Member Impact, July 2020

What are you and your company doing to help reduce embodied carbon emissions?

Stefanie Barrera

Architectural Staff at SMR Architects, Seattle, WA

Stefanie BarreraGrowing up my goal was to pursue a career that made the most use of my abilities and provided opportunities for lifelong learning. I also knew I wanted my work to be meaningful. Pursuing architecture allowed me to do this and much more. I entered the master’s of architecture program at the University of Washington with the end goal of working at a firm that focused on designing affordable housing for under served communities.

In 2016 I interned at the Bullitt Center doing research for the CLF’s Embodied Carbon Benchmark Project with Professor Kate Simonen. It became evident to me that reducing embodied carbon emissions should be a top priority in the building industry. Simultaneously, I was also aware that under served populations are often disproportionately impacted by climate change. Decarbonizing buildings and construction can positively impact these communities by improving people’s quality of life.

Working in the affordable housing industry, it is clear to me that affordable housing needs better financial support to be able to participate in reducing embodied carbon emissions. From the onset, many affordable housing organizations struggle to secure funding sources to make a project happen. Implementing actions to reduce embodied carbon emissions requires more funds than most of these projects are able to acquire. The predicament affordable housing projects face in being able to reduce their embodied carbon emissions is clear. My hope is to advocate for affordable housing so that it continues to be prioritized by the city while finding ways to prioritize decisions to reduce embodied carbon emissions in these projects.

As a firm, SMR has incorporated sustainable design elements into its projects for many years. Although we do not typically track the embodied carbon emissions of building products we specify, the majority of our projects are designed to be energy efficient since they receive capital funds from programs which require the Evergreen Sustainable Development Standard (ESDS) – a green rating system for affordable housing projects in Washington State. By selecting more durable, longer-lasting materials and systems when we build, we are preventing future embodied carbon emissions from being created. Affordable housing developers have a vested interest in durability and low long-term maintenance and operations costs. The selection of durable materials and systems resonates with our clients because it saves operations and maintenance costs over time. The reduction in future embodied carbon is a bonus.

Additionally, our rehabilitation, adaptive reuse, and preservation projects by their nature help reduce emissions by avoiding embodied carbon in new construction. We also frequently work on transit-oriented developments, projects that are designed in urban areas to reduce the need for residents to rely on gas vehicles.

I think the built environments can be a powerful tool to solving many of today’s problems, but I think it’s important to recognize that inequality is widespread even within the industry. I think it’s also important to acknowledge that many of the buildings that are being built today do not serve underprivileged communities, yet these communities will feel the impact of climate change the most. Decarbonizing the building industry will have positive effects in underprivileged communities and will, in a way, indirectly address some of the social and racial justice issues we see today by slowing down and preventing climate change.

Orlando Gibbons

Structural Engineer at Arup, London, England, United Kingdom
IStructE Sustainability Panel member

I am a structural engineer with a passion for sustainability, specialising in embodied carbon. On projects I act as both an engineer and LCA consultant, engaging the core design team in identifying effective and practical ways of minimising embodied carbon. My aim is to unlock the desire and the potential of architects and engineers to minimise carbon emissions, who may not have previously acquired the knowledge to do so themselves, is a joy.

Within Arup, alongside my project work, I coordinate a UK initiative to increase knowledge and awareness of embodied carbon that links into an Arup global structural sustainability hub. Our mission is to disseminate knowledge, provide ad-hoc advice, develop tools and contribute to Arup’s research and learning programmes. Arup’s sustainability consultants also aid design teams in addressing the SDGs on each project and have devised an action plan to address the ‘Construction Declares’ commitments Arup has made.

Outside Arup, I am an active member of both the IStructE’s Sustainability Panel and the new Climate Emergency Task Group (CETG), formed in 2019. Currently my role is co-authoring an embodied carbon calculation guide, to be published this summer. Although this calculation is simple in principle, it is not consistently calculated and transparently reported across the profession, which this guide aims to address. Additionally, I am in talks with RICS on developing the RICS Embodied Carbon Database to make it fit for industry-wide sharing of project embodied carbon data.

