The New Carbon Architecture, or Why We Should Be "Building Out of Sky" (Book Review)

©. New Carbon Architecture

This book makes the convincing case that we have to change the way we build, that it is no longer enough just to save energy.

French mathematician and theologian Blaise Pascal once wrote “Je n'ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parce que je n'ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte,” loosely translated as “I'm sorry I wrote you such a long letter; I didn't have time to write a short one.” In the introduction to his book The New Carbon Architecture, Bruce King writes:

This could have been a much bigger book. It might have been a 400 page tome fully reporting the state of the art with tables, graphs and other hallmarks of good science, or it could have been shaped as an academic textbook. But it seemed better to get the idea out into the world, as simply and readably as possible.
So he rounded up some of the best minds in the business, “and it took some persuading to get them to provide just the 'elevator pitch' summaries of their respective work in their respective fields.” They certainly delivered more than just elevator pitches; they add up to “a collection of useful essays sketching a new palette of materials for a new century.”
Net-Zero buildings that use less energy than they generate are a good start, but don’t go nearly far enough; here we point out how to design and build truly zero carbon buildings -- the New Carbon Architecture.

King also calls this new architecture "building out of sky"– stuff that comes from the sky like carbon from the CO2 in the air, sunlight, and water -- which, through the process of photosynthesis, are turned into plants that we can turn into building materials. I have described the same idea as building out of sunshine. These are the materials that are truly zero carbon or carbon negative, actually sucking it out of the atmosphere.

We covered the ideas in the book previously in Why we should be building out of sunshine

Bruce King has nothing against carbon; we are all made of it. He calls carbon “the party animal of elements” because of its ability to bond with nitrogen, iron and oxygen “to make all sorts of interesting delights like giraffes, redwood trees, poodles and you.” The problem is that you can have too much of a good thing, in the wrong places. The issue of concern is Carbon Dioxide, or CO2, and its equivalents in other emissions.

MIT graph


It all starts with a bang in Chapter One, where Erin McDade explains why the embodied carbon in our buildings matters at all. For years it has been a standard argument that operating energy overwhelms embodied energy really quickly, so that adding a little more high-energy foam insulation pays for itself in carbon really quickly. But it is not true anymore; as buildings get more efficient, that carbon hit from construction matters more and more. In a high efficiency building it matters a lot. If you are looking at shorter deadlines (like being carbon free by 2050) it matters even more. McDade concludes:

To have any hope of meeting our climate change goals, we need to rethink our traditional carbon analysis mechanisms and design processes. Whole building lifespans do not accommodate the urgency of climate change; carbon emitted today has much, much more impact than carbon emitted after 2050, and we cannot continue to underestimate the effects of embodied carbon emissions.
Frieze building being demolished

Jim Howe: Frieze Building, Ann Arbor Michigan, 20047/CC BY 2.0

TreeHugger covered this in Embodied Energy and Green Building: Does it matter? In chapter 3, Larry Strain makes a great case for renovation, noting that there are two reasons to do it:

The first is to reduce operating emissions from existing buildings, and that applies to all buildings. The second is to reduce embodied emissions by renovating existing structures instead of building new ones.

This is a position that many of us in the heritage preservation movement have been making for years; we are often told that buildings have to come down because “they will be replaced with a LEED Platinum energy saving building” without even considering the embodied energy expended making the new one.


© Liesa JohannssenFrom Adventures in Engineering: ARUP and the Metropol Parasol

Much of the book is devoted to the wonders of building in wood, which we have written about so often on TreeHugger that I will not go into great detail. But there is a great essay by Jason Grant, who points out that “the carbon embodied in wood products accounts for only a fraction of the overall carbon stored in the forest they come from – as little as 18 percent by one estimate.” Lots of carbon is still released from rotting logging slash and exposed soils. The logging has to be done carefully, less intensively and more selectively to keep more carbon out of the atmosphere. Which is why we keep talking about the need to use sustainably harvested and certified wood.

Chris Home

Chris in front of "canada's greenest home"/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Chapter 5 has Chris Magwood and Massey Burke looking at straw and other fibres, including straw blocks that look like Lego, Hemp and other straw bale products and designs. “The big advantage is that they are cheap and plentiful, and sequester carbon that would otherwise end up in the air. The primary disadvantage is their susceptibility to moisture decay.“ There is no question, it is a lot more work than a wall of styrofoam. But as Chris concludes,

Straw is a humble and unassuming material, yet it is also one of the most direct links between the human economy and the global carbon cycle; we are only just learning how to use it creatively. Most of the excitement is still to come. Stay tuned.
toothpick tower

© PLP Architecture via Cambridge University

It is not all about wood and straw; there is a chapter about re-inventing concrete and making it better, which deserves a post of its own. There is a lot happening in the concrete world that we have barely touched on TreeHugger. There is a good discussion about the health benefits of natural building materials, and Ann V. Edminster does a great chapter on height and density, which is critically important when you realize that transportation now produces more carbon than any other sector.

Tesla 3 from above

© Tesla My own rant on Teslas: Why we don't need electric cars, but need to get rid of cars

Bruce King even ends with a rant about a Tesla with the licence plate ZERO CARB and another sporting FRE NRG “articulating in six letters the bookend myth of the green movement and really our entire culture.”

Call me a party pooper but there’s no zero emissions and there’s no “free energy”. Everything we do has effects, some of which we see and some of which we don’t.

Thinking again of Blaise Pascal, one realizes what an important book this is. It is carefully crafted to explain the essentials of some very complicated and controversial ideas in a very readable, even entertaining form that is accessible to anyone. It’s hard work, distilling so much knowledge and information into 140 pages (with lots of illustrations too!). But as Paul Hawken blurbs on the cover, it is "a fantastic, timely, important book."