The often poorly understood world of embodied carbon is about to be made visible through a new embodied carbon tool for structures, which will be made available to industry from next week. The tool, from Sydney design firm Fitzpatrick + Partners, has been developed to help analyse multiple options for structural solutions early in the design of projects.
Structures are the largest area of embodied carbon in buildings, and also the most misunderstood when it comes to carbon assessments.
Architect Paul Reidy, who has a keen interest in sustainability and sits on the steering committee of the NSW Architects Declare movement and on its policy working group, was looking for ways to rapidly increase knowledge on embodied carbon in materials – a topic that is not widely understood.
Embodied carbon is the emissions footprint that comes from extracting, transporting and manufacturing building materials – which causes greenhouse gas emissions at each and every stage.
Building operations are responsible for 27 per cent of global emissions annually, while embodied carbon is responsible for an additional 20 per cent – and a large part of that is made up by structural elements.
Although data on embodied energy and embodied carbon footprint of materials is out there, the problem was that it was not easy for designers to input their data and manipulate the results to reflect changes of material choice during the design phase, and see the changes in embodied carbon estimations in real time.
The new app allows designers to access embodied carbon estimations in one, user-friendly place – and to make better informed decisions about which materials to use in order to reduce the embodied carbon footprint of the building.
“The tool allows us to take information from a number of databases – The University of Melbourne EPiC Database, the UK’s Inventory of Carbon and Energy (ICE) Database, and The GreenBook from The Footprint Company,” Reidy tells The Fifth Estate.
Each database provides the user with a carbon intensity number based on data input (telling the program what each component of the 3D model is made from what material).
“It’s the first web-based portal that’s quick and easy to use. Perfection can sometimes be the enemy of ‘good enough’, especially in the early stage of design.” Reidy’s team wanted an app that would provide answers that will push designers in the right direction instead of being absolutely definitive.
“This will enable us to understand what’s in our building at a specific level, so we can make changes in the design phase on the supply end, to set us on the path to lowest carbon that we can build a structure from.”
The tool is not intended as a Life Cycle Analysis tool, but rather a design phase testing tool. The 3D computer-aided design (CAD) tool also visually shows what components of the structure change material, so designers can see the aesthetic impact of the decision.
“The data has always been there – but this allows for interrogating data in a visual way, quickly and more often.”
Where to from here?
The team at Fitzpatrick + Partners is using the tool in the design phase of their Macquarie Park development project, and would like to see other designers use the tool as well. By making the tool available to the whole industry free of charge, Reidy hopes that the knowledge base will be strengthened so that everyone who uses the tool can understand embodied carbon on a deeper level, and create a benchmark over time.
As signatories to Architects Declare, the company believes that the climate and biodiversity crisis will only be solved by “radical co-operation”.
“This is a challenge bigger than the input of any single person or firm and we need to work together to drive the speed of change we all need.”
Right now, the tool only measures structural embodied carbon, but the team would like to use user feedback to develop the app to include substructure and facade, interior finishes and fitouts.
“Structure is 65 per cent of the [carbon] problem in a typical office building… We have built a tool which, even though it is still in its infancy, is a powerful example of shedding light into dark corners, asking more questions than it answers and building a curious design mind to search for better solutions.”
The big problem is that the three data sources – the EPiC Database, the Inventory of Carbon and Energy (ICE) Database, and The GreenBook – all generate slightly different variations of embodied carbon estimations.
In an exclusive first look inside the app for The Fifth Estate, the total embodied carbon estimations of an example building design varied from 3.7 million kilograms of carbon dioxide emissions in the ICE estimation to 14.1 kilograms of carbon dioxide emissions in the EPiC database estimation.
The reason, Reidy says, is because the estimations vary significantly by supplier, depending on the manufacturing process, supply chain, whether clean energy is used in production, and other aspects. That means that designers should view the tool more as a guide than as a definitive assessment.
Web developer Jack Niel Dumanat, who developed the app, says: “it’s surprising how different the data is… everybody’s learning.”
Why is it so difficult to measure embodied carbon of structures?
Reidy says that with embodied carbon, “there is no single source of truth. You can’t assume that since it’s in a data set it’s correct”.
“Every manufacturer has a different embodied carbon number. Things like transport, distance, supply chain, aggregate supplier, and the power source, impacts the end number.
“Having had this tool and using it internally for months, it’s at a point where it asks more questions than it answers.
“We are all searching for definitive answers, but in the design phase there really aren’t any. At the stage of choosing suppliers, we can tell [the builder] which material we want, and that will lower the number in embodied carbon.
“But we can’t make these decisions at the design stage, we can only make decisions when we go to tender.”
At this point in the industry, a tool like this is an education tool. But while the data lacks specifics, it also highlights the need for a more comprehensive understanding of the embodied carbon in materials, and greater transparency in reporting along all stages of the supply chain.
And it’s a really important first step – one that the industry was sorely lacking.
The need for this tool seems so obvious, so why has no one done this before?
A lot of existing tools focus on operational carbon, but Reidy claims this is the first tool to deal with embodied carbon.
“No code in Australia has pondered embodied carbon. Only Green Star, in its recent iteration, has used the term ‘embodied carbon’ – but only in the past 6 months they’ve pondered this,” says Reidy.
“Everyones been focused on the operational carbon piece forever. Embodied carbon is only just starting. NABERS is developing a tool to be out next 12-18 months. But the tool doesn’t exist yet. The NCC doesn’t even mention embodied carbon, only operational carbon.”
The tool will be made available to industry practitioners from next week.