Carbon Expert of the Month, February 2021
Melissa Nouel is a Sustainability Consultant at Integral Group Australia. With a sustainability and architectural background, she works across all delivery stages of a wide variety of projects from residential, commercial and mixed-use design, to railway, aviation, and urban precincts, both in Australia and overseas. She is proactive and passionate about delivering sustainable solutions that achieve environmental, social and economic improvements within our built environment,
What led you to become a construction carbon expert?
Carbon knowledge was collateral learning in my case. It was back in my old Venezuelan living room while seeing the news of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that I felt an urge to act and advocate for the environment.
I was already planning to migrate to Australia, so it was a no-brainer to enrol in sustainability studies at the University of New South Wales. Upon my arrival, this opened a whole new world to me.
I hadn’t set out to be a carbon expert but then I learned about the fundamental interconnectivity around us and how everything we do has an impact. In many cases that impact is expressed in carbon emissions, which are the main cause of global warming and climate change.
What kind of projects do you typically work on, and in what role?
Integral Group is an international multidisciplinary firm with a deep green focus. Working as a sustainability consultant with the Integral family, I have the privilege to participate in all kinds of projects, from detached dwellings to infrastructure, high-tech clients and tier 1 projects. From basic compliance to green ratings certification and high ambition projects (such as Net-Zero buildings), we thrive to drive sustainable outcomes in each project, pushing the industry’s boundaries within our clients’ commercial realities.
Which projects and achievements are you the proudest of?
I am very proud of my work with the University of Sydney’s Engineering and Technology Precinct (ETP), for which I conducted a Life Cycle Assessment. The project is still under construction but has already been awarded a 4 Star Green Star – Design and As Built v1.2 (Design Review) certification, which represents Best Practice in sustainable design.
The University’s ambition to make improvements gradually and sustainably to their campus, incorporated strategies to retain existing structures as much as possible. This was the case for the ETP design, 50% of which consists of a pre-existing structure. Therefore, compared to a business-as-usual demolition and construction project, ETP’s strategy will result in the following reductions of environmental impacts throughout its life cycle:
- -26% Green-house gas emissions
- -49% Ozone depletion potential
- -27% Acidification
- -27% Eutrophication
- -32% Formation of ozone lower atmosphere
- -48% Abiotic depletion
Out of around 500 Net-Zero buildings existing globally, Integral Group has delivered over 100. We are one of the founder signatories of the Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment at the World Green Building Council. At the moment, I am also working on whole of life studies for an iconic building in the heart of Sydney’s Central Business District, which has high sustainability ambitions and Net-Zero goals. So, stay tuned!
“While making every possible effort in all arenas, energy demand reduction must stay ever at the forefront of our thinking as the go-to Net-Zero emissions strategy.”
How do you see carbon performance evolving in the market?
That is a very interesting question as carbon has actually developed into a market of its own in the last decade. Carbon offsets are driving positive divestment and initiatives beyond the site boundary, out and around the globe. This is very evident in Australia, for example, where the built environment industry is increasingly aiming to reduce its impacts by purchasing carbon offsets, green power, or through power purchase agreements.
We can’t however become complacent by heavily relying on renewable energy sources to drive sustainability. The embedded resources – whether they go towards PV panels manufacturing and transport, grid infrastructure, energy transmission losses, or even human resources – don’t go away just by the fact that they are producing clean energy. While making every possible effort in all arenas, energy demand reduction must stay ever at the forefront of our thinking as the go-to Net-Zero emissions strategy.
How does your engagement on materials sustainability vary over project phases?
My engagement on materials sustainability varies over project scope and project phases. Materials sustainability ranges greatly from the health and wellbeing scope to the social procurement or greenhouse gas emissions scopes. For example, I have been involved with Red-List free materials vetting for a high-tech giant, low-VOC (Volatile Organic Compounds) emissions materials scope for Green Star rated projects, as well as low embodied carbon materiality.
Early stages are generally high-level involvement where we work with clients to understand their scope and provide options around materials sustainability. With respect to carbon reduction targets, the strategy generally flows hierarchically from:
- retention of existing infrastructure or existing building structures; to
- reducing materiality – for example, optimised structural design bearing increased loads while using less materials; to
- a ‘less is more’ aesthetic – whereby exposed finishes offset the use of plasterboards, paints or flooring; to
- circularity: reuse, recycling or upcycling of existing building materials, whether sourced on site or not; and finally…
- low carbon material specification.
Once the project is set with clear goals, I can help clients through a science-based decision-making process for material specification. During this last detailed specification stage, materials with Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) and third-party green certifications offer real shortcuts to design teams as their claims are already acknowledged by the industry. This is another changing market in the built environment where manufacturers will need to get onboard to stay competitive.
What are the key value drivers you use to make the business case for materials carbon?
I have the privilege of pushing boundaries alongside some exceptional clients for whom no business case needs to be made; however I recognise that much of the industry does need an incentive.
The main business driver is a competitive and marketing advantage by means of corporate social and environmental responsibility (CSER). As the globe becomes more and more aware of how much human livelihood is contingent on nature, and therefore on our own environmental impact, corporations are paying more attention to CSER.
The push for delivering carbon neutral materials (or as closely as possible to it) demonstrates specialisation and a true commitment to reducing carbon emissions beyond the construction and operational phases of a built asset. It also positions the company as a market transformation player, all of which builds public and industry profile. Companies wanting to win tier 1 government projects, for example, with leading sustainability scope of works, will increasingly need to cover embedded carbon reduction in their portfolios.
How does One Click LCA help you achieve your goals?
With an architectural background and relating to the creative teams, I aim to tune my professional advice as much as possible to their iterative processes. Using One Click LCA to build embodied carbon models helps me quickly and easily make material replacements and assess the potential benefits of each selection. With this data, I can provide evidence-based advice to inform iterative decision-making processes of specifying materials schedules that meet the projects’ environmental impacts reduction goals.
What do you find most useful in One Click LCA?
- The quick integration of materials EPDs makes it easy to create models that draw upon real materials.
- It is also tailored to different sustainability ratings, making the LCA’s outcomes readily available for documentation towards certification.
- The support team is quick, professional, and amazing. They have assisted me in resolving technical or administrative issues in no-time, even setting up videoconferences across challenging time zones to assist with my queries.
Which best practises or lessons have helped you the most in this work?
Integral Group has fantastic resources available to anyone who might be interested:
- Life Cycle Assessment – Whole of life environmental impacts, by Integral Group
- Refrigerants + Environmental Impacts by Louise Hamot, Integral Group
- TM65: Embodied carbon in building services: A calculation methodology, by Louise Hamot and Clara Bagenal George, Elementa Consulting
About ‘Carbon Expert of the Month’
Carbon Expert of the Month is Bionova’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.