If Your Walls Could Talk—They’d Share Solutions For Reducing Carbon Emissions

In honor of Zero Emissions Day, see four ways the built environment can reduce its embodied carbon output.

carbon emissions
Embodied carbon emissions can be reduced significantly during renovations by, for example, choosing responsibly sourced and manufactured ceiling and wall solutions. (Photo: Armstrong World Industries)

By Helen Sahi

Carbon emissions. Typically, these two words evoke similar imagery of the challenge in front of us as a nation, and as a planet. We envision industrial stacks spewing black smoke. Bumper-to-bumper traffic creating a dark cloud of tailpipe emissions. Cityscapes defined by permanent smog. In other words, the go-to idea of carbon emissions is what we can see on the outside, entering the global atmosphere. However, for operators and managers to contribute more fully toward a healthier, fully sustainable planet they must also take a look at the inside of their facilities.

There are many unseen sources of carbon emissions playing a role in our daily lives. Embodied carbon is generated, for example, by building and construction materials throughout their life cycles—from manufacturing and transport to use and end of life. Thanks to science, compared to even a few years ago we now have a deeper understanding of all the influences on global warming. These insights offer facility operators and managers an excellent opportunity to look at our new climate reality, then connect the dots between the outside and the inside. Moreover, as science and technology progress on the path to bringing about critical environmental change, they present bigger and better solutions for facilities needing to create attractive, healthy and productive work, recreational, and business spaces that do not negatively impact global climate goals.

Today’s built environment needs heavier focus on new ways to responsibly build and construct the places in which we live, work, learn, heal, and play. Steel, lumber, and most other construction materials are often a significant source of embodied carbon, which factors in emissions from the manufacturing, transportation, installation, maintenance, and disposal of these materials. Although they may be “hidden” within our structures and not emitted from our smokestacks and vehicles, embodied carbon still contributes significantly to our carbon debt.

Finding Solutions from Within

We’re probably all familiar with the phrase, “if these walls could talk.” In essence, the walls—as well as the roof, ceilings, floors, and everything in between—of a facility can reveal quite a bit when it comes to embodied carbon. The first step in embracing a facility empowered for positive environmental change is to assess the specific impacts of building materials and holistically approach the entire value chain in the built environment. There are three key components of this assessment.

First, you want to assess the carbon impact of building materials. One of the most meaningful ways is via a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), which provides insight into the impact of products across their lifespan. Materials can then be optimized to mitigate the impact of embodied carbon by improving raw material sourcing, energy and water use, and recycling streams.

The next step in assessment should be the use of an Environmental Product Declaration (EPD). After completing an LCA, the EPD will allow architects, consumers, and other stakeholders to compare the environmental impacts of different materials. This transparent communication enables procurement and purchasing functions to make the most sustainable decision for a project.

And last but not least, you should leverage emerging resources available to support your efforts. Industry groups are developing enhanced tools to help materials manufacturers, builders, and designers understand how to best assess the impacts of embodied carbon. For example, the Carbon Leadership Forum (CLF) has developed the Embodied Carbon Calculator for Construction (EC3) to facilitate easy comparison of embodied carbon emissions from construction materials and products. Ask your contractors if they use such tools and if they will share data to enhance your assessment process.

Four Top Ways to Reduce Embodied Carbon

The best approach to addressing embodied carbon is a holistic one. This means considering the construction or operational emissions of a building as well as allowing for a critical assessment of the emissions of the whole value chain. This includes the manufacturing process as well as the resources and energy it takes to maintain the structure over its life. It also includes the disposal or recycling of materials when the building is demolished. Consider these key actions you can take to reduce embodied carbon.

  1. Start at the planning stage—where embodied carbon can be reduced significantly. The best way to reduce embodied carbon is to reuse existing structures instead of constructing new ones. Architects and designers for your building should ask themselves, “Can we repurpose an existing structure instead of building a new one?” If they don’t, then you should guide them to do so. This alone can save up to 75% in embodied carbon emissions.
  2. Be sure to include building renovations. Upgrades, remodeling, and renovations can also be a significant contributor to embodied carbon emissions. The interior may go through multiple renovations over the lifetime of the building. These cyclical renovations can, over time, contribute more to the embodied carbon emissions of a building than the actual construction process. For example, ceilings and ceiling tiles take up a large portion of a building’s interior space. Replacing them can result in significant embodied carbon emissions.
  3. Choose low-carbon interior finishes and limit carbon-intensive materials in new building or renovation projects. Materials like wood and bamboo, which can sequester carbon over their life cycle, are responsible choices for ceilings, etc.
  4. Reclaim and reuse. Reusing or salvaging items such as wooden beams, bricks, and metals also reduces the energy spent on manufacturing and transporting new products.

Today, every building, business, infrastructure project and pursuit comprising the built environment is given a role, and a responsibility, in bringing about critical change. A shift in thinking that takes an all-inclusive approach to assessing the climate impact of the built environment will help repay the carbon debt we’ve created. By strategizing to minimize emissions inside and outside, your facility will be helping to create entire cities and communities that are more sustainable and healthier for life, work, and recreation.

Sahi is the Vice President of Sustainability at Armstrong World Industries, Inc., a leader in the design and manufacture of innovative commercial and residential ceiling, wall, and suspension system solutions in the Americas. She spearheaded the development of sustainability programs that allow Armstrong to cultivate thriving environments, meet demands for healthier circular products, and preserve and protect our planet’s resources. Sahi is a global thought leader in sustainability and strategy with over 30 years of experience leading the technical, operational, and strategic aspects of sustainability policy for Fortune 500 businesses.

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