precious metals and the optimization of such cycles is a focus of industry and, pros and cons of new nuclear power reactors are carefully measured before reaching a final decision. OVAM – Openbare Vlaamse Afval Maatschappij or translated as Flemish public waste agency – deals with waste management and always stands in the line of ‘environmental’ fire.

OVAM proposes and moderates policies related to waste treatment but also triggers hands-on initiatives in industry. InfoFarm was at the heart of converting one such initiative into a working web application for architects: the Tool to Optimise the Total Environmental impact of Materials, in short TOTEM.

The birth of TOTEM

Approximately 10 years ago, a research project with a focus on the environmental impact estimation of buildings and building materials was launched by OVAM and its Brussel’s and Walloon counterparts.

About a year ago, the first version of TOTEM, the fruit of this research project, was launched successfully online. TOTEM allows architects to perform environmental modelling of buildings.

Many web applications center around basic web services, for example email or shopping services.  At first glance, TOTEM looks like any another web application but the truth could be no further off. Behind the web component -built by IT company Hemmis- and under the hood, an advanced computational engine is at the core of the whole application.

In fact, the computational engine implements the scientific method MMG – Milieugerelateerde Materiaalprestatie van Gebouw(element)en or translated Environmental profile of building elements – which was developed by Flemish University KU Leuven and independent research organization VITO.

As highlighted before, it constitutes a research model of which further extensions are currently being used intensively in academia . It provides an advanced life cycle analysis (LCA) model for computing environmental impacts of buildings based on its constituting building materials.

TOTEM itself is not intended to be used for research, however, it enables architects to do environmental modelling in an intuitive way and downgrades the complexity of the model by selectively hiding features. The tool thus targets architects for whom a series of trainings is offered by the government instances.

A valuable partner from the farm

InfoFarm -belonging to Belgian Cronos IT group- has been at the heart of the application development. InfoFarm was selected above its competitors to develop the computational engine and succeeded in bringing all key elements together to build the actual engine.

Starting from the existing blueprint for a possible computational engine, the specification was re-analyzed and improvements were proposed. OVAM and its counterparts fully supported the proposal and after convincing the scientific project partners, the first actual engine specification was completed around January 2017.

At the beginning of 2018, data delivered by VITO allowed the first release of TOTEM online. A year later, TOTEM can be called a success. The interest from architects, manufacturers, engineering students, etcetera… is substantial.

InfoFarm -together with the TOTEM project partners- was pivotal in converting a government initiative into an actual application.  TOTEM has now reached architect audiences and undoubtedly its advanced model engine offers a solid building block for further milestones, both technically and conceptually.

And yes, the tool is freely available for anybody!

Site URL TOTEM: https://www.totem-building.be

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