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September 29, 2016

Still much to learn about the carbon story of buildings

  • The importance of carbon reduction is known in the building industry, but few designers and contractors have access to enough carbon data to feel empowered to address it during design and construction.
    Skanska USA


    We know that buildings are one of the biggest contributors to carbon emissions.

    Thanks to efforts like the 2030 Challenge by Architecture 2030 and great leaps in terms of understanding energy consumption and a movement toward net zero energy, operational carbon is something most of us can wrap our heads around, and at least see a path to net zero energy. However, most of us would also agree that it’s not happening fast enough and there’s still plenty to learn about the larger carbon story of buildings — specifically, in terms of what they are made of and how they are constructed.

    A few recent experiences regarding carbon emissions associated with buildings has made it increasingly clear that we don’t know what we don’t know. Even on the operational carbon side of the story, despite the headway we’ve already made, there is still a lot of work to be done.

    How far we’ve come

    The tools and knowledge are now in place to implement strategies during design that reduce the energy footprints of our buildings. The ability to actively track a building’s energy footprint during operation also exists. However, we do not have enough designers that are empowered to truly integrate energy modeling into a standard integrated design and decision making process, and there are not enough building owners using available reporting tools to vet the results.

    We need critical mass

    At the September 2016 Design Futures Council Leadership Summit for Sustainable Design, held in Seattle, this was a hot topic.

    In a room full of building design and engineering principals, the question was still “How do we actively implement whole building energy modeling into the design process, on every project?”

    There is now data that links projects that have used these modeling tools with actual proven energy reductions during operation, which turns into cost savings to owners over the lives of their buildings. Similarly, through recent conversations with professionals that have developed building operations reporting platforms, there are now vetted examples of how a building’s operational efficiency can be tracked, shared graphically and optimized. This allows owners to demonstrate their buildings’ efficiencies and even improve upon them.

    For operational carbon, it’s not a question of how do we design and track for reduced energy consumption, it’s a call to action to share successes and make it the industry standard.

    On the embodied carbon side, there’s even more work to do.

    Some designers and contractors have started to try to quantify it because they are beginning to realize the impact of the materials used to construct their buildings. For example, Skanska has partnered with the University of Washington, Architecture 2030 and Siegel & Strain Architects to fund research in partnership with the Pankow Foundation, for gathering data on all buildings that have tracked their embodied carbon. The idea is to understand relative benchmarks as a starting point, then provide a playbook of strategies and tools to reduce embodied carbon across all building types.

    But again, few designers and contractors have access to enough embodied carbon data to feel empowered to address it during design and construction. Additionally, very few owners are currently compelled to work to reduce embodied carbon.

    It will only be through collecting the data that exists and creating acceptable benchmarks, sharing it and then demonstrating through early adopters how a building’s embodied carbon can be reduced in an impactful and fiscally positive way that we will begin to catch up with the operational carbon side of the coin.

    We need both sides working in concert to successfully move toward reducing a building’s carbon emissions to zero.

    Action is needed

    Even when we have all of the data and tools necessary to understand and reduce carbon emissions in our buildings, there will still be hurdles for it to become the standard operating procedure in the building industry.

    Unless there is a measurable accountability for a building’s carbon emissions, the necessary engagement in operational efficiency, and a more concerted industry effort, the type of carbon reductions necessary in the building industry to combat climate change won’t happen.

    It’s time for building designers, contractors and owners to put on our advocacy hats and educate ourselves on the regulations and incentives in use or in development. It is necessary for the building industry to track and reduce carbon responsibly and in a way that does not limit our ability to continue to build infrastructure and the buildings we all need to live, work, learn, heal and play in.

    What we’re doing

    Skanska is a founding member of the Washington Businesses for Climate Action (WBCA) along with organizations including Virginia Mason, REI and Starbucks. The purpose of the WBCA is to bring together leading Washington businesses across industries and create a forum for understanding proposed climate action legislation. It’s also a place for industries to voice their concerns and preferred outcomes around existing climate action proposals, and a platform for businesses to come together to advocate for responsible climate action policies.

    Carbon reduction is on the forefront of proposed policies and legislation, including Initiative 732 that is on the November ballot, as well as a host of proposals coming from the governor’s office, legislators and other climate action groups.

    If those of us in the building industry don’t educate ourselves on what is coming and proactively have a voice in impacting proposed carbon reduction strategies, we will simply have to take what comes and react versus work to ensure our industry and our environment benefit.

    Now is the time

    Whether it’s an understanding and tracking of operational efficiency, a baseline understanding of embodied carbon in buildings, or an education on climate action policy and its impact on the building industry, we really don’t know what we don’t know, and we don’t track what we don’t have to. Now is the time to learn and act.

    Stacy Smedley is sustainability director at Skanska USA, providing strategic guidance for local and national projects. Smedley came from KMD Architects, where she was project manager for the Bertschi School Living Science Building.

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