When I started working in the built environment sector, being a sustainability-focused structural engineer seemed niche, with just a handful of extremely passionate and dedicated individuals pushing the agenda; it was up to sustainability consultants to address sustainability. It is exciting that this perception is changing. The industry has waked up to the fact that minimizing environmental impacts must be a core engineering skill.

Moazamah Rubab

Former Undergraduate Research Assistant for the Carbon Leadership Forum
2020 Bachelor of Arts in Architectural Design, University of Washington, Seattle

Moazamah RubabI was born in Karachi, Pakistan, a city known for its beautiful ancient buildings. Being brought up in a poorly designed apartment made me realize the value of spatial organization at an early age. Prior to attending the University of Washington, I was unsure of my decision to pursue a career in the building industry. My decision was solely based on my personal interaction with architecture, and my constant curiosity about the thought processes behind designs. It did not take me long to realize that this path is right for me. I fell in love with the early lessons I learned in architecture school, and they became a strong foundation for how I think and work today. Architecture exposed me to exciting new areas, including the world of sustainable development.

The environmental impact of the built environment is staggering. The building industry is responsible for nearly 40% of global carbon emissions. It is time for us to acknowledge this huge contribution towards climate change and move to fully decarbonize our industry. This movement requires serious structural changes to redress centuries of systemic racism. The transition will have to focus on community and economic development for marginalized populations to create jobs and opportunity. Both climate change and systemic racism disproportionately affect people of color. Decarbonization will not only help us fight climate change but will also aid in economic growth, equity, and cost-efficiency. The building industry has a huge responsibility to tackle carbon emissions and to also standardize carbon assessments as an essential  component of social and ethical design practice.

As a future architect/designer, I am accountable not only for improving my carbon literacy but also for making communities more livable. I look forward to contributing to sustainability in design and construction decisions. Additionally, I intend to continue being part of the Carbon Leadership Forum as a volunteer research assistant, both to help spread awareness and to continue broadening my understanding of sustainable development.

Duncan Cox

Senior Associate, Thornton Tomasetti

Duncan CoxI am fast approaching a decade of work related to embodied carbon that from a personal level has been both rewarding and frustrating. My involvement has skipped around a bit between Thornton Tomasetti company initiatives and wider collaborations across the industry with different streams of academia and different peer groups, and there has certainly been a learning curve. Frustration for me has stemmed from what feels like a lack of progress. But then I look back and think with gratitude about my involvement with the CLF, from the Embodied Carbon Benchmark Study to the LCA Practice Guide and the fledgling meetings for the SE2050 challenge.

There has been progress at Thornton Tomasetti too, starting with a data collection initiative — which we started back in 2011 with just a couple of people involved — that has developed into a database of embodied carbon on 600 odd projects and a 100-strong internal embodied carbon community all tackling different workstreams and developments. I’ve also been involved in the development of a whole host of embodied carbon calc tools, such as the opensource tool Beacon.  We developed this as a simple tool to help any structural engineering firm run embodied carbon calcs where they would not necessarily have the budget or time to develop their own in house tools. And more recently I was a working group lead on LETI’s Embodied Carbon Primer and continue to lead the specification and procurement work stream for 2020 as well as act as a link between the IStructE and LETI so that we are not duplicating but supporting.

So looking back there has been quite a bit of progress. But in this last year there has been huge momentum in the world of embodied carbon across the globe. It absolutely imperative that we harness that momentum and continue our journey toward a zero carbon future. Now is not the time to just set targets for 2040 or 2050 and then see if we hit them when the time comes. Now is the time to continually to engage with and push our industry in the direction of zero carbon. The main thing I have learnt over the last decade in the embodied carbon world is how important and rewarding it is to work collaboratively and openly with both colleagues and wider industry peers. I’ve been lucky enough to have met and worked with some really smart people over the years who all have the same ambition to achieve change in our industry — more than any personal or professional goals. And it is this mindset that we need for a successful future; to work openly and collaboratively towards that common goal.