How Low Can You Go? How the Architecture, Engineering and Construction Industry Is Breaking Down Carbon and Silos

As sustainability consultants, our project managers at Vertical Group are hyper-aware that this is a colossal impact and an enormous window of opportunity for building industry improvement. Thankfully, because the burden of responsibility does not fall onto one individual building sector, each person in the Architecture, Engineering, and Construction (AEC) community can significantly impact carbon emissions.

Break it Down: What’s the Problem?

“Embodied carbon is the sum of all the greenhouse gas emissions (mostly carbon dioxide) resulting from the mining, harvesting, processing, manufacturing, transportation, and installation of building materials.” – American Institute of Architects (AIA)

Embodied Carbon is the precursor to Operational Carbon. Operational carbon emissions can be reduced over time with energy efficiency renovations; however, Embodied Carbon emissions are locked in as soon as the building is built. 

It takes about 30 years to offset the embodied carbon impacts of a typical new construction building.

Embed Sustainability Early in the Project Design!

In the AEC industry, we have the exciting responsibility to select products and processes to reduce Embodied Carbon emissions before a building is turned over to the end-user (the operations team). Early collaboration reduces costs and coordination time and minimizes the risk of sustainability measures being value-engineered out of the project budget later. Therefore, it is highly recommended to hold a sustainability charrette as early as possible and invite all the key decision-makers, designers, and engineers to a round table discussion. At Vertical Group, we typically aim to include the owner/developer, sustainability consultant, architect, contractor, and engineers (mechanical, electrical, plumbing, structural, etc.).

Interested in learning more? At the Net Zero Conference on September 13-16th, there will be an educational session titled, “How Low Can You Go? The Embodied Carbon Panel.” Where panelists (including myself!) will discuss Embodied Carbon strategies, challenges, best practices, and the responsibilities of each role in the process. Check out a sneak preview of our speakers and conversation below.

Net Zero Conference: Sneak Preview! 

When it comes to reducing Embodied Carbon, the Owner/Developer’s role is to communicate the project requirements, vision, and expectations to the team from the project’s inception. Jasmine Lomax of Kilroy Realty Corporation shares insight into setting carbon reduction goals, monitoring the supply chain, and transforming the market toward net-zero carbon buildings.

The Architect leads the project design team and is crucial in selecting the proper materials to achieve the project’s Embodied Carbon goals. Kjell Anderson of LMN Architects pushes the envelope on sustainability to get ahead of the curve of market costs and acquire products with Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs).

Structural Engineers recognize that the superstructure materials, such as concrete and steel, represent 20% or more of the annual global GHG emissions, partly due to the sheer quantity of materials required. Luke Lombardi of Thornton Tomasetti is an advocate of mass timber, carbon injected concrete, maximizing structural efficiency, and other Structural Engineering Institute SE 2050 goals

The Mechanical, Electrical, and Plumbing (MEP) Engineer focuses on the technical and control systems of the building. Zara Fahim and Erin McConahey of ARUP highlight that building systems should focus on MEP efficiency to reduce Operational Carbon Emissions and take ownership of Embodied Carbon emissions. To do this, it is essential to perform a whole-life carbon analysis, include refrigerants in Embodied Carbon calculations, and encourage vendors to provide EPDs.

The Contractor is the leader in managing costs, procurement, and quality. Jessie Buckmaster of Hathaway Dinwiddie shares insight into how their team uses the EC3 tool (the free Embodied Carbon in Construction Calculator) on projects to create a database and baseline. Embodied Carbon is included as a line item in the estimating process, which helps decision-making.

The Sustainability Consultant is the frontrunner to break down the silos on the team and create a free flow of information. I will be speaking about how consultants like Verdical Group orchestrate the carbon reduction strategy goals to develop the most sustainable project possible. Sustainability Consultants combat Embodied Carbon by leading integrated sustainability design charrettes, generating Life-Cycle Assessments, and managing verified third-party certifications for projects and products.

Yearn to Learn!

The pandemic has cornered us into our silos – working from home limiting interaction and the organic flow of conversation. Wouldn’t it be magnificent if we emerged from this era collectively combating Embodied Carbon emissions? Let’s collaborate and work toward the common goal of a Net Zero future!

Learn more about how to tackle Embodied Carbon emissions during this panel discussion and at the full Net Zero Conference, hosted September 13 – 16th with virtual and in-person outdoor options.

  • Rebecca Ramsdale is Senior Project Manager at Verdical Group — a leading green building consulting firm that is a registered benefit corporation in the State of California


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