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June 4, 2020

Structural Engineers Challenged to Eliminate Embodied Carbon by 2050

In 2019, the Carbon Leadership Forum issued the SE 2050 Challenge:

“All structural engineers shall understand, reduce and ultimately eliminate embodied carbon in their projects by 2050.”

Recognizing that structural materials account for at least 50% of the carbon emitted in production, delivery, and installation of materials for new construction and the latest IPCC reports tell us that the building sector only has until 2050 to reach carbon neutrality, now more than ever, structural engineers members have an opportunity to change the trajectory of the building sector.

Conceived of and developed by members of the Carbon Leadership Forum — including Duncan Cox (Thornton Tomasetti), Catherine De Wolf (MIT/EPFL), Amy Hattan (Thornton Tomasetti), Erin McDade (Architecture 2030), Kate Simonen (Carbon Leadership Forum/UW), Wil Srubar (U Colorado Boulder), and Frances Yang (Arup) — the SE 2050 Challenge was designed to ignite structural engineers and their firms to meet embodied carbon benchmarks and ambitious reduction goals, and be recognized for the significant role they can play towards these targets.

A Front Row Seat to the Development of the Challenge

by Frances Yang
Associate and Sustainability Consultant at Arup in San Francisco

The journey of the SE 2050 Initiative began four years ago, catalyzed by several streams of activity heading in the same direction. The seven individuals who started the initiative had two primary motivations: we wanted to inspire and engage structural engineers to drive down embodied carbon in their designs, and to contribute data to establish benchmarks and targets. The Carbon Leadership Forum had just completed a comprehensive bench-marking study which identified the need to collect more data in a much more systematic and organized way in order to set embodied carbon targets for Architecture 2030.

Arup was invited to join due to multiple touch points. Our own history included an internal effort starting in 2009 to obtain embodied carbon benchmarks by compiling data from over 80 projects from publicly available case studies plus our own. This also formed the start of an internal project tracking effort. When the CLF needed data for Architecture 2030 targets we were able to offer more than 400 data points for the bench-marking study. In parallel, Arup had also helped to create the UK WRAP (now RICS) Embodied Carbon Database, and assisted the development of the MIT material quantities database. These activities reflect Arup’s decades-long commitment to sustainability and the firm’s belief that addressing total carbon in the built environment is essential to its mission to “shape a better world.”

While the seven of us were advancing our organizations in our own ways, we realized that by coming together we could jump start a program to reach the entire structural engineering community. Inspired by the AIA 2030 Commitment, we saw that a program to motivate, equip, and keep firms accountable — while also providing useful data to scientific and policy communities — would be essential for any hopes of reaching net zero embodied carbon by 2050. The CLF provided the incubation space for us to initiate SE 2050.

Under the auspices of the CLF, we issued the SE 2050 Challenge. We were able to leverage the CLF network to collect 140 signatures from structural engineers and supporters in only 4 weeks, asking the Structural Engineering Institute (SEI) to commit to “understand, reduce and ultimately eliminate embodied carbon in their projects by 2050.” We reached out directly to the SEI Sustainability Committee, and were elated to see the committee quickly form the SE 2050 Working Group. In short order, the Working Group secured an all-day meeting with members of SEI’s Board of Governors, created an astounding website, and officially launched the beta-phase of the SE 2050 Commitment Program. The CLF was also critical at the face-to-face meeting with SEI leadership. Alongside its longtime partners from the AIA, Architecture 2030, and USGBC, the CLF brought both urgency and invitation never before directed to our national structural engineering organization on matters of our climate crisis. SEI endorsed the SE 2050 Challenge a few months later.

As someone who was in the SE 2050 incubation group, and is now on the SEI SE 2050 committee, I am excited about the commitment and prospects of SE 2050, and how it will accelerate efforts of the seven founding members towards those two original goals. We are still at the start of the road, as there is a lot of work to do. So join us! While SEI’s committee now leads the way, there is plenty of room for all on this straighter and broader path that the CLF has paved.

Frances Yang

Frances Yang, Associate and Sustainability Consultant at Arup in San Francisco

Structural Engineers Respond to the Challenge

by Michael Gryniuk
Associate and Project Manager at LeMessurier in Boston

When the Carbon Leadership Forum (CLF) approached the Sustainability Committee of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) Structural Engineering Institute (SEI) in late 2017 with the concept of SE 2050 I had been on the committee for mere months but was immediately hooked. I was fascinated with the possibility of designing structural systems in a way that would result in net-zero embodied carbon emissions! The timing was also perfect.

I had started to question what impact my career was having on the environment. Spending a great deal of my free time in the woods biking or hiking I have developed an appreciation for nature and the critical importance of protecting it. Equipped with an understanding of the science behind global warming and the urgent need to cap our greenhouse gas emissions further emphasized with the Paris Climate Agreement, I try and find ways to limit greenhouse gases on a personal level. But was I doing enough in all aspects of my life? How much impact did the buildings I designed really have? The world is awfully big, after all.

About 4 months earlier I was 3 years into a 5-year process of managing the design and construction administration of a large mixed-use development project in Boston that was entering the early stages of construction. The large excavation was complete, subgrade prepped, bars tied, and forms set for a 3,500 cubic yard mat concrete placement. My inner nerd was rather excited. A few days later I found myself doing some basic calculations (probably instead of reviewing the steel shop’s drawings as I was supposed to) on the mat’s embodied carbon. “This can’t be right” I remember thinking. “Really?”. It was. I would have to drive my car from Boston to the White Mountains of New Hampshire and back again over 8,000 times to match the equivalent carbon dioxide. I got to work.

From the introduction of SE 2050 to now I have found myself focused almost exclusively on making a formally SEI-sanctioned SE 2050 Commitment Program a reality. And have had the absolute pleasure of doing it with an extremely talented and dedicated group of volunteers. Making friends and helping the environment. Two for two! Our group has worked tirelessly over the past two years navigating the various successes and challenges with determination and intelligence. On December 19, 2019 the SEI Board of Governors voted to endorse the CLF’s SE 2050 Challenge and on April 8, 2020, they voted to formally establish the SE 2050 Commitment Program and our SE 2050 Committee for which I am honored to serve as the current Chair. We plan to launch the Program in November at Greenbuild.

My engagement with the SEI Sustainability Committee and involvement with SE 2050 and the CLF has translated directly to my career as a structural engineer at LeMessurier where I now direct our firm’s sustainability group developing new and unique sustainability best practices. We now have a dedicated staff able to provide project support to the firm on all items related to sustainability, and I’m proud to say LeMessurier has been a sponsor of the CLF since 2018. We were also one of the first firms to sign on to the CLF’s SE 2050 Challenge and were an early adopter and sponsor of the EC3 tool.

Won’t you make the same commitment and help us make progress together?

Mike Gryniuk

Michael Gryniuk, Associate and Project Manager at LeMessurier in Boston

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