Sponsored: Interface calls for industry collaboration to address embodied carbon

Sponsored: Interface calls for industry collaboration to address embodied carbon

Summer 2019 | By Catherine Shane

It’s not often you hear someone say that in order to consider their campaign a success, they want their campaign to no longer be necessary. But that’s essentially the core goal of materialsCAN (Carbon Action Network), an effort launched in 2018 by a collaborative group of built-space leaders like Interface, Skanska, and Gensler.

“The goal of materialsCAN is to no longer need it one day,” says Stacy Smedley, director of sustainability at Skanska, one of the world’s leading project development and construction groups and a collaborative partner behind the campaign. “That’s what we at Skanska and Interface and the whole group behind this effort look forward to. To, one day, not need to talk about embodied carbon because people are educated about it and it’s simply become a part of the building language. Just how operational carbon is now.”

Because the fact of the matter is: If we don’t seriously reduce ALL carbon emissions—operational and embodied—we produce between now and 2030, we are on a path toward catastrophic climate change.

A study released by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2018 says the world needs to decrease emissions by 45 percent by 2030, or else the atmosphere could hit 1.5 degrees of warming by then.

“Those in the building sector play one of the most important roles in preventing this from happening,” says Lisa Conway, vice president of sustainability at Interface, referencing the fact that buildings generate nearly 40 percent of the world’s current carbon emissions.

That number will increase as building stock is expected to more than double by 2050, according to Architecture 2030.

“It’s vital that we, as leaders in the built-space environment, make sure that when it comes to reducing carbon emissions, we educate AEC [architecture, engineering, and construction] professionals, find and create solutions, and implement them. Reducing embodied carbon needs to be paid attention to as much as operational carbon already is.”

MaterialsCAN is helping to make that happen.

In the building life cycle, embodied carbon is the carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with the non–operational phase of the project. This includes emissions caused by extraction, manufacturing, transportation, assembly, maintenance, replacement, deconstruction, disposal, and end of life aspects of the materials and systems that make up a building.

Why You Should Care

To understand why embodied carbon matters so much right now, you first have to understand what it is. In respect to a building, there are two types of carbon emissions: operational carbon and embodied carbon. Operational carbon is the carbon emitted over the life of the building (from heating, cooling, lighting, etc.), whereas embodied carbon refers to carbon associated with extracting, manufacturing, transporting building materials to the job site, and assembling. The most impactful are materials such as steel and concrete.

“Where we are with embodied carbon—in terms of research and tools, regulation, best practices in design and manufacturing—is the same as where we were with operational carbon decades ago,” says Erin McDade, a senior program director at Architecture 2030, a non–profit founded in 2002 aimed at reducing carbon emissions from buildings through education programs and tools as well as policy support. “We’re behind, and in order to meet our climate goals, we need to prioritize reducing embodied carbon as much as we already do operational carbon.”

Conway agrees. “Operational carbon has been so tied to the success of LEED from the beginning. Selecting products that lead to low-operational carbon is a part of building codes now. But selecting products with low-embodied carbon or low carbon footprint has not been as high of a priority. A big part of that is lack of awareness among building professionals about why it matters and also that it’s hard to calculate because those figures are buried in pages of EPDs [Environmental Production Declarations].”

It also hasn’t ranked as high of a priority as operational because of the stats: Annually, embodied carbon accounts for 11 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, which sounds small when compared with the impact of operational carbon (28 percent). But with building stock going up, Architecture 2030 estimates that embodied carbon will be responsible for at least half of total new construction emissions between now and 2050—meaning that new construction embodied and operational carbon emissions will become roughly equivalent within that time frame.

“We can’t say that embodied carbon is more important than operational because, at the end of the day, they both matter,” says Vincent Martinez, COO of Architecture 2030. “But unlike operational carbon, which is emitted over time and can be reduced over the building’s lifetime, embodied carbon is emitted carbon we can’t get back. As soon as a building is built, embodied carbon emissions are locked into place.”

Since 2002, Interface, Inc., a global commercial flooring company with an integrated collection of carpet tiles and resilient flooring, has offset more than 4.3 million tons of carbon dioxide. Interface has also reduced the greenhouse gas emissions of their manufacturing by 96 percent and reduced their carbon footprint by more than 60 percent—the lowest in the industry. Photos: Courtesy Interface

Mission materialsCAN: Making the Topic of Embodied Carbon Catch Fire

Embodied carbon is simply not an easy conversation for most. “It’s hard to understand, it’s hard to find the metrics, and there may not actually be any monetary savings when it comes to a smart procurement plan like you receive with operational carbon,” says Interface’s Conway. So how do you get people to listen and understand, and more importantly, care enough to activate them to make a change? You bring in some of the biggest players in the built environment to help spread the word. “Interface can’t do it alone. We need top developers and material manufacturers by our side to help educate the masses,” summarizes Conway. “That’s the only way we can grow the effort—and quickly.”

