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Buildings as a Solution? Exploring the Potential for Carbon-Storing Materials

Introducing a Summary Report from the Carbon Leadership Forum


The research team from the Carbon Leadership Forum at the University of Washington College of Built Environments:

Julie Kriegh, PhD, AIA, Research Scientist, Carbon Leadership Forum, Department of Architecture, College of Built Environments, University of Washington. Founder Kriegh Architecture Studios | Design + Research

Chris Magwood, Director, Endeavor Center, The Sustainable Building School, Peterborough, Ontario, Canada

Wil Srubar III, PhD, Associate Professor, University of Colorado Boulder, Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering, Materials Science and Engineering Program. Founder Aureus Earth

The Carbon Leadership Forum at the University of Washington has recently completed a four-month research project with a major US tech company to understand the potential of using low-carbon and carbon-storing materials in new construction. The project focused on carbon-intensive hotspot materials (e.g., concrete foundations and slab floors, insulated roof and wall panels, and structural framing) in light industrial buildings. The study found that a sizable reduction (~60%) in embodied carbon is possible in two to three years by bringing readily-available low-carbon materials into wider use. Furthermore, this work predicts that fostering a carbon-storing material supply system by investing in the development and manufacturing of nascent carbon-storing materials industries will make a carbon-positive future possible in three to five years (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Potential carbon reductions (credit: Wil Srubar).

Why is this strategy important?

The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has established that reductions in carbon emissions alone are not enough to curtail climate disaster. Therefore, it is crucial that we systematically draw down and store carbon. Over the next 30 years, embodied carbon, namely emissions associated with the procurement, manufacturing, construction use, and disposal of building materials, is predicted to account for almost 50% of all new construction-related carbon emissions (Architecture2030). Addressing these emissions now is critical since embodied carbon emissions are committed at a building’s inception and remain constant throughout the life of a building.  

A key strategy

We can convert buildings from being an existential climate threat (emissions source) to a significant climate solution (emissions sink) by using biogenic materials that store carbon and reduce emissions during the production of construction materials. Emissions sinks are crucial to achieving decarbonization by 2030 because carbon has a time value; the impact of photosynthetic drawdown exerts the most impact at the beginning of the building process (see Figure 2). 

Another key strategy can be found in the use of rapidly renewable biogenic carbon-storing building materials produced from biomass (e.g., annually harvested agricultural residues and purpose-grown fibers). Indeed, the use of biogenic materials renders possible not only upfront photosynthetic drawdown but also the potential for long-term carbon positivity. Both are crucial to achieving decarbonization by 2030 because achieving upfront photosynthetic drawdown in the early stages of the building process exerts the greatest impact on emissions and climate.

carbon storage is key

Figure 2. Photosynthetic drawdown (Credit: Chris Magwood)

What are the broader impacts?

It is possible to catalyze building decarbonization by establishing a new socio-techno-economic model that promotes building with biomass. Biogenic building materials made from biomass – underutilized agricultural residues (e.g., rice hulls, wheat straw, and bamboo leaf ash, sunflower stalks, sugar bagasse) and purpose-grown fibers (e.g., bamboo, cork, hemp, algae, and seaweed) – have the potential to create new building products (Cantor & Manea, 2015; Liuzzi, S., 2017; Maraveas, C., 2020).

Building with these biogenic materials also has the promise to catalyze new manufacturing hubs, create jobs, provide training and education opportunities, and reduce the need for traditional, emissions-intensive disposal methods of waste fibers (e.g., incinerating, landfilling, composting). In addition, the carbon avoided and carbon stored in buildings represents a new asset class of carbon products for emerging carbon marketplaces. Taken together, these strategies are estimated to contribute to significant (> 1 gigatons of CO2 per year) reductions of total carbon emissions globally (Churkina, G., et al. 2020; Habert, G., et al. 2020; Frank, S., et al, 2018).

This work proposes that, by pairing communities where biogenic materials are harvested with companies (industry partners) where manufacturing and construction services occur, we can reduce upfront emissions in the building industry. We can also cut emissions associated with underutilized agricultural residues while catalyzing new carbon and building product markets and strong economies, producing multiple co-benefits.