Carbon Expert of the Month
November 2020

Stephen Finnegan

Dr Stephen Finnegan is a low-carbon design specialist and lecturer in sustainable architecture at the University of Liverpool, UK, and Director of the Zero Carbon Research Institute. Amongst his other activities, he works with industry to help the UK Government achieve its goal of developing Net Zero Carbon (NZC) buildings by 2050. He has over 25 years’ experience in sustainability in construction and operation, having previously worked for KPMG LLP, AEA Technology, Arup and the European Commission. He has presented his research – relating to sustainable design, embodied carbon impact, life cycle planning and operation – in the US, India and across Europe.

What led you to become a construction carbon expert?

35 years ago (whilst studying for my GCSEs) I can clearly remember asking my teachers the following questions. Why are we damaging the environment?  Are there cleaner ways of creating materials for buildings in factories?  Why are we burning fossil fuels for power? Since that time, I became actively interested in the environment and I went on to study more and more, gaining a PhD that considered the Life Cycle Assessment of fuels in 2001.  Following my education, I started working with the European Commission, Arup and KPMG trying to make a change in the industry. Its been difficult but progress is slowly being made.

What kind of projects do you typically work on, and in what role?

I work in both education and consultancy. Teaching students at the University of Liverpool and acting as Director of the Zero Carbon Research Institute The type of work I do, at present, is linked to the design and implementation of Net Zero Carbon (NZC) for business.  We are faced with the difficult challenge of reaching NZC by 2050. A lot of people don’t know how to get there and where to start.  I am currently supporting around 35 different businesses who are on this journey; alongside supporting 10 PhD students. 

The world-famous Everyman Theatre in Liverpool, UK.
Following an extensive rebuild, Stephen Finnegan is working to measure the theatre’s whole life carbon impact and develop a plan to reduce this impact to zero.
Everyman Theatre carbon footprint using UK standard grid connected gas and electricity from 2010
Everyman Theatre carbon footprint using 100% REGO electricity from 2010

Which projects and achievements are you the proudest of?

The research we have conducted to date is making a real change in the industry and I’d like to think that it is both informative and of benefit to all.  For example, I have conducted a Whole Life Carbon Impact assessment of the Liverpool Everyman Theatre. This is the first assessment of its type in that sector that covers every single aspect of the construction and operation of the building.

It has also been great to work with Dragonipanel, in analysing the carbon impact of a MgO Structurally Insulated Panel (SIPs) home. In addition, I have numerous high-profile jobs coming soon including work for one the world’s largest restaurant chains.

How do you see carbon performance evolving in the market?

Simply put – it’s essential. We can no longer use unsustainable materials and we must account for the carbon embodied in our materials.  Furthermore, we must choose alternative more sustainable options. I have seen a massive increase in the demand for both embodied and operational carbon studies and the work of the UK Green Building Council (UKGBC) and RICS has been really helpful.

The Whole Life Carbon assessments currently under consultation in the London Plan by the GLA will go a long way to ensuring that the whole of the UK will measure and reduce carbon impact in construction.

“We can no longer use unsustainable materials and we must account for the carbon embodied in our materials.”

What are the key value drivers you use to make the business case for materials carbon?

As mentioned earlier, it is essential that we consider the whole life carbon impact of construction materials and Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) for all products are necessary to enable comparisons to be made.

Choosing the right materials in the early concept stage of design can have a significant contribution to reducing both the embodied and operational carbon impact.

How does your engagement on materials sustainability vary over project phases?

Some clients I work with want to consider the sustainability of their construction materials at the very early concept stages. Others want to see a retrospective study completed; that can assist them in considering the next design they do.

Others are asking questions on which materials they should specify and what the ‘consequence of choice’ is. Overall, there is real interest and enthusiasm in getting things right; however, the cost implications of change is always a barrier.

“I have seen carbon reductions in the order of 40% – which coincidentally is the target required by the UK GBC for new buildings in 2030”

How does One Click LCA help you achieve your goals?

For me, One Click LCA is great due to the ease in which I can undertake an embodied carbon assessment. For those that are new to using the tool, it does take some time in getting to grips with all the information. But once you have a model in place, it really is quite simple.

The biggest drawback is not the tool itself, but the lack of EPDs to support the model. Especially for Modern Methods of Construction and Renewable Energy Technologies. Which is why I wrote a journal paper on the embodied CO2 of sustainable energy technologies in 2018.

“For me, One Click LCA is great due to the ease in which I can undertake an embodied carbon assessment”

What do you find most useful in One Click LCA?

One aspect of One Click LCA that I find most useful is the ability to very quickly change a material and see the resultant impact of that design choice. The various options to view the results at the end are also very helpful, intuitive and informative.

What level of embodied carbon reductions are your projects achieving today?

Through the projects I have worked on to date I have seen carbon reductions in the order of 40% – which coincidentally is the target required by the UK GBC for new buildings in 2030.

There are further savings that can be made but the cost implications can make it prohibitive.

Which lessons have helped you the most in your work?

The biggest lesson that I have learnt is not to get embroiled in too much detail. You can spend a vast amount of time trying to calculate the embodied CO2 of, for example, a water pipe in a building that is (a) not required to be examined under UKGBC and RICS guidance and (b) has a 0.005% impact on the building. Focus on the “big ticket” high impact items and make them work.

Interested in being featured?

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About ‘Carbon Expert of the Month’

Carbon Expert of the Month is Bionova’s way to bring forward expertise, inspiration, best practises and great cases among One Click LCA users. Each month, we intend to publish one Carbon Expert of the Month interview, rotating between different countries.

We interview and feature experts who are passionate about reducing carbon in general and from materials in particular, who preferably seek to push projects beyond the boundaries of common practise, and who wish to share from their personal experience.

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