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Driving sustainable outcomes

across the AEC industry

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How architects, engineers and the construction sector can create new business opportunities through sustainability.

A large part of today’s sustainability agenda centers on achieving ‘net zero’ to minimize the impacts of climate change. We reach net zero when human-caused greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are reduced as much as possible, with those that remain being balanced out by the removal of greenhouse gas emissions from the atmosphere.

Chapter 1

Going Beyond Net Zero

Any built structure has carbon emissions associated with it, in both the building materials used— ‘embodied carbon’—and when the building is in daily use—‘operational carbon.’

Operational carbon comes from heating, cooling, and lighting the building, and anything else that draws power. Embodied carbon is the sum total of emissions, including those in the supply chain, from extracting resources, refining them, manufacturing, and logistics. Embodied carbon can account for up to 70% of a building’s lifetime carbon emissions, more than half of which can happen before it is even occupied. An office for 750 people could contribute 10,000 tonnes of embodied carbon, about the same as driving 30 million miles in a car.

Over the last two decades, the industry has made great strides in understanding, managing, and addressing emissions associated with building operations. Total carbon management (TCM) is a reliable methodology to measure and minimize the sum of a building’s operational and embodied carbon. It is even possible to talk about going beyond net zero to create buildings that remove more GHGs than they produce over their lifetime. (see Renewable energy and carbon sequestering, below).

However, this is still a relatively new direction in AEC. Talking to research group Frost and Sullivan, Mattias Goldmann, formerly Head of Sustainability at Sweco Sweden, noted that the industry still has a long way to go on this path: “Regarding key construction materials, we don’t have exact calculations of what’s needed and so the easiest thing is to just add more reinforcement until everybody feels safe. That’s incredible amounts of material just going to waste because we don’t calculate well enough.” 

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