Corporate tenants are increasingly asking for facilities that reflect their values and reduce the workplace’s carbon emissions. In a recent charrette, LPA’s integrated team explored strategies to help corporate campus owners lower their carbon footprints.
The traditional corporate campus represents the challenges and opportunities facing developers and building owners in the drive to reduce the industry’s carbon impact. Even the greenest workplace owner faces a wide array of obstacles when it comes to significantly reducing a carbon footprint, from construction economics to the shifting needs of tenants.
“Achieving real carbon reductions will take a holistic approach,” says LPA Chief Design Officer Keith Hempel. “Everything has to work together to achieve low carbon goals.”
The push for net zero energy — eliminating all fossil fuel emissions — is only part of the equation. Of the building industry’s total emissions, 28% percent results from building operations and 11% is from embodied carbon, primarily from materials and construction, according to data compiled by Architecture 2030, a nonprofit group. Site and building design decisions also affect the transportation-related emissions of the people who use the buildings.
Five key areas offer opportunities for designers to reduce carbon on the corporate campus.
As efforts increase globally to address climate change, developers are recognizing the ROI of addressing carbon emissions. Renovations and adaptive reuse can save resources and maximize capital investment. Efficiencies cut operational costs. Tenants and investors are asking for green projects; their employees want healthier environments and closer connections to nature.
But challenges remain. LPA recently hosted a charrette to explore strategies for developing carbon-neutral campuses. Among the participants were representatives of the firm’s landscape architecture, structural, MEP and electrical teams. The group was joined by Dave Intner, senior advisor, building electrification and codes and standards for Southern California Edison.
The group was asked to push the envelope to explore the steps necessary to achieve a carbon-neutral campus.
“When a developer wants to be aggressive about low or zero carbon, what would this campus look like?” LPA Director of Engineering Erik Ring asked the group. “We want to explore realistic approaches to help our clients meet their climate goals.”
The discussion touched on a wide variety of areas, reflecting the complexity of the issues. Any carbon-neutral strategy for a workplace campus will need to address several key areas, participants agreed.
The corporate campus should respond to shifting mobility trends, including electric cars, autonomous vehicles, “micromobility” and the growth of ride-sharing. The workplace campus can play a key role in supporting the transition from combustion-powered, single-occupant cars to transit options that produce fewer emissions.
Looking forward, developers will face a range of choices to support a cleaner transportation network, from storage for bikes and scooters to supercharging stations for electric cars.
“I like the idea of putting alternative forms of transportation front and center,” said LPA Director of Commercial Nick Arambarri. “It sends a clear message that the developer is engaged on the issues.” If facilities can be placed in underutilized spaces, “that’s a win,” he said.
The campus can support shifting mobility trends, including flexible infrastructure to support EV charging stations.
There will be tough choices. Parking is always an issue. Developers are looking to limit the number of spaces, but many local jurisdictions are reluctant to reduce requirements. Parking garages are already being designed for flexible uses beyond cars, but in many cases the result is a facility that doesn’t work well for parking or future programming.
Electric vehicle charging is another issue. How many spaces to commit? Are fast-charging stations worth the investment? Either way, charging stations will increase the project’s electrical energy demand.
“With the infrastructure for new EV chargers, there is definitely an opportunity for energy service separate from the main building,” said Steve Bakin, Managing Director, Electrical Engineering for LPA. “Multiple parking spots can also share a charging station, increasing efficiency.”
Designers shouldn’t get caught up trying to guess future demand, Intner said. “The key is designing a flexible system that can pivot,” he explained. “Include the infrastructure to accommodate more charging capability down the road, but maybe not put in all the charging stations and conductors now.”
The energy strategy needs to focus on two clear goals: 1) Design an all-electric campus that eliminates on-site fossil fuels; 2) optimize on-site renewable energy systems, primarily photovoltaics.
The process starts with an aggressive approach for reducing a project’s energy use. That includes proper siting of new buildings, a well-designed building envelope and passive strategies such as operable windows and access to natural daylight along with efficient lighting and mechanical systems.
To reach net zero energy, the campus will need to generate its own clean energy (or purchase energy from a clean energy source). But where do designers put the PV panels? Designs can optimize available roof space, but for a corporate campus that may not be enough to meet the building’s energy needs. PV can also be mounted on parking structures or shade structures, generating energy while providing comfortable spaces for people. The parking structure LPA designed for Edwards Lifesciences includes a living green wall and a 556 kW photovoltaic array mounted to canopies on the roof deck.
