Cerclos chairman Alexander Bruce remembers the days of piecemeal calculations of embodied carbon in a building: counting the number of bricks, working out what it took to pour each square metre of concrete, and so on.
“Twelve years ago it took a month to do a house, and we realised we had to build a tool,” he says.
“That’s how our flagship software, eTool, started.
“Today we also have the RapidLCA app that enables people to do a life cycle assessment (LCA) of a house in half an hour and get an auditable result in alignment with international standards.”
In the past two years, Alexander says the demand for the company’s products has grown rapidly, as a result of a paradigm shift from green to net zero.
“Companies are asking how they are going to get to net zero by 2030, or 2050. They want numbers backed by standards that they are comfortable putting forward to the general public. They need to feel comfortable in front of regulators, because it now is starting to pop up in rules and regs and reporting standards.”
For Alexander though, it is more than being able to give his clients a number. While numbers can be good to set benchmarks, it is more about the journey to get those numbers down. The company’s goal is that the tools and carbon expertise will help avoid 10 million tonnes of carbon in the next few years, but he admits that demand is growing so fast, that the objective is fluid.
“For example, we’ve recently been asked to look at some of the biggest mining projects in Australia. I don’t think we thought we’d be doing that a year ago. Give it another two years, we might be looking at stuff that none of us have thought about.
“So it’s really opening it up, it’s about giving you the tools and data you need to actually reduce carbon emissions and speed up the shift to a net-zero built environment, all with accuracy and efficiency.”
Less anxiety around carbon assessment – less distracting conversations
The software helps to reduce life cycle assessment anxiety, especially around how to blend upfront carbon calculations with that of embodied carbon. And then there is operational carbon that can be directly related to the project.
“It only makes sense when you say whole life carbon. It’s never black and white, which is why you have to do whole life carbon. So much depends on the location and use of the project,” Alexander says.
You could waste hours working out details such as the carbon cost of importing steel from a specific factory in China, whereas you can make big carbon savings through improving the functionality of the project, he says.
For example, it won’t matter where the glass came from or the thermal performance of a large glass foyer of a commercial build if the space is hardly used. Similarly, the perfect eco-home will score very differently depending on the location, climate, energy source and how it is inhabited.
“You’ve got to do the modelling and look at whole life carbon to really know because there is a real trade off between the increased embodied emissions and reduced operational emissions. You’ve got to do both so that you understand whether you’re winning or not,” Alexander says.
Having fast access to life cycle assessments will also help steer conversations away from polarising, emotionally driven arguments about what elements are better for the environment.
We need much greater speed
“The whole planet needs to get far quicker at that.
“We can then move on from these distracting conversations that are really slowing us down from ultimately trying to hit these net zero targets.”
There’s a template and it’s on tap
Alexander says Cerclos can provide fast calculations due to years of collaborations with clients that have produced an extensive library of templates comprising building components where the calculations are built in.
“It’s a whole industry of life cycle assessments, evolving over the last 15 years, that’s got us to a point where embodied carbon is actually relatively easy now, because the life cycle assessments have done all that legwork, and embodied carbon is baked into those LCAs.
“So, it might be a wall template, but that wall will include the framing, the plasterboard, the insulation and the paint. Using this system, you can build up a model really quickly.
“There are huge numbers now of environmental product declarations, which are essentially life cycle assessments of individual products. And that industry has just exploded in the last two years, and we’ve now got 1000s upon 1000s of individual products with their own life cycle assessments, which you can input directly into our tool.
“That’s another evolution of the industry that’s enabled life cycle carbon to be calculated much more easily than it used to be,” Alexander says. And this helps reduce guesstimates about carbon emissions.
The data has to be useful; it has to be iterative
If a client’s project is too unique to use the templates, Cerclos offers a tailored solution called Net Zero Innovation Centre which will guide clients through the LCA process and help them master the tool.
For a company that started assessing townhouses, Cerclos now counts among its projects the HS2 (the $187 billion High Speed Rail in the UK, the largest infrastructure project in Europe), the Melbourne School of Design, mixed-use precincts, skyscrapers, port facilities and the Scott Base, New Zealand’s only Antarctic research station. So, the range of data it can gather is wider than ever.
Mark Fenton, carbon manager and technical services director from HS2 says: “eTool increasingly has more data in it that we can use as baselines. eTool gives us that capability for the designers to optimise their designs linking into Autodesk and other CAD-based models.
“We [also] have some big plans to do that in HS2 in terms of turning the outputs from eTool into our digital twin so that everybody has access to that data and that it’s meaningful to them. [This way it] can spark the right types of conversations about reducing carbon and net zero and make it more inclusive.”
According to Alexander the software was designed for collaboration and active use.
“[The software] eTool wasn’t meant for one person to sit in a dungeon somewhere, absorb all the design information, process it and generate results – it was designed for the whole project team, and all the internal and external stakeholders.
“We like to think it’s the eTool software that’s the solution, but really, it’s the people. It’s the collaboration around the projects that’s getting us this next step change in decarbonisation.”