A Tale of Two Buildings: Embodied Carbon Series

A Tale of Two Buildings: Embodied Carbon Series

As I take over the “On the Safe Side” blog for 2024, I’ve wondered about the best way to introduce myself to you. Sure, we could take a dive into my LinkedIn profile to gauge my professional journey (though, admittedly, that might not make for the most riveting blog content). For those who already know me, the fact that I’ve found a platform might not come as much of a surprise.

But rather than launch into a lengthy self-introduction, I’ll let Edward Everett Hale’s words speak to the ethos I hope to bring to this space.

“I am only one, but still I am one,” he said. “I cannot do everything, but still, I can do something. And because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something that I can do.”

With this spirit of purposeful contribution, I want to have some big conversations around fire-rated glass and embodied carbon—subjects close to my heart for reasons I hope become obvious. But I’m here to engage with you more than talk with you. What are your thoughts on the sustainability challenges and solutions in our industry?

Stay tuned as we explore these topics together, uncovering insights and innovations and perhaps even stirring a healthy debate. Today, we explore two contributors to a building’s carbon lifecycle: embodied and operational carbon.

Imagine you’re standing in a modern hotel. All the trappings include grand ceilings, luxurious furnishings, five-star dining and signature scents. And it’s spring break, so we’re somewhere sunny and warm. The sunlight streams through every corridor, illuminating living walls with tropical blooms and modern tapestries. On the surface, this hotel is attractive and accommodating. However, if we look further, we will see two systems within this building contributing to its carbon lifecycle. We can explore them further to understand the sustainability stakes of our sunny vacation setting.

You’ll recall our balmy tropical location. The beautiful, vaulted ceilings of our building. The large capacity for guests to stay and dine. Lush plants and rare fine art. All these factors are considerations for our building’s operational carbon or energy consumption—things like electricity, heating and cooling and everything from the restaurant appliances to guest room hair dryers. If it uses energy in our building, it falls into this carbon category.

Operational carbon has held the sustainability spotlight for quite a while, especially when considering energy initiatives that affect buildings: efficient HVAC systems, windows and insulation that reduce heating or cooling loss, LED light bulbs and Energy Star-rated appliances. The list of energy-efficient products and applications is long. Even energy is growing “greener” when considering the drive toward alternatives to fossil fuels. In our hotel, we can imagine operational carbon has been considered heavily, and it’s only poised to improve with time.

But there’s another level of our hotel to consider, where embodied carbon plays a critical role. Think of all the items and materials that make up our luxury hotel—from walls and windows to fixtures and flooring. The processes and elements contributing to our hotel’s embodied carbon are the manufacturing of these items, down to their raw materials, all the way through their transport to and installation in our hotel.

While our hotel’s operational carbon numbers can be affected by selecting the best-in-class energy-efficient products, embodied carbon contributors are fixed. Why? Because embodied carbon is considered the hotel’s physical building blocks. These fixed, “built” elements garner the attention of designers, architects, and manufacturers alike. Now more than ever, embodied carbon, meaning the materials and products selected and all the carbon cycle baggage they carry with them, will make or break sustainability initiatives in the building industry for the near and long term.

According to Architecture 2030, embodied carbon will be responsible for almost half of total new construction emissions between now and 2050. The 2022 Global Status Report for Buildings and Construction has building operations responsible for 28% of global greenhouse gas emissions and building plus construction materials responsible for 9%. Together, these account for more than a third of total emissions from human activity. Looking for more embodied carbon facts? Here’s another helpful source.

Considering how embodied carbon matters, I think back to our hotel. While its operational carbon gets better (reduces), the weight of the carbon cycle shifts to embodied carbon’s contribution. How will this carbon shift in buildings affect the work of the architecture and design community? What are the ways embodied carbon might be addressed by manufacturing? These are the questions I leave open for the next episodes. Until then, here’s hoping spring break—whether that means a hotel in paradise or stay-cation—allows you a little time to relax and recharge.

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