Transitioning Toward Low-Carbon Construction, with Brian Hayes, Part: 1

Transitioning Toward Low-Carbon Construction, with Brian Hayes
Part: 1

In Part 1 of this series, Brian Hayes of Bellwether Craftsmen Vermont shares his experience and knowledge on how we can address embodied carbon in our own practice.

What is embodied carbon and why does it matter?

When the building industry talks about carbon emissions, we often think about carbon emissions during the operational use of the building. However, if we want to build sustainably, we have to take embodied carbon into account as well.

The Carbon Leadership Forum defines embodied carbon (EC) in the building industry as “greenhouse gas emissions arising from the manufacturing, transportation, installation, maintenance, and disposal of building materials.” Architecture2030 found that "embodied carbon is responsible [for] 11% of global GHG emissions and 28% of global building sector emissions."

Operational carbon has been decreasing over time with dedicated energy efficiency measures and more low-carbon energy sources on the market. As a result, if left unaddressed, embodied carbon will soon account for the majority of emissions in a building's life cycle.

Start Now: How To Transition From Business as Usual toward Low-Carbon Construction

Understanding the need to convert embodied carbon awareness & accounting from a concept or ideal to actual practice is critically important. There are simples steps to begin taking now to make a positive impact without actually counting carbon:

  • Diligently recycle and reduce on-site waste
  • Replace synthetics with plant-based materials wherever possible
  • Use FSC wood products
  • Reduce building size where/when possible
  • Obtain EPD’s for all project products or request them if they do not exist so we can build that information into our development process

It's Up to Us to Lead the Industry Change

As someone who has dedicated his business model and career to low-carbon construction, I recognize that transitioning is not always an easy task. But I recommend that everyone work to move from business-as-usual to the best of their ability and to find ways to continue to improve over time. This dedication requires self-motivation and colleague support in the absence of energy and building codes that do not adequately account for upfront EC values. While incremental improvements are certainly being made, I believe the onus is upon the industry leaders to engage a targeted process to integrate EC specifications into our projects ahead of those future improved building and energy codes.

Direct Actionable Changes for the Building Industry

An increasing number of industry leaders are beginning to understand the value of EC accounting. Education is a crucial factor in this process. Keep the following in mind as we lead the way in this transition:

  • Understand that low EC procurement requires a shift from a concept or ideal to a quantified project specification
  • Pursue low EC education and training
  • Consider your ability to pass along materials at cost in an effort to encourage use of low EC materials if the client is on the fence
  • Support industry change through shared information and transparency
  • Install monitoring equipment to track building assembly performance
  • Remember that immediate action is needed - building/Energy Code legislative overhaul will not provide correction soon enough

Change is up to us as industry leaders. It starts with education, quantification, and accountability. To change the industry means making it an affordable and obvious choice. Just as wind and solar have now become cheaper than coal, as more building professionals join the embodied carbon movement, we can tip the scales and make low-carbon construction the most affordable option.

» Part 2: Considerations for Integrated Design And Development (coming soon)

For more on 475’s approach to low-carbon construction, review and download 475 Smart Enclosure System. The Smart Enclosure System offers a 21st-century guide to advanced high-performance building assemblies and acts as a toolkit that can help you maximize the positive impact of your building projects: providing optimized comfort, safety, energy efficiency, and negative carbon emissions.


Further Embodied Carbon Reading:

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