What's wrong with modern buildings? Everything, including Upfront Carbon Emissions

Model of London
CC BY 2.0 Model of London showing lots more glassy towers/ Lloyd Alter

Finally, people are beginning to take this issue seriously.

When writing about the CO2 emissions from making steel, I complained, “Why do buildings keep getting taller and skinnier, using more steel per square foot of usable space? Why is nobody talking about this?

Apparently, more people are talking about this. In Bloomberg, Reed Landberg writes (from London, I think) What’s Wrong With Modern Buildings? Everything, Starting With How They’re Made that brings together the questions about concrete and steel in buildings, and the issue of what I call Upfront Carbon Emissions in making them.

“Everyone’s aware that we use electricity and energy to heat our homes and turn our lights on, but they might not have thought that loads of energy is needed in all the materials required to build the building in the first place,” said John Barrett, professor at the school of Earth and environment at Leeds University in northern England. “It’s a massive issue.”

London SkylineCheesegrater is in the middle/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Landberg notes that “embodied emissions” are not regulated by anyone, but they are huge; he mentions the Leadenhall Building (the Cheesegrater, in the middle of the photo) had upfront carbon emissions of 92,210 tons, “about the same as the annual emissions of 20,000 cars.” It’s mostly from the manufacture of steel and concrete, and it’s mostly chemistry; making steel requires converting the carbon mixed in iron to carbon dioxide. Making cement requires driving the carbon from calcium carbonate. You can make the process more efficient but you can’t change the chemistry.

climate solutions for buildingC40 Cities /via

Landberg quotes a report by C40 Cities, The future of urban consumption in a 1.5°C World, which calls for the increased use of timber instead of steel or concrete, which can lead to dramatic reductions in Upfront Carbon Emissions. But more importantly, it calls for greater material efficiency and a reduction in demand for new buildings.

Tulip from the river© Foster + Partners

Thinking this way might make one reconsider buildings like the proposed Tulip, a glorified revolving restaurant and observation deck that “green” architect Norman Foster describes:

The Tulip’s soft bud-like form and minimal building footprint reflects its reduced resource use, with high performance glass and optimised building systems reducing its energy consumption. Heating and cooling is provided by zero combustion technology while integrated photovoltaic cells generate energy on site.

But if you apply the questions and tests that C40 Cities is recommending, you would question whether we need such a structure in the first place, whether it is efficient use of materials, and of course, you would calculate the Upfront Carbon Emissions. You might apply the criteria we have been proposing on TreeHugger:

Radical Decarbonization: Calculating and minimizing the Upfront Carbon Emissions of every design.

Radical Sufficiency: What do we actually need? What is the least that will do the job? What is enough?

Radical Simplicity : Timber still has a carbon footprint, so we should “design things properly to use as little of material as possible, whatever they are.”

And it goes without saying that every building should be designed to use as little energy as possible, for Radical Efficiency.

Or, as the C40 Cities report suggests and Landberg concludes,

“Solutions currently available in the market are capable of delivering low or zero carbon buildings,” the report authors said. “Architects and engineers need to propose them, surveyors need to cost them, and clients need to procure them.”

What's wrong with modern buildings? Everything, including Upfront Carbon Emissions
Finally, people are beginning to take this issue seriously.

Related Content on Treehugger.com