Carbon Leadership Forum

January 14, 2020

Building a Carbon Smart Community with Legos

by Andrew Himes

What can a team of 6th-graders from Redmond, Washington tell us about climate change, embodied carbon emissions from building construction, and the potential for hard work and innovative thinking to transform an industry?

A lot, it turns out! A group of friends — three girls and three boys — presented their design for a Carbon Smart Community at the First Lego League regional competition on December 15, 2019 at the Chinook Middle School in Bellevue, Washington.

The Auto Bots team, left to right: Vrinda Sankarakumar, Ridhi Rao Gundapuneni, Karthik Abhinav Javvadi, Sanvi Agarwal, Aidan Francis, Naythan Saldanha

The six young people heard about a new software tool —EC3, or the Embodied Carbon in Construction Calculator — used to dramatically reduce the embodied carbon emissions associated with materials and construction in 17 new Microsoft buildings under construction near their homes. Katie Ross and Esther Christoffersen from Microsoft helped the team with a demonstration of the new campus modernization project, explained about the sustainability efforts at Microsoft and also introduced them to the EC3 tool. The EC3 tool is an initiative of the Carbon Leadership Forum, and the Charles Pankow Foundation has convened nearly fifty organizations to support the development of this non-proprietary resource.

The six friends formed a team to compete in the First Lego League, a global contest in which students create a project that uses science, math, and technology to solve real-world challenges while building confidence, growing their knowledge, and developing habits of learning. Teams compete for a Global Innovation Award that showcases their innovative solutions.

The Auto Bots — as the friends called their team — focused on how buildings are contributing to global carbon emissions and aimed their attention at solutions to climate change. K.D. Hallman, an environmentalist and former VP at Microsoft, provided them insights into the problems caused by climate change and guidance on different ways to tackle it.

Ridhi Gundapuneni

Ridhi Gundapuneni, age 11, Tyee Middle School: “We need to find solutions to climate change because this is affecting the world gravely. By using more fossil fuels, we generate more greenhouse gases and pollutants. By doing this, we affect global warming. This global warming can be harmful to us, our plants, and the whole ecosystem, including innocent animals, who played no part at all in this. I decided to be part of a First Lego League team because I wanted to help people and embrace my creative side, to come up with solutions that could be used in real life. Everyday, we all encounter problems, but we never think about ways to solve them. Once in a while, an idea might encounter our minds, but most of us are just too lazy to try to come up with solutions to your own problems. FLL gives us the satisfaction of solving these daily problems ourselves and making ourselves proud.”

The team decided to focus their project on embodied carbon in building materials and construction because they had learned about the enormous impact that manufacturing and transportation of materials has on the overall carbon footprint of buildings, including even brand new buildings before people have begun to live and work in them.

Vrinda Sankarakumar

Vrinda Sankarakumar, age 12, Kirkland Middle School: “Embodied carbon is carbon that is emitted when making building materials and transporting them. For example, a lot of energy is used to make steel and concrete. If fossil fuels are burned to produce this energy, it results in carbon emissions. If the concrete is transported using a truck, it also adds to carbon emissions. 11% of global carbon emissions is due to embodied carbon from buildings. As the population keeps increasing, more buildings will get built, and this will lead to more carbon emissions. We have to reduce embodied carbon so that total carbon emissions will decrease.”

The team learned about the Embodied Carbon in Construction Calculator (EC3) tool, an initiative of the Carbon Leadership Forum at the University of Washington, led by Professor Kate Somonen. The EC3 tool is a free and easy to use tool that allows benchmarking, assessment and reductions in embodied carbon, focused on the upfront supply chain emissions of construction materials. The EC3 tool utilizes building material quantities from construction estimates and/or BIM models and a robust database of digital, third-party verified Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs). Powered by this data, the EC3 tool can be used in both the design and procurement phases of a construction project to look at a project’s overall embodied carbon emissions, enabling the specification and procurement of the low carbon options.

Naythan Saldanha

Naythan Saldanha, age 12, Rose Hill Middle School: I enjoy solving problems with my team. I also like to see the gracious professionalism shown by other teams. The challenge makes us think about innovative solutions to real-life problems within our communities. The EC3 tool will let us see how much embodied carbon is there in building materials and how we can reduce it by making changes to the way we buy these materials. Through this tool we can bring a change in the building industry.”

Rather than limiting themselves only to embodied carbon, the team designed an entire “Carbon Smart Community” designed to be both low in embodied carbon and highly efficient in its use of energy. They built a model of their community with the same limited set of Lego blocks provided to every team so all teams start out with equal resources. Every building in their Carbon Smart Community has solar panels on the roof and by design is made of recyclable materials.

Karthik Abhinav Javvadi (Abhi)

Karthik Abhinav Javvadi (Abhi), age 12, Rose Hill Middle School: “I decided to be part of a First Lego League team because I wanted to work on real-world problems with my friends, build robots and learn to program. Our Carbon Smart Community is a walkable and accessible net-zero-carbon community. It has sustainable and energy-efficient buildings. All the buildings are constructed from carbon-storing materials like mass timber and carbon-storing concrete.”

A key goal of the community’s design was to marry beauty and function. The team designed an innovative solution for maintaining “green roofs” on buildings and houses in dry climates where there is less rainfall. The houses collect and recycle rainfall to support living roofs made of grass and other plants that are beautiful while sheltering the occupants of the houses, storing carbon dioxide and breathing out oxygen.

Sanvi Agarwal

Sanvi Agarwal, age 11, Willows Preparatory School: “I thought that the First Lego League was an interesting competition to be a part of and I thought that it would be fun to learn about our world. Our Carbon Smart Community is built so that everything is at a walkable distance so you don’t have to use cars. Also all of the offices and factories are in the corner and the houses are in the middle so that anywhere you need to go is close and there are also solar panels on top of all the buildings.”

As part of the team’s research at the beginning of the project, they visited the nearby Microsoft campus to understand the enormous quantity of embodied carbon emissions connected with modern construction materials. They learned that for every ton of Portland cement manufactured, the process releases an equivalent ton of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. They also learned about new methods of making concrete that can potentially sequester, or permanently store, carbon dioxide in buildings while creating stronger and more resilient concrete.

Aidan Francis

Aidan Francis, age 12, Rose Hill Middle School: I first decided to be part of a First Lego League team because at the time when I learned about the League I was obsessed with Legos. This inspired me to go beyond my average Lego building to be a better team player while helping create a real solution. I think it’s important to find solutions to climate change because if we keep on using fossil fuels, the climate may get worse over time and make the Earth a hot planet with humans nearly extinct. The best thing about working as a member of our team is that you’re able to learn new things that become part of your life and you do this with your team and friends.

Andrew Himes of the Carbon Leadership Forum at the University of Washington advised the team in the development phase of the project and helped guide their research, and Forum founder and director Professor Kate Simonen showed up to review the completed project and cheer the team on at the regional First Lego League competition on December 15 at the Chinook Middle School in Bellevue, Washington.

The team demonstrates the Carbon Smart Community to Andrew Himes and Kate Simonen from the Carbon Leadership Forum.

UW Professor Kate Simonen, founder and director of the Carbon Leadership Forum: “These kids are absolutely amazing and awe-inspiring. It was so impressive to see their thoughtfulness, discipline, hard work, and deep grasp of the challenges we face with climate change while also focused on solutions that can help create a more sustainable and beautiful world. Their understanding of embodied carbon surpasses the knowledge of many architects and structural engineers. I am looking forward to having them as students and colleagues when they’re ready for university in a few years!”

Andrew Himes learns from the experts.