First tool to measure embodied carbon in structural design

The often-misunderstood world of embodied carbon is about to be made visible with a new embodied carbon tool for structures, which will be available to manufacturers next week. The tool, from Sydney design firm Fitzpatrick + Partners, was developed to help analyze multiple structural solution options early in the design of projects.

Structures are the largest area of ​​embodied carbon in buildings, and also the most misunderstood when it comes to carbon valuation.

Architect Paul Reidy, who has a keen interest in sustainability and sits on the steering committee of the NSW Architects Declare movement and its policy working group, was looking for ways to rapidly increase knowledge about embodied carbon in materials – an uncommon subject. understood.

Embodied carbon is the emissions footprint that comes from extracting, transporting and manufacturing building materials, resulting in greenhouse gas emissions at every step.

Construction operations are responsible for 27% of annual global emissions, while embodied carbon is responsible for another 20% – and much of this is structural elements.

Although embodied energy and embodied carbon footprint data for materials were available, the problem was that it was not easy for designers to capture their data and manipulate the results to reflect changes in product choice. materials during the design phase and see changes in carbon estimates in real time.

The new app allows designers to access embodied carbon estimates in one easy-to-use place – and make more informed decisions about what materials to use to reduce the building’s embodied carbon footprint.

“The tool allows us to take information from a number of databases – the University of Melbourne’s EPiC database, the Carbon and Energy Inventory database ( ICE) from the UK and The Footprint Company’s GreenBook,” Reidy said. The fifth state.

Each database provides the user with a carbon intensity number based on the data input (telling the program what each component in the 3D model is made from what material).

“It’s the first fast and easy-to-use web portal. Perfection can sometimes be the enemy of good enough, especially early in the design phase. Reidy’s team wanted an app that would provide answers that would nudge designers in the right direction instead of being absolutely definitive.

“It will allow us to understand what is in our building at a specific level, so that we can make changes in the design phase on the supply side, to put us on the path to the lowest grade. carbon from which we can build a structure.”

This will allow us to understand what is in our building at a specific level, so that we can make changes in the design phase on the supply side, to put us on the path to lower carbon content. carbon from which we can build a structure.

The tool is not designed as a life cycle analysis tool, but rather as a design phase testing tool. The 3D computer-aided design (CAD) tool also visually shows which structural components change material, so designers can see the aesthetic impact of the decision.

“The data has always been there – but this makes it possible to interrogate the data visually, quickly and more often.”

The Fitzpatrick + Partners team tested the tool during the design phase of their Macquarie Park development project in Waterloo Road.

Where to go from here?

The Fitzpatrick + Partners team are using the tool in the design phase of their Macquarie Park development project and would like to see other designers using the tool as well. By making the tool freely available to the entire industry, Reidy hopes the knowledge base will be strengthened so that everyone who uses the tool can understand embodied carbon on a deeper level and create a benchmark over time. time.

As a signatory of Architects Declare, the company believes that the climate and biodiversity crisis will only be solved through “radical cooperation”.

It’s a bigger challenge than the contribution of a single person or company and we must work together to accelerate the change we all need.

“This is a bigger challenge than the contribution of a single person or company and we must work together to accelerate the change we all need.”

Currently the tool only measures structural embodied carbon, but the team would like to use user feedback to expand the application to include substructure and facade, interior finishes and fittings .

“The structure represents 65% of the [carbon] problem in a typical office building… We have built a tool which, although still in its infancy, is a powerful example for illuminating dark corners, asking more questions than it brings answers and develop an inquisitive design mind to seek better solutions.”

We have built a tool that, although still in its infancy, is a powerful example of illuminating dark corners, asking more questions than it answers, and developing a mind curious design to search for better solutions.

The big problem is that the three data sources – the EPiC database, the Carbon and Energy Inventory (ICE) database, and the GreenBook – all generate slightly different variations in embodied carbon estimates. .

In an exclusive first look inside the app for The fifth statetotal embodied carbon estimates from an example building design ranged from 3.7 million kilograms of carbon dioxide emissions in the ICE estimate to 14.1 kilograms of carbon dioxide emissions in the estimate from the EPiC database.

The reason, according to Reidy, is that estimates vary widely from supplier to supplier, depending on the manufacturing process, supply chain, whether or not clean energy is used in production and other aspects. This means that designers should view the tool more as a guide than a definitive assessment.

Web developer Jack Niel Dumanat, who developed the app, says, “It’s amazing how different the data is…everyone learns.”

An exclusive first look at the app…the big deal is that the three data sources – the EPiC database, the Carbon and Energy Inventory (ICE) database and the GreenBook – all generate slightly different variations of embodied carbon estimates.

Why is it so difficult to measure the embodied carbon of structures?

Reidy says that with embodied carbon, “there is no single source of truth. You can’t assume that since it’s in a dataset, it’s correct”.

“Each manufacturer has a different embodied carbon number. Things like transportation, distance, supply chain, aggregate supplier and power source all impact the final figure.

“Having had this tool and using it internally for months, it’s at a point where it’s asking more questions than it answers.

“We are all looking for definitive answers, but in the design phase, there really aren’t any. At the stage of choosing suppliers, we can say [the builder] what material we want, and it will reduce the number of embodied carbon.

“But we can’t make those decisions at the design stage, we can only make decisions during the tender.”

At this point in the industry, a tool like this is an educational tool. But while the data lacks detail, it also underscores the need for a more comprehensive understanding of embodied carbon in materials and greater transparency in reporting at all stages of the supply chain.

And that’s a really important first step – one that the industry was sorely lacking.

The data underscores the need for a more comprehensive understanding of embodied carbon in materials and greater transparency in reporting at all stages of the supply chain. This is a really important first step – one that the industry was sorely lacking.

The need for this tool seems so obvious, so why hasn’t anyone done it before?

Many existing tools focus on operational carbon, but this is the first tool to address embodied carbon.

“No code in Australia has thought about embodied carbon. Only Green Star, in its recent version, has used the term ’embodied carbon’ – but only in the last 6 months have they thought about that,” Reidy says.

“Everyone has been focused on the working carbon part forever. Embodied carbon is just getting started. NABERS is developing a tool that will be released in the next 12-18 months. But the tool doesn’t exist yet. The CCN doesn’t even mention embodied carbon, only operational carbon.”

The tool will be made available to industry professionals starting next week.

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