This short article on Embodied Carbon is the first in a series designed to give practitioners pragmatic guidance on immediate steps to take to reduce the carbon impacts of their projects. Each article will present in brief:
As each article is released, it will also be added to a collection available on the Climate Action page of the AIA California website.
Embodied carbon is the sum of all the greenhouse gas emissions (mostly carbon dioxide) resulting from the mining, harvesting, processing, manufacturing, transportation and installation of building materials. The global warming emissions associated with these materials, along with emissions associated with construction itself, are the “embodied carbon footprint” of design and construction. Smart choices during design can greatly reduce this footprint.
Embodied carbon emissions are released during the process that begins with sourcing materials and ends with the completion of construction; operating carbon emissions – from heating, cooling, lighting, and plug loads — occur over the life of a building, which can be 50 years or more. For new buildings, embodied carbon emissions typically equal about 20 years of operating emissions. When looking at total greenhouse gas emissions for new buildings built over the next ten years — the critical period for action to address the global climate emergency — Architecture 2030 estimates that 80% will come from embodied emissions, so lowering embodied carbon emissions is now even more urgent than lowering operating emissions.
Renovating, remodeling, and repurposing existing buildings almost always generates significantly fewer embodied emissions than new construction. Finding creative ways to reuse existing buildings is an increasingly important strategy for reducing embodied emissions. The urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the short term means that the calculus for saving rather than demolishing an existing building has changed and is now weighed much more heavily against demolition. Reusing buildings also offers the opportunity to reduce current operating emissions from existing building through deep energy upgrades, so they can contribute in the long term as well as the short term.
There are a number of tools available for calculating embodied carbon. Some of these tools are meant for quick, early estimates while others take a deeper dive. More information on these tools can be found in the resources section at the end of this document. There are also data bases that evaluate the life cycles of products and a growing number of environmental product declarations (EPDs) for specific products or product categories that document product global warming potential. Many of these tools are new and not yet widely used. Benchmarks need to be developed; more research is needed. Nevertheless, there are many steps architects can take now.
Tally – embodied carbon calculator utilizing Revit. https://kierantimberlake.com/page/tally
Athena – Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) and carbon calculator http://www.athenasmi.org/our-software-data/overview/
EC3 – embodied carbon calculator https://buildingtransparency.org/
One Click – embodied carbon calculator https://www.oneclicklca.com/
ICE – British database of embodied energy and carbon of materials http://www.circularecology.com/embodied-energy-and-carbon-footprint-database.html#.XcsL8r97lTY
EPDs – Environmental Product Declarations https://www.environdec.com/
Advanced Wood Framing https://www.energy.gov/energysaver/energy-efficient-home-design/advanced-house-framing
Since the early 1990s Henry has championed the idea that sustainable design is an essential element of good design. He has put that conviction into practice through projects that combine design for environmental stewardship with thoughtful and site sensitive building design. His projects have won local, regional and national awards including multiple Top Ten Green Projects of the Year from the AIA’s Committee on the Environment (COTE).
Henry is past chair of the COTE National Advisory Group and current member of AIA California COTE steering committee, where he advocates for laws and codes that address the climate change and the building sector, and for the incorporation of sustainable design values and metrics into architectural awards programs and architecture school curriculums.
Henry has taught sustainable design and design studios at the University of California, Berkeley, and is a past member of the University’s Design Review Committee. He has spoken widely on ecological design and the work of the firm and has served on architectural awards juries across the US.