PV panels can be placed on shading structures to increase energy production on site and create more comfortable outdoor environments.
But Hempel cautioned about using new construction to solve issues. “Don’t build things that cause you to use more carbon to fix a carbon problem,” he said. “It’s really about trying to do more with less.” (See sidebar about five construction tips.)
Battery systems will also play a key role in increasing a building’s ability to operate in harmony with the utility energy grid. Fixed energy storage systems provide resiliency and the ability to manage demand by load shifting.
“When a building uses power will be as important as how much power it uses,” Intner said. “Increasingly, it becomes about how your load profile gets managed over the course of the day to respond to the variable carbon footprint of grid-delivered electricity.”
Three materials — concrete, steel and aluminum — are responsible for 23% of total global carbon emissions. To achieve carbon neutrality, a corporate campus must address the carbon embodied in the structure and building materials.
New materials, including advanced forms of concrete, offer opportunities to reduce embodied carbon. But mass timber is increasingly accepted as the most likely alternative. Shifting from steel to a mass timber hybrid can reduce the embodied carbon of a structure by 40%, according to a recent LPA analysis of the use of mass timber for an office building (Catalyst, Issue 4, 2020).
At the same time, “building codes are more willing to accept mass timber,” said LPA Structural Engineering Designer A.J. Tezveren-Johnson, who worked on the study.
But mass timber still has load-bearing limitations. The LPA study eventually moved away from the typical 30-foot-by-30-foot grid designed for steel buildings to a more efficient 20-foot-by-25-foot framework, which takes advantage of mass timber without sacrificing workspace. With current systems, an efficient mass timber office building likely would be limited to two or three stories, participants in the charrette agreed.
Mass timber is an increasingly viable option for reducing the use of concrete and steel in projects.
A lower-profile building requires fewer elevators and creates the opportunity for exterior circulation, reducing the amount of conditioned space while encouraging healthy activity.
Any carbon analysis must consider the carbon impact over a building’s life cycle. A low-carbon building should last longer, and that will require a flexible design so that the structure remains relevant as trends shift.
“If we are developing buildings that are 50-year solutions, we need to examine how to reduce interior elements that can’t be moved,” Hempel said. “How do we keep floor plates as open as possible, so it could be an office building today or a lab building 10 years from now?”
An all-electric campus will require a different approach to mechanical systems, in particular air and water heating. Removing gas from the mix will require an energy-efficient alternative.
“The question is, how do we get to the point where we start incorporating more air source and water source heat pumps into the systems,” said Chris Tindall, LPA’s Managing Director of MEP.
With roof space prioritized for PV, locating any system becomes an issue. No developer wants to give up leasable interior space.
New technologies will offer more options, reinforcing the need to keep any resilient building flexible. Developers will likely respond first to new codes and building requirements, and that will drive adoption of more efficient mechanical systems.
Central plants can increase efficiency on a campus and free space in the buildings, but they also come with initial costs. “The Achilles’ heel for a central plant is typically the cost of the site work and underground piping,” Ring said.
A carbon-neutral campus can go beyond conservation to create a positive impact on the environment. That includes carbon sequestration, the process of capturing and removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Although new technologies continue to emerge, the most realistic approach to capturing carbon on-site is to include shade trees and other vegetation. A corporate campus is ideal for a microforest, a concentrated natural ecosystem focused on carbon sequestration, LPA Director of Landscaping Rich Bienvenu said.
In the recent design analysis for the renovation of an aging corporate campus in the Bay Area, LPA designers were able to measure the embodied carbon of the proposed construction materials as well as the carbon sequestration potential for the trees and vegetation. The plantings are designed to sequester more carbon than is embodied in the site materials after just 26 years. “After this time, the site will become ‘carbon positive’ and will actually have a positive effect on atmospheric carbon,” Bienvenu said.
A micoforest providing shade trees and vegetation is an effective strategy for capturing and storing carbon.
A microforest can play a significant role in carbon capture. New studies have shown that a careful selection of diverse native species can result in a complex ecosystem that is perfectly suited to local conditions and improves biodiversity by growing quickly and absorbing more CO2 than conventional planting, Bienvenu said. “These microforests provide 40% more carbon sequestration and they provide an effective means to capture and store carbon.”
A microforest the size of a tennis court wouldn’t require a large land commitment and would create a unique campus amenity. Instead of an athletic field, tenants would have access to a naturally occurring forest of native species servingas an oasis of biodiversity.
