Architectural Critic: Embodied Energy Matters

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Materials palette

Architects ignore it. "Heads of sustainability" ignore it. Critics have ignored it, but this may be changing.

We recently quoted the head of sustainability for a major developer in the UK who, when asked about embodied carbon, said she was looking for net-zero operational carbon around 2030 and "then the embodied piece will come in as well, before 2050." Not many people take the issue of embodied energy, or what I prefer to call Upfront Carbon Emissions (UCE), very seriously. Architectural critics? Probably less than heads of sustainability. But Fred Bernstein of Architect Magazine is paying attention.

It’s as if architects believe that embodied energy, which is, of course, invisible, can be wished away (or at least offset with minimal effort). This idea is reinforced by designers who declare their buildings green while either ignoring embodied energy or claiming that operational efficiencies somehow make it irrelevant—a kind of fairy tale some of us are all too happy to believe. I’m equally disheartened that architecture critics have, for the most part, failed to expose this myth in their reporting.
apple park

A spaceship lands in suburbia/Video screen capture

He takes a swipe at Apple Park, noting that "the energy expenditures associated with the project are mind-numbing" and, like this TreeHugger, says it certainly isn't “the greenest building on the planet.” He is also critical of the Harvard Graduate School of Design's House Zero:

©. Snohetta/ HouseZero

© Snohetta/ HouseZero

The center has repeatedly claimed that the solar panels on the roof will produce enough power to run the building and offset the energy that went into building it. According to the center’s website, HouseZero will “completely offset carbon emissions from the equivalent energy used throughout the intended lifespan of the house including embodied energy for construction materials. . . . This surplus clean energy is to be fed back into the grid.

But this is designed by Snøhetta, who know a thing or two about embodied carbon from their work on PowerHouse buildings in Norway, so one has to be careful here. I have been very critical of this project but upfront carbon calculations is probably one aspect of the building they have figured out. And whether or not they hit their targets (I suspect they won't), it's really one of the last buildings I would have picked to critique if I was writing about embodied energy. They get it.

In the end, Bernstein has some good advice for journalists and writers: take this issue seriously and report on it.

Apple, the Niarchos Foundation, and Harvard’s Center for Green Cities and Buildings all claim—explicitly or implicitly—that the energy it takes to construct a building isn't a significant concern. The numbers may tell a different story. Which is why journalists need to start asking hard questions about embodied energy, and press for answers. Suggesting that it isn’t a problem, or that it can be solved by a few solar panels, ignores one of the biggest contributors to the climate crisis. As a journalist, I plan to keep reminding architects that they should care about embodied energy, as if our lives depended on it.

We should also remind other critics and writers. If you care at all about hitting 2030 targets, Upfront Carbon Emissions matter.