What Happens When You Plan or Design With Upfront Carbon Emissions in Mind?

set of two people charging electric cars at roofed charging station in England

Monty Rakusen / Getty Images

You do a lot of things differently from the way we do them today, and rethink everything from Tulips to Teslas.

Planners and designers have a lot of choices and options, and one consideration that is often ignored is usually called Embodied Energy or Carbon. This, I have suggested, should be renamed Upfront Carbon Emissions, or UCE. That's because it is not embodied; in fact, it's released in the making of materials, moving them and turning them into stuff. Given that, according to the IPCC, we have to cut our carbon emissions by 45 percent by 2030, it is important that we measure and account for these Upfront Carbon Emissions in everything we do. What happens when you start thinking about them seriously?

Maybe you don't build things that we don't actually need.

Tulip from the river
Foster + Partners

Take the Tulip. Please. This is the Foster + Partners design for a new observation tower to be built next to 30 St. Mary Axe, more commonly known as the Gherkin. Foster's famous pickle tower was a Stirling Prize winner, known for maximizing daylight, using natural ventilation and being designed to use 50 percent less energy than conventional buildings. According to Foster,

"The Tulip would enhance The Gherkin, one of London’s most cherished and recognisable buildings and offer a new state-of-the-art cultural and educational resource for Londoners and tourists."

It's basically a big revolving restaurant and tourist thing with a few classrooms. And Foster continues to peddle sustainable design aspects.

"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."
Movie Poster
Art Commissionsers

But Foster, who famously was asked by Bucky Fuller "How much does your building weigh?", doesn't tell us how much this tulip-shaped tourist trap weighs, or what the Upfront Carbon Emissions are. Given its function, namely building a very tall elevator with a building on top, I suspect that the UCE are really high and really pointless. Or as Rosalind Readhead tweets:

You don't bury things in concrete tubes when you can run them on the surface.

comparing subways
The Grid

In Toronto, Canada, they are building a subway with either one or three stops out into a relatively low density suburb. This replaced a design for surface light rapid transit that served far more people with many more stops, all because the late Mayor Rob Ford said, “People want subways, folks... subways, subways. They don’t want these damn streetcars blocking up our city!” Now Rob's brother Doug is running the Province and grabbing the whole transit system from Toronto and planning to put even more of it underground.

It is all a stupid expensive vanity project, an exercise in power, an appalling waste of resources and, if you figure it out, a vast vomit of CO2 for no good reason. Obviously, sometimes you gotta pour concrete and subways are the right thing to build. In this case, there was a choice and they are making the high-carbon one, because he can.

Musk at launch
Robin Beck/ Getty Images

And speaking of high UCE vanity projects, you don't build concrete tunnels for cars just because you hate public transit and getting stuck in traffic.

You stop demolishing and replacing perfectly good buildings.

JP Morgan Chase
JP Morgan Chase via Wikipedia

In New York City, JP Morgan Chase is tearing down a perfectly good building that was renovated to LEED Platinum just seven years ago. It is an interesting example of the embodied energy concept; a few years ago we would have discussed Embodied Energy in terms of the waste of all the energy that went into building this tower, which some would call "sunk costs" – it is gone and done.

But when you think of this in terms of Upfront Carbon Emissions, it tells a different story. JP Morgan has to rebuild these 2,400,352 sq ft (223,000.0 m2) so that they can go bigger and higher. What are the Upfront Carbon Emissions of rebuilding that much space? According to one of the few calculators I can find at Buildingcarbonneutral, it is 63,971 metric tons, or the equivalent of driving 13,906 cars for a year. And this is JP Morgan, which prides itself on its environmental credibility, with Jamie Dimon saying, "Business must play a leadership role in creating solutions that protect the environment and grow the economy."

If you consider Upfront Carbon Emissions and want to play a leadership role, you don't tear down and rebuild a quarter million square feet of existing building. You just don't.

You would replace concrete and steel with materials with far lower Upfront Carbon Emissions wherever possible.

Waugh Thistleton Dalston Lane
Waugh Thistleton Architects/ Photo Daniel Shearing

That means using a lot more wood and not building so tall. Wood works best at medium densities; higher buildings tend to become hybrids with more concrete and steel. I have quoted Waugh Thistleton, the real pros when it comes to wood:

"Neither Thistleton or Waugh have much time for the super-tall wood towers that architects are competing to build, and prefer to build mid-rise. I think they are right, that it is a better typology for CLT and wood construction. That's why I have written that With wood on the rise, it's time to bring back the Euroloaf. This is what wood buildings want to be."

You would just stop using plastics and petrochemicals in buildings.

Magwood graph

Chris Magwood has been doing research into what happens when you build with low carbon materials vs plastic foam and found, as this graph shows, that building a high performance house with foam actually puts out more carbon dioxide than building a conventional home to the basic building code standard. And that is between now and 2050. Given that all that orange carbon is being released right now, the impact is even higher. This again proves why it shouldn't be called embodied.

You would stop building so many cars, whether ICE, electric or hydrogen, and promote alternatives with lower UCE.

making a car

Luis Gabriel Carmona and Kai Whiting of the University of Lisbon have written about The hidden carbon cost of everyday products in The Conversation:

"Heavy industry and the constant demand for consumer goods are key contributors to climate change. In fact, 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions are produced through the process of converting metal ores and fossil fuels into the cars, washing machines and electronic devices that help prop up the economy and make life a little more comfortable."
Stockholm archives/Public Domain
credit: Stockholm archives

And of course, the concrete and steel that go into all the roads that cars travel on. I am going to get yelled at again for always pushing the bikes and now e-bikes, but seriously, we have to look at what the most efficient ways to get around are, in terms of both an operating and an upfront carbon footprint, and cars ain't it, even if they are electric.

This is why it is time to rethink this stuff, why we are building what we are building, from Tulips to Teslas.

While we are at it, how about a big honking carbon tax on everything we make? People might make different choices.