Miller Hull to Offset the Carbon Emissions of Their Own Work

The Seattle Architects will eat their own dogfood.

Kendeda Building
Kendeda Building by Miller Hull.

Lloyd Alter

One story about where the phrase "eating your own dog food" came from links back to canned dog food company Kal Kan. It's rumored the head of the company would eat a can of Kal Kan dog food at shareholders' meetings to show how much he believed in the product and took responsibility for it. The tech industry picked it up and verbed it to "dogfooding."

Seattle architects Miller Hull are now dogfooding their own work: They have introduced what they call Emission Zero, "an initiative that combines our actions to reduce climate impact through Design, our ongoing efforts to Educate and Advocate, and our commitment to Offset the greenhouse gas emissions released up to the point of occupancy for all of our built projects."

Greenhouse gases released before occupancy are known as embodied carbon or as Treehugger prefers, "Upfront Carbon Emissions." Paying to offset them for their own designs is a serious incentive to design a better, greener building, it's really putting their money where their mouth is.

Partner Ron Rochon says: “Of course, we must do everything possible to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the built environment through Design, Education, and Advocacy, but that is not enough. We have to own our part of the problem.”

Different kinds of carbon
A good graphic explanation of different kinds of carbon in building.

World Green Building Council

The Emissions Zero document contains good summaries of the two forms of greenhouse gas emissions that are the problem today—operating emissions and upfront embodied emissions—and what they are trying to do about it:

Operating Emissions: "Approximately three-quarters of global building-related greenhouse gas emissions are a result of operating buildings that rely on fossil fuels to supply inhabitants with energy. Today, Miller Hull works to design all-electric, high-performance buildings in all of our work, to avoid emissions incurred by the on-site combustion of fossil fuels and allow our buildings to benefit from a fully-renewable electric grid."

Upfront Embodied Emissions: "By opening day for every building, greenhouse gas emissions have already been released into the atmosphere during extraction, manufacturing, transport, and installation of building materials. In contrast to operational emissions which accumulate every year, upfront embodied emissions represent a significant, one-time investment. Between now and 2050, embodied emissions will account for almost half of the total climate impact incurred by the new buildings we are designing today"

Embodied Emissions as total

ACAN with information from Sturgis Carbon Profile

Actually, embodied emissions will be significantly higher than half. By designing all-electric, high-performance buildings with almost no operating emissions, then almost everything is embodied. In the United Kingdom, they are already using much bigger numbers. As Rochon noted, "the pie gets smaller but the portion of it [that's embodied carbon] gets bigger." This is why it is so important to measure it and deal with it.

Bullitt Center in Seattle
Bullitt Center in Seattle.

Lloyd Alter

Miller Hull is known for doing two of the greenest buildings in the U.S.: the Bullitt Center in Seattle and the Kendeda Building in Atlanta (in association with  Lord Aeck Sargent). Both are certified by the Living Building Challenge, the toughest green building standard, but even they have concrete foundations and bike garages.

Kendeda Building
Kendeda Building has concrete floors and foundations.

Lloyd Alter

The firm designs its buildings to minimize upfront carbon emissions but very few buildings are totally free of them. Rochon tells Treehugger that "every building has some concrete." He explains the firm uses EC3 and Tally–software developed by Kieran Timberlake Architects to measure embodied carbon–and will buy high-quality Green-e certified offsets. This can add up, especially if the building has underground parking.

Rochon notes they have a big project being completed this year with a lot of concrete—"the cruel truth of architecture is that parking often drives the design." They work with every client to try and minimize the number of parking spaces, asking "do we need to do this?" and if they have a transit or bike strategy.

However, they are taking the position that the upfront carbon is a shared responsibility among the architect, the client, and the contractor, so they are committing to pay for "equivalent of at least one-third of upfront embodied carbon emissions which reflects our portion of the project." When asked if the other two parties were going to pick up their share of the tab, Rochon notes their public clients don't have the budget for this, but they were working on it.

They write:

"We invite our clients and the contractors we work with, along with our design team consultants to join us in this effort to offset 100% of the upfront embodied carbon emissions of every project we build together, creating a sustainable future for us all."

Miller Hull

It is so easy to roll one's eyes when you see this save the planet and our children's future stuff, often used as clichés by people and companies that are doing the exact opposite. It's also easy to dismiss those who buy carbon offsets to assuage their guilt over their last flight to Cancun.

But this is different. Miller Hull is giving themselves a big honking and possibly expensive incentive to do the right thing, to design better buildings, and to stress the importance of embodied and upfront carbon—a concept that is still ignored or challenged by many in the industry.

If one wants to end with clichés, they are walking the walk, they are putting their money where their mouth is, and they are eating their own dog food. I hope many join them.