What are you and your company doing to help reduce embodied carbon emissions?
Computational Community Leader, Buro Happold
From a very early age, I loved solving puzzles. By two years old I had amassed a puzzle collection large enough to tote around in a suitcase. In fact, my parents allowed me to board an airplane with that suitcase once were my most precious and necessary accessories for a family vacation in Florida. My erudite appetite naturally led to a career in engineering — solving puzzles on a grand scale, designing and coordinating MEP systems for supertall buildings in New York City. Early in my career, I found that solving puzzles within AEC was made much easier while wielding and shaping computational tools: pushing Revit to its maximum capability, utilizing visual programming for the tasks that Revit was not commercially suited to provide, and writing code for solutions that visual programming did not yet provide out of the box.
During my 8 years with Buro Happold I discovered something very important: you can pursue technological innovation to your heart’s content, but if you’re not bringing others along the way, what’s the point? My role as the Computational Community Leader for Buro Happold has been just that, tackling problems for a collective rather than for an individual or a single project.
In 2018 my team was approached by a colleague to take on a new kind of problem: climate crisis. My first question (naturally) was “what data are you working with?” This was my first foray into understanding the data structure behind Environmental Product Declarations, which are consistently structured, metric documents describing the environmental impacts of manufactured products over their lifetime. Much to my colleague’s delight, we were able to integrate EPDs into our computational framework in the same way that we had integrated steel section sizes, occupancy guidelines and lighting power densities: by understanding their underlying objects and how to apply their associated data. By exploiting the power of computation, we have been able to slowly chip away at making better, more climate conscious choices in our building designs.
Computation has also allowed us to assess less-developed areas of environmental impact in building design: MEP systems. With my background in mechanical engineering, I was drawn to understanding the impacts of the systems that I was most familiar with: ducts, pipes, cable tray, equipment. Thankfully, due to the nature of being part of a transdisciplinary practice, I have been able to work with a great group of individuals performing shoebox studies on the effects of material selection, routing optimization, system selection and system lifespans. I have also had the great fortune of being part of the MEP2040 steering committee—a collective effort to specifically target the environmental impacts of MEP systems. The wicked problem of climate change has been the most challenging puzzle of my life—and I look forward to getting out of bed each morning to tackle it, one piece at a time.
“From a very early age, I loved solving puzzles. By two years old I had amassed a puzzle collection large enough to tote around in a suitcase. In fact, my parents allowed me to board an airplane with that suitcase once- they were my most precious and necessary accessories for a family vacation in Florida.”
What are you and your company doing to help reduce embodied carbon emissions?
Senior Project Manager, Energy Solutions
I count myself as lucky for having had a variety of opportunities throughout my youth to enjoy the outdoors through camping, visits to national parks, and other outdoor activities. I grew up taking for granted that I had easy access to nature and all its benefits. The older I got, the more I realized that climate change was threatening access to nature for current and future generations. I was motivated to take action as I continued to see increasing negative climate change predictions coming to fruition with seemingly insufficient mobilization around climate action.
My career started at municipal utilities where I ran efficiency programs. Wanting to have a bigger impact and further my education, I went to graduate school (shout-out to fellow Brennies!) to deepen my understanding of environmental issues and to find viable solutions. In my current role at Energy Solutions, I search for large-scale impacts through my work in codes and standards – mostly through development and updates to building efficiency codes.
Energy Solutions is a mission-driven, clean energy implementation firm that focuses on market transformation to deliver large-scale environmental impacts for utility, government, and private sector clients. Our mission is to identify beneficial technologies, accelerate their adoption in the market, and then develop codes and standards that amplify and lock in those benefits. Having been first introduced to embodied carbon during my graduate school studies, I’ve been searching for opportunities to apply that knowledge into the work we complete at Energy Solutions.
This has been realized in our work in building codes. Currently, Energy Solutions is leading an effort to develop a package of measures on behalf of the California Statewide Utility Codes and Standards Team that aims to reduce embodied carbon through industrial efficiency in California’s building energy code. Wanting to abate embodied carbon more directly, we are also coordinating with California state agencies to understand how embodied carbon can be better addressed within other parts of California’s Building Standards Code, as well as examining opportunities directly with municipalities.
“Our mission is to identify beneficial technologies, accelerate their adoption in the market, and then develop codes and standards that amplify and lock in those benefits.”
What are you and your organization doing to help reduce embodied carbon emissions?
