Importance of Reducing Embodied Impacts


operational_embodied

I’ve just come across this 2014 image from the Construction2030 website, which considers the energy footprint of all the office space globally expected to be built between 2015 and 2030 – 83 billion m², both embodied (from the materials used in their construction in each year from 2015 to 2030, and operational, from their heating, cooling and lighting from construction through to 2030.

Construction 2030 estimate that a building will “break even”, with operational energy matching embodied energy, after 15 years.  As you can see, this assumption means that for the offices built in the 15 years to 2030, the embodied energy consumed until 2030 is almost 3 times the operational energy consumption.

As Climate Change, one the most significant impacts associated with energy consumption needs to be tackled sooner rather than later, it is clear why a focus on embodied impacts could be beneficial.

Firstly, we have already focussed on reducing operational impacts and many of the big gains are already forced on buildings through regulation, whereas many design teams focussing on embodied impacts are able to obtain significant savings (greater than 20%) with little or no additional cost (for example, see my earlier blog, https://constructionlca.wordpress.com/2014/05/02/reducing-embodied-carbon-how-easy-can-it-be/).

Looking at the graph above, it seems clear that a 20% saving in embodied energy across all office buildings globally would generate 3 times the energy savings and resulting impacts than a 20% reduction in operational energy across all new global office buildings could achieve in the next 15 years.

I am therefore really pleased that with thinkstep, we are helping support EDGE, the World Bank IFC’s sustainable building assessment tool aiming to reduce not just  operational and water impacts but also embodied impacts of new buildings in emerging economies, by over 20%.

I compare this with Bloomberg’s new Headquarters in London, which they claim is the most sustainable office building, with a BREEAM score of 98.5.  This is whilst it appears to have a much higher materials consumption per employee in comparison to a normal office building: (15m3 concrete, 400kg aluminium, 3.8 t steel, 150kg bronze, 250m fibre optics, 0.75m3 sandstone and 125 LED lights per employee (source 1, source 2 )), which Dr Qian Li estimates will result in 18 tonnes of embodied CO2 per employee, higher than normal, and which Simon Sturgis claims is  “a huge /m2 construction carbon footprint which puts it way down the league“.

Until BREEAM and LEED really start to focus on sustainable building certification meaning in significant reductions in embodied impact, it seems unlikely that we will achieve much in the new build construction sector to reduce global impacts.

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About constructionlca

Co-author Green Guide to Specification, expert in Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), EPDs and sustainability for the construction materials sector Researching Building LCA and how we can increase uptake at the Open University. Tweets as @constructionlca
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4 Responses to Importance of Reducing Embodied Impacts

  1. Dave Cheshire says:

    Interesting, but the eye-catching graph is based on a lot of assumptions and if we really can reduce operational emissions to the levels that we are predicting, then I’ll be really impressed. Also, it’s not clear whether the embodied carbon figures consider the impact of a decarbonised grid?
    Thanks

    • I don’t think the graph takes changes in the grid or improvements in efficiency into account. I would expect these to reduce the impact of operation even further over time.

      • Dave Cheshire says:

        Yes, and presumably cu corresponding reductions in embodied carbon as the things we make use less carbon to manufacture and construct? Though depends on world markets…

  2. In the UK at least, the decarbonisation of electricity is predicted/hoped to be much greater than the decarbonisation of industry, so I would expect that again, given electricity is the major source of operational emissions for commercial buildings, over time, embodied impacts will only get more important relative to operational impacts (as shown in https://www.theccc.org.uk/publication/2017-report-to-parliament-meeting-carbon-budgets-closing-the-policy-gap/).

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