Jonathan Hillyer
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kendeda 2
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Designing for a Greener Future

April 13, 2023
To continue to reduce their carbon footprints and meet their climate commitments, schools and universities should pay greater attention to the embodied carbon in their facilities.

In 2006, a group of universities created and signed the American College & University Presidents' Climate Commitment. It was a historic effort to address climate change and can be considered a starting point for the modern sustainability movement in higher education. Since then, thousands of institutions have taken up climate pledges, committing to reduce energy consumption, invest in renewable energy, and lower their carbon footprints.

When it comes to campus buildings, school commitments tend to focus on improving energy efficiency and achieving green building certifications, like LEED. These efforts are necessary, but they place a heavy focus on operational carbon. And when it comes to built spaces, that’s only half the puzzle.

Carbon in the Built Environment

Buildings have two types of carbon emissions: operational carbon and embodied carbon.

Operational carbon covers emissions produced from general use, mostly in the form of energy consumption, like electricity, heating, and cooling. Schools can directly influence these emissions by using energy-efficient equipment and by establishing smart energy practices that lower the environmental impact over the life of the building.

Embodied carbon emissions come from the full life cycle of the materials used within a building, including a product’s supply chain (raw material extraction, material processing, and manufacturing) as well as the “end of life” impacts from the disposal or reclamation and reuse of the product. Institutions do not have direct control of these emissions, but they can reduce them by carrying out construction projects with building materials that have lower carbon footprints.

If schools want to lead on climate action, they need to concentrate on reducing embodied carbon emissions even as they improve the efficiency of their existing buildings. Embodied carbon represents a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) in the built environment; and the good news is they are easier to address than one might expect.

A growing problem

Buildings are one of the largest contributors to global GHG emissions, accounting for nearly 40% of global energy-related carbon emissions. When broken down further, building operations account for 28% of total global emissions, and embodied carbon accounts for 11%. So why do we view embodied carbon emissions as more urgent? Because they occur as soon as the building materials are created, well before anyone has even set foot inside a completed project. 

Global square footage for buildings is predicted to double by 2060. That’s the same as building one New York City every month for the next 40 years. Experts also anticipate that embodied carbon will represent half of the carbon impact associated with new buildings and major renovations constructed between 2020 and 2050. Left unchecked, this presents a serious threat to climate change efforts.

Accounting for Embodied Carbon

Schools and universities can see many benefits to incorporating embodied carbon reduction efforts their sustainability goals—from increasing progress toward green building certification to lowering construction costs.

  • Immediate reduction opportunities: Unlike operational carbon, which can be changed throughout a building’s use, embodied carbon is set at construction. Managing the impacts of operational carbon requires ongoing efforts; in contrast, purchasing low-carbon materials instantly reduces embodied carbon. Think of it as a mail-in rebate versus a discount. Both result in savings, but one is immediate and the other takes time.
  • Lowered project costs: There is an ongoing myth that sustainable materials come at a higher cost. Although this may have been true 15 years ago, technological advancements, further research and growing demand have drastically lowered prices. Not only can low-carbon materials reduce production costs for manufacturers, but they also can lower the amount of material needed, which also affects project costs. A study by RMI, a nonprofit focused on improving energy practices, found that construction projects can reduce their embodied carbon by anywhere from 19% to 46% by selecting lower-carbon materials with a cost increase of less-than-1% cost increase.
  • Improved future sustainability: One of the largest benefits of accounting for embodied carbon is that it provides a solid foundation on which to build. Once schools and universities know the embodied carbon footprint of their existing buildings, they can make informed purchasing decisions and keep embodied carbon costs low for future construction and renovation projects. Although progress is slow, several green building certifications now include embodied carbon reduction in their scope, such as LEED v4.1 and the Living Building Challenge. For schools that account for embodied carbon, these programs can provide some quick and easy sustainability wins and boost efforts toward certification. In fact, some newer buildings may meet these requirements incidentally. Education institutions also may earn credit for the purchase of lower carbon building materials in the AASHE STARS rating system.
  • A ripple effect: As institutions pursue their sustainability journeys, purchasing decisions present the biggest opportunity for meaningful action. As more end-users demand low-carbon materials and processes, they incentivize manufacturers and service providers to listen and innovate. Prioritizing lower carbon materials also provides schools with a chance to be advocates for change by spreading awareness of the impact of transforming the supply chain to vendors and students.

