Embodied Carbon Is in the Spotlight

Materials palette

Architects are finally taking it seriously. It's about time.

Embodied carbon is described by Audrey Gray in Metropolis as "all the CO2 pollution produced as you’re getting a structure (even a 'green' one) up and running." I prefer to call it Upfront Carbon Emissions, because I thought it was more self-explanatory, but hey, I'm not proud, now that everyone is talking about it; I will go with whatever works. Gray describes architect Anthony Guida’s come-to-carbon moment:

One day this year, he pulled into an underground parking garage. It was a typical one, with three levels of concrete. Guida sat in his car, suddenly feeling the impact of all it represented, the metric tons of carbon dioxide now in the atmosphere from the cement production alone. “I looked around and thought, ‘Ugh, this is so bad. This is like children smoking!’” he recalls.
People are beginning to think differently about carbon; it's not just about operating emissions but wherever and whenever they come from. And as Kieran Timberlake's Stephanie Carlisle says: “Climate change is not caused by energy; it’s caused [by] carbon emissions.... There is no time for business as usual.
Development stages

© World Green Building Council

This is really a critical change, the decoupling of carbon from energy. Because what is the point of building a building that uses almost no energy if so much carbon was released in building it that those upfront emissions are bigger than 50 years of operating emissions? It's also wonderful to see this going so mainstream in the architectural press.

Also in Metropolis, Thomas de Monchaux notes that embodied carbon is actually a precious resource. He makes the case for renovation and reuse, that we should stop building new. Comparing the fancy new Bjarke! and Heatherwick Googleplex to their old offices in a renovated building, he likes the old converted SGI offices.

It was given rooftop solar arrays that provided as much as a third of its operational electricity. But what made that campus special from day one—and simply, radically, and inspirationally more sustainable by the day—is exactly that it was old. It had already been built. It was, in the language of the Valley, a legacy platform—with already irretrievable carbon and capital footprints. There was nothing photogenic or pharaonic about it. Instead, by working from the inside out, with smart strategies of adaptive reuse and technological retrofitting, the company was able to occupy those irretrievable footprints ever more deeply. The cost may be lost, but with stewardship and constant gradual adaption, the benefit persists—conceivably in perpetuity.
Different kinds of carbon

© World Green Building Council

Finally, Stephanie Carlisle of Kieran Timberlake makes the horrible confession in Fast Company:

For the past eight years, I’ve spent every day of my professional life enabling an industry that is responsible for nearly 40% of global climate emissions. I don’t work for an oil or gas company. I don’t work for an airline. I’m an architect.

She notes that architects are now happy to talk about energy efficiency (they didn't used to care even about that) but still do not pay much attention to embodied carbon. She says, "It is time for the design community to come to terms with carbon and climate change – both the reality of our shared climate emergency and the very personal implications of the building industry’s role in perpetuating it."

Carlisle reminds us that most certification systems focus on operating energy, and of course, this is a good thing.

However, we’ve come to recognize that it is not enough for architects and engineers to focus solely on operational carbon. For decades, we have been ignoring the role of embodied emissions in global carbon budgets....Global construction is proceeding at an incredible pace—with roughly 6.13 billion square feet of construction each year and global building stock expected to double in the next 30 years. When we look at new buildings anticipated to be built between now and 2050, embodied carbon, also known as “upfront carbon” because it is released before a building is even occupied, is projected to account for nearly half of total new construction emissions. For practicing architects, engineers, policymakers, and anyone who cares about climate strategy, this should give us pause.

I love this article so much because it says so many things that we have been going on about here on TreeHugger – about how architects have to act NOW and "that we must radically cut carbon emissions immediately." She then writes the one sentence that I disagree with: "We have 10 years to radically decarbonize the building industry."

The architecture profession in particular doesn't have ten years; buildings take time to design and build and what matters right now is the carbon that is going into the atmosphere, counting against that declining carbon budget that we have to beat in ten years. But she picks up the ball again:

Now, we need every project to dramatically reduce emissions if we are to stand a chance of meeting global carbon goals and averting the catastrophic effects of a 2o future.

Read it all in Fast Company.