Common Edge: To Address Climate Change, Architects Must Tackle Embodied Carbon

By Keith Hempel

The following is excerpted from Common Edge.

If the building industry is really going to tackle climate change, we can’t simply talk about energy and building performance. It must be a much broader discussion, encapsulating all aspects of what we do. The shift to a focus on decarbonization over energy performance is clearly happening. Wall Street is pushing publicly traded funds and companies to establish carbon-reduction goals as part of their environmental, social, and governance (ESG) reporting. They’re publishing the results, and analysts are reporting on their progress. That alone has changed the conversations we’re having with larger clients. At the same time, universities, cities, and municipalities are also moving to better understand how to mitigate their carbon footprint. New codes and local ordinances are mandating higher standards.

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Interiors need to employ circular supply chains, and incorporate recycled and salvaged materials to limit embodied carbon. Designers should give preference to materials and finishes with Environmental Product Declarations to better understand their environmental impacts.

As an industry, we need to evolve our approach. Designing around performance, the predicted energy intensity (pEUI), was a necessary place to start. It was easy to understand and could be addressed with cost-effective strategies that had a measurable payback over time. A number of software tools were available and accessible, and design firms could work with engineers to figure it out and make at least some measurable progress. After 13 years, firms reporting their results in the AIA 2030 Commitment cut operational energy use in their projects by an average of 50%—which represents progress, even if it does fall far short of the program’s target.

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High performance buildings and net zero energy facilities address operational carbon emissions; but that’s only part of the picture.

Carbon is a different story. To date, we have been measuring building performance, which has given us an understanding of operational carbon emissions. But to have a full picture of the carbon footprint of a building, we need to measure embodied carbon, which are the emissions associated with the extraction, manufacturing, and transport of building materials. While building performance metrics are contained and easy for designers to influence, embodied carbon is diffuse, coming from many sources throughout the building lifecycle. It’s hard to measure, and its calculation is dependent on more stakeholders. This means that if the industry is going to master carbon, we’ve got to work differently and update our definition of sustainable design. …

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