'Build Beyond Zero' Changes the Way One Thinks About Buildings

Net Zero just isn't good enough anymore.

Book cover of 'Build Beyond Zero'

Bruce King and Chris Magwood / Island Press

  • Title: Build Beyond Zero: New Ideas for Carbon-Smart Architecture
  • Author: Bruce King and Chris Magwood
  • Topic: Non-Fiction, Green Building, Climate Change
  • Publisher: Island Press
  • Publish Date: June 2022
  • Page Count: 252

There are many in the built environment biz who claim to be aiming for some definition of "net zero;" Bruce King and Chris Magwood start off their new book by stating that zero is not enough. In "Build Beyond Zero: New Ideas for Carbon-Smart Architecture," they claim that our buildings can actually help repair the climate. They conclude the introduction by writing, "In this book, we invite you to imagine the very real potential for our built environment to be a site of net carbon storage–a massive drawdown pool that–along with intentional climate-positive efforts in every other sector of human endeavor–could heal our climate."

Chris Magwood at the Green Building Show
Chris Magwood at the Green Building Show in Toronto.

Lloyd Alter

King is known to Treehugger for his important earlier book, "The New Carbon Architecture" and the concept of "building out of sky" using natural materials. Magwood is also very well known to Treehugger, having been a visionary in the understanding of embodied carbon, the author of guides, and tools, and now working with the Rocky Mountain Institute after a career building with straw and other natural materials. 

While the book will be useful to professionals—particularly those who have yet to wrap their heads around the concepts of embodied carbon and are looking for the words to explain it—it is written for a general audience. It does a great job early on dealing with those whoops! moments when we realize everything we used to think was wrong.

One of the biggest being Magwood's head-banger discovery that someone who was super-insulating with a foot of polyurethane foam was putting more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than someone who didn't insulate beyond basic code. This has been described as: "It was like a light turning on." This is when we learned that when you are looking at the world through the lens of carbon rather than energy, everything changes. The embodied or upfront carbon emissions can easily exceed the operating emissions. 

The second big whoops! moment came with the realization of how important the time value of emissions is. They matter now when we have a carbon budget, a ceiling which we can't blow through without blowing the 1.5 degrees Celsius heating of the planet. King and Magwood tell us we should be building out of materials that actually draw down the carbon from the atmosphere. 

Most of the built environment biz hasn't come to grips with either whoopsie, which is why we still have steel and glass towers being built, concrete highways, and 9,000-pound Hummer EVs.

The way we measure the carbon emissions from anything we make or build is to put it through a life cycle analysis (LCA), a technical procedure that King and Magwood explain well. They note that "conducting an LCA is an ambitious and fraught undertaking; with so many factors and variables at play, there is a lot of room for arguing and questioning results."

Carbon emissions
Carbon Emission categories.

World Green Building Council

This is something we have discussed many times; as I have written, the vast majority of embodied carbon emissions happen upfront, before the building is even occupied, which is why I have called them upfront carbon emissions. But as Magwood has told Treehugger, the bulk of those emissions happen in the raw materials, the product development, and manufacture—and these are the numbers that are easiest to quantify. Magwood calls these material carbon emissions (MCE).

King and Magwood note the further you go to the right on the chart, the fuzzier and less certain the numbers are. That's why "the front end matters, a lot." We know what the numbers are, and more importantly, we know when the emissions are happening. Or, as I put it more bluntly, forget about life cycle analyses, we don't have time. The front end matters most. 

Biogenic carbon, which is absorbed by plants when they grow and emitted when trees and plants rot or burn, is also a subject I have had trouble explaining or even understanding. Many, including the IPCC, differentiate between "slow" carbon that comes from burning old plants that were turned into fossil fuels eons ago and "fast" carbon that comes from new plants, say less than 100 years old, that go through the natural carbon cycle. King and Magwood explain:

"A large portion of the carbon we advocate storing in buildings comes from interrupting this cycle. We let biogenic materials draw down the CO2 as they have always done, but we don't let all that carbon go back into the atmosphere. Instead, we put it away– bank it somewhere safe until we get our fossil fuel emissions under control. Buildings offer just such a durable place for biogenic carbon to remain out of the atmosphere."

This was a lightbulb moment, a different way to think about carbon in building materials. Take their example: a sheet of plywood. The same material can be floor sheathing that stores carbon for decades, the life of the building, or it can be formwork for concrete and be thrown out in a couple of weeks. The same material has two completely different carbon profiles. 

The lesson of all this is how we use our materials matters. It also once again points out the silliness of chopping down Georgia forests to make wood pellets that we ship to the United Kingdom to make electricity; we are not interrupting the carbon cycle, we are accelerating it. It's the same with waste to energy: It is all carbon dioxide, no matter where it comes from. What matters here is when.

The "when" is critical to this discussion since fossil fuels are really just very dead plants. As Wil V. Stubar III explains in one of the wonderful boxes that fill the book: "Photosynthesis is quite simple: 6CO2+ 6H2O → C6H12O6 + 6O2" really just a different way of arranging the Cs and the Hs, a different form of hydrocarbon. Add the energy from sunshine, and you get biopolymers like cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin, which together work to make a plant or tree stand up, "much as concrete and steel rebar work together to make reinforced concrete."

Materials palette
Materials made from mostly little plants.

Lloyd Alter

This is why the goal is "biological architecture," buildings made of plants. But King and Magwood prefer little plants and note the problems with mass timber, including the fact that a lot of the wood doesn't make it into the building, trees take a long time to grow, and mature, diverse forests store the most carbon. The little plants might be straw and stalks, fibers like hemp and jute, and materials like cork, pith, and even reeds and seaweed. 

It's not just the materials; we also need professionals and trades who know how to use them and regulations that permit them. We need a just transition because "building a better society means more than capturing carbon." 

There is much to love in this book. It will give the general reader an understanding of the issues, but it will have many lightbulb moments for professionals and will give them a new language, and a way of explaining these issues. I and others have been trying to do this for decades, but none have been as clear, as easy to read and understand, and as useful as King and Magwood in "Build Beyond Zero."

"Build Beyond Zero" hit bookshelves in June 2022. Available at bookshop.org and other retailers.

The Treehugger Reading List

Are you looking to learn more about sustainable living or climate change? Do you want an engrossing read about nature or design? Here's a running list of books our staff has reviewed and loved.