Embodied Carbon Efforts on Campus

Addressing embodied carbon has a snowball effect. Institutions that take initial steps toward reducing embodied carbon today will see large, sweeping change over time. The key is to start. By measuring the embodied carbon of an existing space, schools create a reference point for measuring future progress.

Finding the embodied carbon of building materials requires information from manufacturers in the form of an Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs). Think of them as nutrition labels for building materials that detail a product’s environmental impact based on the raw materials and processes used in its creation.

Getting visibility and insight into the impact of materials is the hardest part of the embodied carbon journey. Fortunately, tools like the Embodied Carbon in Construction Calculator (EC3), created by the nonprofit Building Transparency, pull carbon footprint data out of EPDs to make it easier to find and compare materials. These tools help end-users choose low-carbon products over those that do not publish EPDs.

Building renovations

Embodied carbon isn't restricted to a building’s construction phase; materials used in renovations and routine maintenance are also a factor. Schools should invest in diverse strategies to help maintain and drive further reductions in embodied carbon emissions over a building’s lifetime. This includes:

  • Minimizing aesthetic renovation
  •  Repurposing or donating materials for reuse
  • Seeking out vendors with take-back and recycling programs
  • Considering material durability and resilience to reduce replacement

Adaptive reuse

Replacing an old building with a new, more efficient one is generally seen as having a positive environmental impact. And it does – in 10 to 80 years. New construction may improve operational emissions, but the process adds emissions to the atmosphere over the short term. Because creating new materials results in additional embodied carbon emissions, demolishing existing buildings to make room for new ones has its own environmental impact.

Adaptive reuse, the practice of reusing an existing building for a new purpose, is a growing trend in commercial design, and the historic buildings found on campuses across the country are perfect candidates. By using its existing infrastructure, a school can preserve architectural charm and reduce material costs while also improving energy efficiency with system updates.

Involving students

As students show increased interest in sustainable architecture and design practices, schools can leverage that interest and incorporate sustainability-focused classes into the curriculum. Schools may even ask their students to help design lower-carbon buildings on campus, providing students with real-world experience.

The Kendeda Building for Innovative Sustainable Design at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta is a good example of incorporating teaching with hands-on experience. It is the first building in Georgia and the 28th in the world to earn Living Building Challenge (LBC) certification and provides spaces for students to study sustainability, design, and architecture in a regenerative building. 

The facility is net-positive energy and water over the course of each year. The project diverted waste from landfills by incorporating salvaged materials into the construction, and at least 50% of the building materials and services were sourced from within 621 miles of the site.

The mission of the Kendeda Building "is to prove that we can design, construct and operate regenerative buildings in our region," the building's website says.

Sustainable design doesn't have to stop at architects and designers either; the operations of a built space have far-reaching implications for business and environmental science. Students can calculate the total lifetime costs of low-carbon materials and their alternatives to better understand the financial benefits of selecting products with the Earth in mind. Similar life cycle assessments can show the additional benefits of changes being made at the supply chain level, such as reduced water consumption resulting from the use of sustainable materials.

The overall magnitude of carbon emissions is both impressive and overwhelming, but humans’ impact on the planet is also substantial. Institutions have made strides toward reducing operational carbon emissions; now it’s time they turn their attention to embodied carbon. By taking a holistic approach to tracking carbon in their buildings, schools and universities can make significant progress toward restoring the health of the planet and creating a climate fit for life.

Joey Shea is manager of mission activation and key account director at Interface, a producer of modular flooring. His background in the environmental nonprofit sector helps the company pursue deep sustainability impact through its Climate Take Back initiative to reverse global warming.

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