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Embodied Carbon is the New Energy Efficiency for Sustainable Buildings

With growing demand for sustainable building materials, energy efficient buildings and overall green building, it might be time to rethink, or evolve, how we measure the sustainability of a building.

Traditionally, the leading measure has been energy use. It’s rather obvious that the most capital- and carbon-efficient way to make a building more sustainable is to not knock it down and start over.

So, logically, the next best thing is to work within its design parameters and do one of two things, or (ideally) both. First, reduce the overall energy needed for the building though any number of strategies, such as energy-efficient HVAC systems and machinery; through the installation of double-pane windows and insulation; the use of intelligent lighting systems; and many other innovative, energy-saving techniques. Second, reduce the carbon emissions profile of the energy source that powers the building by shifting power from fossil to renewable resources. If not possible to do so directly (i.e. through solar panel installations), then purchasing “green” power through the utility.

It’s easiest to think of these strategies as ways to reduce the “operational” emissions of the built environment. But there’s an emerging new mechanism, and its especially important for new construction. It’s called “embodied carbon.” Embodied carbon represents the impact of the building material itself on the environment. That is to say, how much carbon was emitted in the process of producing the concrete, steel, glass and other components of a building?

It’s important to be able to calculate and continually reduce embodied carbon given the significant growth expected around the world. Because even a building powered by 100 percent renewable energy still has embodied carbon. The question is, how do we reduce it?

We’re well underway with these efforts in the concrete business. The global concrete industry contributes almost 10 percent of all global CO2 emissions, and at an estimated “New York City” amount of concrete produced each month, the need – and the opportunity – to make a meaningful reduction in embodied carbon is massive.

Photo by Justin Eisner on Unsplash

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