Carbon Expert of the Month – March 2022
Principal at Priopta and Global Hub Director of the Carbon Leadership Forum
Anthony Pak leads Priopta, a whole-building life-cycle assessment consultancy. He is also the founder of the Carbon Leadership Forum (CLF) Vancouver hub and supports many other local CLF hubs worldwide in his role as CLF Global Hub Director.
Watch the full interview
“It’s amazing to see the momentum that this topic is building up around the world right now.”
What led you to become a construction carbon expert?
I’m a mechanical engineer by training and worked in the industry for a few years doing mechanical designs for buildings. About 10 years ago, I did my master’s in Norway in a field called industrial ecology. And that’s where I first learned about life cycle assessments.
When I returned to north America, I discovered that awareness of LCA was low. Any LCAs that were performed were often more for research purposes; LCA just wasn’t considered a standard practice during a construction project at that time.
To fast forward a little bit, in 2017 I started up my company Priopta and I also founded a local group to bring together all the relevant stakeholders on construction carbon: structural engineers, architects, manufacturers, policy makers, et cetera. Eventually this group became CLF Vancouver, the first local hub of the Carbon Leadership Forum. Since then, there have been 30 hubs around the world, which has been amazing to see.
So, through the combination of the work with the Carbon Leadership Forum, building up this community, and also through some of the work that we’ve done through Priopta, like modelling and policy work, it’s kind of progressed very quickly and it’s amazing to see the momentum that this topic is building up around the world right now.
What kind of projects do you typically work on, and in what role?
There are two aspects to Priopta’s work: whole building LCA modelling and research and policy projects. For the whole building LCA modelling, we work on a wide spectrum of different types of buildings, from low-rise, residential buildings to warehouses and big hospital developments. We’re the LCA consultant on a project, advising on material design choices and how to reduce embodied carbon.
We also often take on specialized research projects, which are often to advise on policy-related issues. For example, we’re working with the City of Vancouver to develop their embodied carbon and whole building LCA modelling guidelines.
“…this is the time to really establish and develop your expertise in materials carbon and to differentiate your projects.”
How does your engagement in materials sustainability vary over project phases?
Throughout the whole design phase, we advise on the best practices to reduce carbon across each of the key categories of materials. In many of our projects, we’re engaged from the schematic design phase. We do early modelling on a whole-building basis and run through design options for that level. This could even include comparing different structural frames, like mass timber versus concrete.
At detailed design stage, the design scope has narrowed but there is a different type of design decision to evaluate, working from a more detailed model. For example, even if a certain type of insulation or concrete has been selected, you can compare different concrete mixes or brands of insulation. We update the model at this stage and run through the different design options.
We also do a final update in the construction documents to reflect what the final design was, as well as the baseline and percentage reduction.
It’s a very educational process throughout. We view our role as not just crunching the numbers, but also educating all the different stakeholders on a project and getting everyone up to speed on this.
What are the key value drivers you use to make the business case for materials carbon?
There are a lot of new embodied carbon regulations coming soon and that’s one of the main drivers. Architects and designers see the trajectory of where it’s going. In Vancouver, for example, we have the roadmap of a 40% reduction requirement by 2030. That definitely catches everybody’s attention.
Addressing materials carbon is also a big way of differentiating your project from other projects or, if you’re a firm, differentiating your expertise from others.
Compared to all the work that’s already been done around operational carbon emissions – energy modelling as standard practice and all the strategies and knowledge in place to help drive more energy-efficient buildings – embodied carbon reduction is still in the nascent early stages. It’s about 10 or 20 years behind the curve but is likely to go on a fairly similar trajectory in terms of having that nuanced understanding around materials and carbon emissions.
A lot of people are realizing that this is the time to really establish and develop your expertise in materials carbon and to differentiate your projects.
“It’s crucial to define a robust baseline. By doing so, you can exclude a lot of the worse performing results on a whole-building basis and still achieve reductions.”
What level of embodied carbon reductions are your projects achieving today?
We see a lot of projects that are able to achieve 10 to 20% reductions. Some can even get up to 40% or 50% reductions. But it’s important to understand what you are measuring that percentage relative to. In other words, what is the baseline?
That’s some of the work that we’re doing with the city of Vancouver right now, advising on the whole building LCA guidelines and how you define a robust baseline.
A robust baseline could actually exclude a lot of the worse performing results on a whole-building basis. Making it a lot more meaningful than if the baseline were defined, for example, as the worst-case performer.
So it’s really important to define a robust baseline and from there we can still achieve reductions. Even if the final percentage number doesn’t sound as high a robust baseline is critical, especially from a policy perspective.
Are there any myths or misconceptions that are holding back progress?
The main misconception is that people assume that embodied carbon reductions will be costly. But there is a lot of low-hanging fruit. You can get as much as 30% reductions on projects with things that may have negligible – or even lower – costs, like adjustments to the concrete mix or choosing different insulation products.
“One Click LCA is very well thought through. There’s a great BIM integration with Revit and integrations with other tools.“
How does One Click LCA help you achieve your goals?
One Click LCA is great. First, there’s a large database. There are both industry-average environmental product declarations (EPDs) and also a lot of manufacturer-specific EPDs, so it’s a very large database. That’s a crucial first step in understanding that variation in impacts.
What do you find most useful in One Click LCA?
One Click LCA is very well thought through. There’s a great BIM integration with Revit and integrations with other tools. But it’s also fairly flexible. This helps us understand the nuances behind the modelling. It helps us advise, not just on our typical projects, but even on our policy work, to really see behind the hood.
Some LCA tools are like black boxes and you can’t see the assumptions or underlying data. With One Click LCA, it’s nice that you show the assumptions, but also that I can override some of them. Particularly when it comes to policy, it’s really important to understand those nuances. So I appreciate that the tool has that level of detail yet it is very flexible and easy to use.
What are the best practices or lessons that have helped you in your work?
One low-hanging fruit is looking at insulation. Digging into the numbers you can see how significant some of the emissions are for certain types of insulation, such as the ones that use HFC blowing agents, such as XPS insulation and spray foam. In North America up until a year or two ago, it was standard practice that almost all insulation had HFC blowing agents, which was very significant from an embodied carbon perspective. Their impact was also underreported in many tools, resulting in a major blind spot in the industry.
By specifying lower embodied carbon forms of insulation, particularly new products that use HFO blowing agents and have a much lower embodied carbon impact, you can significantly reduce emissions. The difference can be as much as 50 times lower, so it can be a very big source of reductions.
About ‘Carbon Expert of the Month’
Carbon Expert of the Month is One Click LCA’s way to showcase the expertise, inspiration and best practices of One Click LCA users. Each month, we feature experts who are passionate about reducing carbon in general and from materials in particular, who seek to push projects beyond the boundaries of common practice, and who wish to share from their personal experience.