Ultimately, the larger goal is to create carbon-neutral campuses that give back to the environment and create better, healthier places for people. And the building industry is making progress. At every level, tools are improving to help developers make informed choices on embodied carbon, supply chains and project life cycles. A cleaner energy grid will also help, allowing buildings to use solar and wind energy without generating it on site, making the corporate campus a contributor to the community’s larger environmental goals.
The material resources library in LPA’s Irvine studio provides valuable background information on the impact of products on the environment and human health.
Five Strategies to Reduce Embodied Energy During Construction
1. Renovate instead of building new. 50-75% of the embodied carbon typically can be saved with a smart renovation project. The greenest building is the one already built. 2. Low carbon concrete mixes. Typically, concrete is the largest source of embodied carbon in any project. 3. Limit high carbon footprint materials. Limit aluminum, plastics and foam insulation and choose carbon sequestering materials. 4. Material selection. Find creative ways to repurpose or use salvage materials. Specify high recycled content material. 5. Do more with less. Minimize finish material and design efficient structural and MEP systems with the goal of minimizing waste.
The Benefits of Mass Timber Construction
Embodied carbon is responsible for 11% of global greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) and 28% percent of global building sector emissions, according to industry data. Concrete and steel are among the worst offenders. Research shows mass timber can significantly reduce the embodied carbon in new buildings.
Next Step: Low Carbon Interiors
As the industry pushes toward a carbon neutral workplace, interiors will play an increasingly important role.
The life cycle of an interior design is typically about 15 years, compared to 60 years for the building. Every interior renovation generates more emissions. By 2050, the interior design industry will influence almost 10% of the world’s carbon emissions, Metropolis magazine recently reported.
“This is still uncharted territory for many interior designers,” says LPA Design Director Rick D’Amato. “I think interior designers can create examples of what sustainable, carbon neutral design could be and should be.”
Last fall, D’Amato and LPA Chief Design Officer Keith Hempel participated in Metropolis’ Sustainability Hackathon, a three-month event which brought together designers, manufacturers, clients and industry associations from around the country to focus on reducing carbon in interiors. Topics included materials disclosures, product life cycles, benchmark reporting standards and approaches for helping clients.
The result: a “Climate Toolkit for Interiors,” focusing on best practices and strategies for addressing the impact of interiors on carbon emissions. The list includes:
- Prioritizing reuse and recycling - Optimize the material palette and select products with appropriate durability - Assume that any space will be deconstructed and renovated - Set up a screening process for all materials and products - Reduce the waste of the sampling process
LPA is already working to address many of these issues. The firm’s Irvine studio includes an extensive materials library, with detailed sustainability data on carpet, tiles, textiles, wall coverings and countertops. Materials resource librarian Kimberley Keirstead tracks manufacturers’ Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) and Health Product Declarations (HPDs), which detail the impact of products on the environment and human health.
“It’s a moving target,” Keirstead says. “The level of transparency is improving, and more manufacturers are working towards better reporting.”
More information allows clients to make informed choices. A universal labeling system and industry certifications will also help, D’Amato says. But any movement to reduce the carbon impact of interiors will need to start with a focus on minimizing the impact of any design. Reducing materials, finishes and wallpaper will improve the carbon performance.
“By keeping the space as raw and organic as possible we get closer to that ideal,” D’Amato says. “The more honest we can keep the space, the better.”
Carbon Glossary of Terms
AIA 2030 Commitment: Architecture firms pledged to a goal of eliminating fossil fuel use in new buildings.
Carbon Neutrality/Net Zero CO2 Emissions: When CO2 emissions are balanced globally by CO2 removals over a specified period. Carbon neutrality is often referred to as net zero CO2 emissions.
Carbon Sequestration: The process of storing carbon.
Operational Carbon: Total energy from all sources used to operate the building(s) — including heating, cooling, ventilating and lighting — powered from any and all sources, including electricity, natural gas, fuel oil, propane and wood.
Embodied Carbon: Total Greenhouse Gas Emissions from all sources/energy used to harvest/extract, process, manufacture and transport a product/material to the construction site.
Net Zero Energy Buildings (NZEBs): Buildings with on-site renewable energy systems (such as PV, wind turbines or solar thermal) that, over the year, generate as much energy as is consumed by the building.
Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs): Seventeen global goals for development for all countries established by the United Nations.
* Sources: Carbon Leadership Forum/Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change