A new frontier in the making of a post-carbon future

The future we face is a challenging one and so deserves a brief recap to set the stage. As the density of carbon in our atmosphere increases, the planet warms. Far from being a simple change in temperature, the knock-on effects are legion and becoming more apparent every year. Fires, floods, droughts, and extreme temperature swings are becoming the norm and these changes appear to be evolving in both intensity and duration. It’s interesting to note that Bill McKibben’s book “Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet” has now eleven years old, and much of its thesis is coming to pass. The fundamental orientation the book offers is this:  stop thinking of the earth as we have known it, start thinking of it as a new world that we must find a way of making a living on. What is inspiring about this mindset is that it avoids the two mental traps that discussions of climate change tend to create. When bringing up the subject most people either default to business-as-usual denial or apocalyptic fatalism. Neither are helpful and both are delusional and utterly passive. What we have here is an opportunity, a frontier!

There are many ways in which this frontier is being explored. For the past decade or so in the architecture profession, we have been focusing on creating buildings that reduce energy consumption and by proxy carbon. Specifically, we have been focusing on operational energy/carbon. This means reducing the energy it takes to provide for human comfort and occupation, think lights, power, heating and cooling. Many great strides have been made supported by both the building industry and regulatory bodies demanding better building performance. But this is only part of the picture when it comes to reducing energy and carbon in buildings.

Recently there has been an increased awareness and focus on embodied energy/carbon. This means the energy used and carbon emitted by the construction and maintenance of buildings. It means looking deeply into how building products are made, where raw materials are sourced from, how they are processed, how far they must travel to the site, etc. Interestingly, this also creates a higher value in buildings that have already been made as their embodied carbon is already mostly emitted. In the timeframe we have left to make a measurable dent global warming, a focus on embodied carbon is essential for the building industry. If there are three key issues poised to change the way we build in the 21st century, this is number one.

There are two aspects in much need of attention, the creation of new suites of building materials and development of new, robust and rapid means of measuring embodied carbon.

Taken as a whole, most current systems of construction are very carbon intensive. Awareness of this has been changing in the last few years with an emphasis on recycling materials. While currently structural steel is about 98% recycled content, the reforming process still ultimately emits a fair amount of carbon. There is great promise in mass timber construction but its cost and building codes still have not adapted yet to be widely used. These point in a positive direction but much more is needed, particularly with building enclosure systems. Most exterior wall systems have a fair amount of aluminum which carries a heavy carbon footprint, ditto petroleum based (but very cost effective) insulation. These systems in particular are ready for a disruptor in their industry.

The embodied carbon measurement methodology has been in discussion for years. A mantra in management circles is “ you can’t manage what you can’t measure”. The Carbon Leadership Forum, a non-profit based in Washington State has been developing a robust measurement methodology since 2009. In September of 2019, they released their EC3 (Embodied Carbon in Construction Calculator) tool which is a massive step forward and yet it is not the only measurement and reporting solution possible. My own company is funding a team to develop an internal commercial grade software, embedded in our design process,  to address embodied carbon.

One is reminded of the early days of the personal computers. As it turned out, IBM didn’t end up owning the marked and the name of the game changed from producing better hardware to producing better software. Likewise here, there is much room to develop different approaches to managing and representing the data regarding embodied carbon. These new approaches will be flexible to fit the working methodologies of their target clients be they architects looking for better insight into their design decisions or materials suppliers looking for a new breakthrough in their product lines. It may indeed move beyond selling software as a product to carbon tracking as a service.

The historian Walter Prescott Webb noted that there were three key technologies that enabled the settlement of the great plains of North America, the revolver pistol, the windmill water pump and industrially produced barbwire fence.  We now face a new, environmentally driven, wilderness where technology will play a key role for making a good life.  We in the building industry eagerly await the arrival of more building material systems and analytical tools that will enable our progress. We are ready to take on the challenges of the 21stcentury frontier.

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