And that’s precisely what Conway did. She started first by recruiting the world’s largest architecture and design firm: Gensler. “I remembered seeing in Gensler’s 2017 Impact by Design report that one of their actions was to collect better metrics on buildings, like embodied carbon. It was just a tiny bullet point, but it told me it was something they cared about,” says Conway. After reaching out, Conway found herself in front of Gensler’s Co-CEO Diane Hoskins in February of 2018. “I said to her, ‘No one is talking about this, but you understand that we need to talk about this, and the clock is ticking.’”

The result was materialsCAN, which launched at Greenbuild 2018 and consists of a group of major building industry partners: Skanska (representing construction), Armstrong (ceilings), CertainTeed (insulation), and USG (wallboard), in addition to Interface and Gensler. Since the original group, Kingspan and Superior Essex have also joined. Together, these partners are primed to address embodied carbon within their companies, but more importantly, others they touch in the built environment. “materialsCAN is a multi-pronged effort, but the first part is simply basic awareness and education on the subject,” explains Conway.

The official kick-start to that was the materialsCAN “launch lunch” at Greenbuild 2018, where the collaborative team invited a cross-section of the industry: major real estate services firms, owners, design firms, general contractors and manufacturers as well as NGOs and sustainability consultants. The subject? Why embodied carbon matters if we’re going to reverse global warming.

“It was met with great reception,” says Conway. “People showed that they cared and they wanted to address the issue, but they weren’t sure how to then act.” Which leads to part two of the multi–pronged materialsCAN approach: a tool that makes it easier to evaluate building materials and their embodied carbon, so that AEC professionals can make smarter building decisions to make a collective difference.

Embodied Carbon in Construction Calculator (EC3): A Tool for Action

Say you’re a contractor and you want to make informed decisions on your materials and their respective embodied carbon emissions. You would have to dig through an EPD for each product you are selecting. Most major manufacturers have them, but they’re extremely hard to understand, with generally 17 to 20 pages of data where the embodied carbon info is buried. Not to mention, EPDs can have different background product category rules or data assumptions, so unless you’re a real expert, it’s hard to compare one manufacturer’s EPD to another manufacturer’s EPD, apple to apples. So how do you make informed decisions if the data is hard to navigate, not to mention incomparable? It’s a struggle.

Enter EC3, which stands for “embodied carbon in construction calculator.” While the tool is now being further developed by and hosted at the Carbon Leadership Forum at the University of Washington with support from the Charles Pankow Foundation, it began with materialsCAN member, Skanska.

“We can talk about the importance of reducing embodied carbon all day,” says Skanska’s Smedley. “But we needed to make it actionable for our clients.” Using an internal innovation grant, the team at Skanska partnered with developer C-Change Labs to spearhead a proof of concept for the new software tool to track the embodied carbon emissions of raw building materials. It essentially does the dirty work of digesting those complicated EPDs. And presenting architects, designers, builders, manufacturers, and auditors with an easy-to-navigate database to search and compare low-embodied carbon providers and products. As of June 2019, there were about 17,000 EDPs in the database (and growing), including a variety of concrete, steel, and gypsum. Carpet tile and ceilings are in development now. The best part? The tool will be open-source, free, and accessible to all.

EC3 won’t be available to the public until November 2019. It’s currently in pilot-testing with Microsoft, which is using it to inform the decisions in the remodel of its 72-acre campus in Redmond, just outside of Seattle, Washington. EC3 is being piloted on diverse projects and developed input from pilot partners include architects (Perkins & Will), engineers (MKA), general contractors (Webcor), owners (Alexandria Development) and manufacturers (BASF), and industry support from the American Institute of Steel Construction and the ACI Foundation (concrete) among others.

“It’s going to be a game-changer for embodied carbon,” notes Conway, “allowing users to make directionally accurate decisions for everything from new construction high rises to the interior renovation of a local library.” And hopefully, in no time, prioritizing embodied carbon in specifications will become as commonplace in the building industry as high-efficiency water heaters and HVAC systems.

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