3 Ways Architects Can Influence Carbon Emissions in Construction

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Carbon dioxide molecules are a necessary constituent of Earth’s atmosphere and can originate from decomposition, respiration and ocean releases by the oxygen breathing creatures that inhabit it. It’s when the levels get out of proportion that has scientists concerned.

In our built world for instance, every building also emits carbon dioxide. The two types of carbon emissions are:

  • Embodied – estimated at 80% (sometimes referred to as the “footprint” of a project), includes all the carbon dioxide emitted during production of building materials, from extraction and transportation of raw materials to the finished products and construction.
  • Operational – estimated at 20%, includes a building’s energy consumption while it’s in use.

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The sustainability movement promotes reducing carbon emissions from the construction industry. Following are three ways architects can reduce carbon emissions in construction:

COTE Top Ten Super Spreadsheet, AIA

Selective Design

Highlighted in an online article in Architect Magazine, Bill Caplan, Associate AIA, is an engineer and the author of “Buildings Are for People” and “Thwart Climate Change Now: Reducing Embodied Carbon Brick by Brick.” Caplan advocates for easy-to-use databases of thousands of commonly used products architects can specify that will reduce embodied carbon through selective building design. The example cited was the AIA Committee on the Environment (COTE) Top Ten Super Spreadsheet. Caplan explained that, since architects detail buildings, they are in a perfect position to choose low-carbon materials that align with a client’s chosen aesthetics. From a practical standpoint, any architect can start making a difference immediately by using selective design for the next project they work on.

Solar roof tiles; image: Solar-XChange.org

New Materials

Three principles of architecture are strength, utility and beauty. Utility includes the role of a building as a shelter, as well as its function, with efficiency playing a big part in a futuristic formula. Some of the sustainable building materials being used and perfected are monocrystalline solar panels, smart glass windows, insulating composite roof shingles, solar roof tiles, and high efficiency heat pumps.

Hybrid wood-concrete floor slab systems are being created for lighter building components that use less raw material and decrease carbon emissions. As widely reported, concrete has been the most ubiquitous material used for construction worldwide due to its strength, durability, low cost, ease of use, and the ability to be formed to most any desired shape. Many in the industry are keeping tabs on development of “green” versions of concrete that emit less carbon dioxide through capture and use. The research into sustainable components is the new frontier in construction materials.

Repurposed building, image: Autodesk Redshift

Adaptive Reuse

Reusing buildings is another way to reduce carbon emissions. Repurposing existing and obsolete structures for new uses is a sustainable practice that saves on construction materials (the 80%), labor and time.  

Just as recycling aluminum, glass and paper can save up to 95% of the energy needed to manufacture them new, decreasing carbon emissions by recycling buildings makes sense. There are many situations where a new building may not be required, so repurposing buildings is something to be considered.

In addition, existing buildings can be retrofitted to be more operationally efficient (the 20%). Energy performance can be upgraded, and energy demand can often be decreased.

Whether through selective design, use of new materials or adaptive reuse, architects, engineers and the construction industry as a whole have an opportunity to influence carbon dioxide emissions for more preferable levels in the future.


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