Lead Embodied Carbon Analyst and Application Developer at Builders for Climate Action
The perpetually renewable sources of my motivation are a love of nature, a fascination with the ingenious designs that have evolved over 3.5 billion years, and the privilege of being connected to the web of life. I was fortunate to have discovered what deeply inspires me in my early career – bio-based building materials, collective action, and ecological design. I have spent the better part of a decade collaborating internationally on building projects using mostly local, non-toxic, and low-impact biogenic building materials. These projects were designed from a sustainability lens, focused on net-zero energy, contained substantial amounts of carbon-storing materials, and often demanded innovative solutions.
To foster more inclusive work environments for marginalized builders, I founded two LGBTQ-owned sustainable building companies. Driven by the desire to realize the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, I returned to university to earn a B.Eng. in Building Engineering, a modern engineering discipline that combines mechanical, civil, electrical, and specialized fields of engineering to understand the design of all building systems. With the advent of emerging technologies and advancements in LCA, biology, and material science, I believe the time is ripe to rapidly transform the built environment into one of the world’s great carbon sinks.
Inspired by the Carbon Leadership Forum catalyzing collective efforts to reduce embodied carbon, I leaped at the opportunity to work with Chris Magwood at Builders for Climate Action (BfCA). A project of the Endeavour Centre, BfCA is a Canadian not-for-profit focusing on the embodied carbon impacts and opportunities in the low-rise residential sector. We undertake research, produce reports, provide education, and consult on carbon reduction strategies from individual projects to various levels of government policy.
This past fall, BfCA released the report Achieving Real Net Zero Emission Homes. A new report is soon to be released, concluding a year-long study I lead that analyzed the material carbon emissions of over 500 new homes in the GTHA, Canada’s largest urban metropolitan area. I also spearhead the development of the BEAM tool, a free carbon calculator for the low-rise residential sector, set to be released in early April 2022. We hope it will serve communities large and small in achieving climate-equilibrium for generations to come.
“I was fortunate to have discovered what deeply inspires me in my early career – bio-based building materials, collective action, and ecological design.”
What excites you most about what your organization is doing to help reduce embodied carbon emissions?
Executive Director of The Passive House Network (PHN),
I’ve been leading an effort that just launched the PHribbon for the US market. The PHribbon is a tool that allows Passive House designers to calculate the embodied carbon emissions of a given design within the Passive House (PHPP) energy model. With the PHribbon, operational energy use is converted to emissions, and embodied emissions are calculated and added. Passive House designers can now easily optimize integrated decisions for the most significant climate impact with embodied and operational results tallied in one interface.
It has been a journey. Back in 2009, as a practicing architect, I was freaking out over the climate crisis, and I stumbled upon Passive House. It hit me like a thunderbolt: a methodology that dramatically reduces carbon emissions and improves occupant health and comfort through a very energy-efficient integrated design. It provides a resilient, affordable, high-quality building. Passive House achieves this by focusing on the enclosure first and empowering the architecture. Buildings of all types, scales, and climates – both new build and retrofit – are possible.
So, I got to work on Passive House retrofits of 19th Century townhouses. Yet gaps in building knowledge and product supply existed in the US, making execution unnecessarily difficult. So, in 2011, I co-founded 475 High Performance Building Supply—with the mission to catalyze industry transformation by supplying essential high-performance products and knowledge resources across the US and Canada. It was then easy to see the intersections emerge with toxicity and embodied carbon concerns.
In 2019, I discovered Extinction Rebellion, a group that understands that runaway global warming is just a tipping point or two away if we don’t shut down business-as-usual. Participating in nonviolent mass civil disobedience, I was arrested twice in 2019, and I look forward to doing it again. While recognizing my privilege, I recommend it.
Today, at PHN, we provide core Certified Passive House Designer training that changes your vocabulary and your conversations. Passive House training changes how you look at buildings and what you expect from buildings. It changes our building culture. And nothing less is required.
To support this culture change, I’ve also found it rewarding to volunteer with the US Architects Declare carbon working group – bringing together the priorities of embodied and operational building emissions.
It’s easy to see building embodied and operational carbon emissions as a tag-team climate-demolition crew. We can master both. We see the PHribbon as a simple and accessible way to make that happen. We can’t afford to leave any carbon on the table.
“Back in 2009, as a practicing architect, I was freaking out over the climate crisis, and I stumbled upon Passive House. It hit me like a thunderbolt: a methodology that dramatically reduces carbon emissions and improves occupant health and comfort through a very energy-efficient integrated design.”