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Three Ideas to Support Decarbonizing the Built Environment

How are your construction teams contributing to your green building needs?

At the beginning of April, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its latest report, Mitigation of Climate Change. With it came a warning. “Without immediate and deep emissions reductions across all sectors, limiting global warming to 1.5°C is beyond reach.”

As of 2018, the built environment is responsible for 40% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. The embodied carbon in building and construction materials makes up 11% of the total. Pair that statistic with the fact that the IPCC says humans have to meet net zero emissions no later than 2050 to keep global warming under 1.5°C, and it’s clear that the construction industry has a lot to think about.

So, how do we decarbonize the built environment? Reducing embodied carbon during construction is an essential way to help accomplish this goal. And it starts with asking some key questions.

Building materials matter

IMAGE CREDIT: James John Jetel

01. How are your suppliers considering embodied carbon in the materials they use?

First, a quick refresher. Embodied carbon consists of the GHG emissions associated with construction, including extracting, transporting, manufacturing, and installing building materials on-site. It also includes the operational and end-of-life emissions associated with those materials.

One way construction suppliers assess the embodied carbon of their materials is through Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs). EPDs provide the transparency needed to better understand the environmental impacts of products that become part of the built environment. They objectively communicate the resources used and waste produced during the life cycle of a given material. This helps illustrate how they affect the environment across their entire life span. As a result, EPDs with verified third-party data can earn credits for LEED and other green building rating systems. There are other measurement tools as well including the Embodied Carbon in Construction Calculator (EC3) and Tally. Both seek to provide better insight into the environmental impacts of materials used on construction projects.

In addition to measuring tools, suppliers have options when it comes to the materials they use. They can select materials containing high recycled content to reduce the energy demand associated with virgin raw materials. As the carbon to extract and process these materials has already been spent, there’s less pollution generated. Suppliers can also choose bio-based content or content derived from living matter, which lowers the carbon footprint of products by keeping previously absorbed carbon from re-entering the atmosphere.

02. Are your suppliers reducing their operational GHG emissions?

The first step your suppliers and partners can take to reduce the emissions associated with their operations is to use energy more efficiently. Powering operations with renewable energy is one way to reduce emissions from energy consumption and reduce the overall carbon footprint, but it isn’t always possible.

This is when tools such as renewable energy credits (RECs) come into play. RECs can be procured by an organization to guarantee that their electricity has been generated from a renewable source such as solar, wind, or hydroelectric.

As an example, DIRTT’s U.S. plants are powered by 100% renewable energy through the purchase of Green-e® certified RECs. By supplementing with renewable energy, organizations are able to avoid traditional energy sources, including fossil fuels, that primarily power the local grid. When suppliers use RECs, they can reduce their operational carbon footprints and support renewable energy initiatives. These efforts are reflected in the measurements of Life Cycle Assessments and EPDs, which in turn help clients meet their goals for sourcing sustainable materials.

DIRTT MDF contains recycled content

Consider the power source

03. Are you reusing an existing building and salvaging materials?

Reusing existing buildings and materials gives embodied carbon a longer, useful life. It also limits new emissions. Since it’s predicted that approximately 80% of the buildings that will be around in 2050 already exist today , retrofitting is an important consideration.

Many organizations are now considering the extended life of their spaces. Choosing construction solutions that can be reconfigured over the life of a building means managing embodied carbon more efficiently and reducing the overall output of new emissions. The DIRTT construction system is an example of this, using the principals of design for disassembly (DfD). When building interiors are designed with the future in mind, spaces remain agile, continuing to serve the people that use them, and supporting decarbonization.

IMAGE CREDIT: Mason Fischer

IMAGE CREDIT: Scott Amundson Photography

Existing buildings to reduce raw material use

IMAGE CREDIT: Sally Painter

Old building, new space

IMAGE CREDIT: Nik Weikert/Pilot Studio

Looking ahead

With an increased focus on reducing carbon in the built environment, change is inevitable. More companies will be setting net-zero goals. Governments will increase regulations. Green building standards will continue to evolve. Knowing how your suppliers and construction teams contribute to your green building needs is a vital part of building for tomorrow.

Resources and Further Reading

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: Climate Change 2022: Mitigation of Climate Change

Architecture 2030:  Why the Built Environment?

McKinsey & Company: Data to the Rescue: Embodied Carbon in Buildings and the Urgency of Now

McKinsey & Company: Call for Action: Seizing the Decarbonization Opportunity in Construction

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