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Linnean Solutions provides strategic advice to organizations based on environmental performance metrics.

Why Should FMs Care About Embodied Carbon Emissions?

by Jim Newman — Embodied carbon emissions — the greenhouse gasses emitted in the process of making and installing building products — seem pretty far from the traditional concerns of a facility manager. As it turns out, tracking embodied carbon and its cousin, embodied energy is probably the fastest way for a facility manager to reduce the climate impact of their facility. Let me show why.

Embodied Energy in Space Renovations

The facility industry has primarily focused on reducing operational energy of buildings. However, the manufacture and transportation of building materials account for almost 6% of all energy used annually in the U.S. (source: Architecture 2030). As building owners have driven down the energy use of buildings, embodied energy, or the energy used to create and install building products, will become increasingly important. What’s more, the amount of energy, and thus carbon, embodied in the materials used to renovate a space will likely exceed the amount of energy and carbon emissions from using that space for several years.

Introduction to Embodied Carbon

Embodied energy is required to produce, transport, install, and then discard a product. It includes the up-front energy investment for extraction of natural resources, manufacturing, transportation, installation, and disposal of materials, referred to as initial embodied energy.

Embodied carbon represents the carbon emitted by the use of fossil fuels to extract, manufacture, transport, and dispose of the materials used to produce a building. Since different materials use different types and amounts of energy, determining the embodied carbon for each material, or in this case, each set of materials that make up parts of the building (called “building assemblies”) is a complex process. But this analysis can be summed up in some simple-to-use rules.

Renovating or updating a building or space uses materials in specific amounts. Building renovations can be geared toward reducing energy use, with changes to the interior and exterior finishes of the building to both help with energy improvements and upgrade the building, in general. While these renovations and updates are valuable to a facility manager, the focus of this article is on what materials and products are used, rather than what is done with them.

Embodied Carbon in New Construction

The amount of energy and, thus, carbon embodied in the construction of a new building can be considerable, often exceeding the amount of carbon emitted over 15 years of operations for that building. A recent analysis by Linnean Solutions showed that the embodied carbon emissions from the construction of a new school would be over 20 times greater than the annual carbon emitted from the operation of the proposed building.

Embodied and Operational Energy

Figure 1. This figure shows the estimated embodied and operational energy for each of four building construction options. Energy and CO2e emissions have a similar relationship, but are slightly different because of differences in carbon emissions from different energy sources.

Embodied Carbon in Building Assemblies

Figure 2. This figure shows the relative estimated contribution of 8 building assemblies to the estimated embodied CO2e emissions for three building design options: Note that there are significant differences in embodied carbon for the 3 different options.

Embodied Energy and Carbon in Fit Outs

The embodied energy and carbon in an interior fit out project is also substantial. According to a recent study from a national design firm, a moderate office renovation, including new wall finishes, new floor coverings, new office furniture, interior doors, new ceilings, and NOT including lighting, accounts for nearly 850,000 MJ of energy, or nearly 35 KBtu per square foot of renovated space.

Figure 3. This figure shows relative percentages of embodied carbon for 7 categories of interior finish materials for an office renovation. The total embodied carbon for this interior renovation was equivalent to 35 KBtu per square foot of built-out space.

Why do You Care?

For an organization that is focused on achieving specific greenhouse gas emissions reductions, paying attention to the embodied energy and carbon of the materials used in space renovations can be a very fast route to emissions reductions. Reducing the embodied carbon in materials is also easier than you might imagine.

A few simple rules will get you most of the way to low embodied carbon interiors. Using materials with recycled content is one rule. Using wood whenever possible instead of other types of materials is another rule. And, finally, staying away from plastics and resins when possible is a third rule.

Wood is especially useful as a low-carbon material because it not only requires lower amounts of energy to process, it also stores the carbon that it has pulled out of the atmosphere by growing, even when it is used in a building. So you get to use a low-embodied carbon product in wood, AND it has hidden away the carbon it used to grow,

Plastics are especially high in embodied carbon because they are energy intensive to produce, and they often release a significant amount of the carbon stored in their petroleum constituents in the manufacturing process.

So, while it may seem esoteric or foolishly tree-hugging to worry about the embodied carbon in your space renovations, it turns out to be easy to specify low-carbon materials. And, as we can see, the amount of carbon embodied in interior finish materials can be considerable.

Linnean Solutions is on a mission to help organizations reduce their impact on the environment in real and trackable ways. We pursue this mission by giving specific resource-saving advice, and by providing financial and capital planning managers with tools to track and understand the environmental performance of their organizations in real time.

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