How can you reduce the carbon footprint of your next building project while still meeting performance criteria?

by Brianna Crandall — December 10, 2018 — The new materialsCAN (Carbon Action Network) group launched at the recent Greenbuild 2018 show. materialsCAN is a group of sustainability leaders in the built space that want to bring attention to the importance of embodied carbon. The organization aims to provide those who own, lease, design, or construct spaces with education and tools to better understand the carbon footprint of their projects, specifically through measuring the embodied carbon of specified materials.

The new group includes members of the building industry that are primed to act on the prioritization of embodied carbon in building materials — Interface (flooring), Gensler (design), Skanska (construction), Armstrong (ceilings), CertainTeed (insulation) and USG (wallboard).

Kirsten Ritchie, Gensler’s director of sustainable design, stated:

We need more ways to easily influence and impact the embodied carbon footprint of our projects. We recently delivered a project with a 43 percent reduction in embodied carbon by replacing our typical “go-to” products with lower carbon footprint options that still met performance and all other project criteria. Our hope is that with the tools and resources provided by materialsCAN, others will be able to easily make the same improvements.

Impact of embodied carbon on climate change

A recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stated that many of the extreme effects from climate change will occur much sooner than anticipated. To mitigate these effects, the report noted that every sector must decarbonize by 2050, including the building and construction industry, the world’s single largest emitter of greenhouse gases (GHG). The building industry accounts for around 30 to 40 percent of total global GHG emissions, according to some estimates.

Those in the built environment have long understood and worked to lessen emissions from operational carbon, or the carbon dioxide emitted during the life of a building. However, little has been done to address embodied carbon, or the carbon dioxide emitted during the extraction, manufacture, and transport of building materials. Architecture 2030 estimates that half of total carbon emissions from all global new construction between 2020 and 2050 will be from embodied carbon, with the other half from operational carbon.

Tools and resources to drive embodied carbon measurement and action

materialsCAN calls on space owners and users, contractors, manufacturers, architects and designers to consider the impact of embodied carbon within their buildings. As a first critical step to enable measurement, Skanska and Microsoft created the Embodied Carbon Calculator for Construction (EC3), to be managed by the University of Washington’s Carbon Leadership Forum. The tool is in early beta demo now, and Interface is the Industry Lead Sponsor. EC3 will be free and accessible to all.

Stacy Smedley, director of sustainability for Skanska USA, noted:

We pioneered the EC3 tool with Microsoft because of the lack of tools and product labels that reveal this information in a completely transparent and easy-to-compare way. materialsCAN, with the help of EC3, is the perfect platform for building awareness and education around an often missing, but wildly impactful metric.

EC3 highlights low-carbon providers and products. It allows architects, designers, builders, manufacturers and auditors to search construction materials by performance, location and global warming potential in a public searchable database based on environmental product declaration (EPD) data. Currently, there are about 17,000 materials in the database — including concrete, steels and gypsum. In its next iteration, EC3 will pull in EPDs for building enclosure and interior products and show variance among EPDs with differing Product Category Rules.

Lisa Conway, vice president of sustainability for Interface, pointed out:

It’s always been incredibly hard to find and use a product’s carbon footprint. We find that most organizations have climate change goals. Prioritizing embodied carbon is a free way to make a significant and measurable impact.

Additionally, the group is compiling case studies from designers who have significantly reduced the carbon footprint of their projects through choosing products with low embodied carbon.

For more information, visit the materialsCAN website.