Carbon Expert of the Month, May 2021
As Director of Innovation for Canadian design firm KPMB Architects Geoffrey works with research projects in the KPMB Lab and applies the output of that research to KPMB’s architecture projects. From the very beginning of his architectural training, he has been drawn to the architects who excel in both the aesthetic and technical aspects of practice. Especially those who design projects that are both beautiful and perform at a high level.
What led you to become a construction carbon expert?
From the very beginning of my architectural training, I’ve been drawn to the architects who excel in both the aesthetic and technical aspects of practice. Especially those who design projects that are both beautiful and perform at a high level. Over the course of my career, I’ve been very fortunate to have several mentors who are this kind of architect and I try to emulate them in my own practice.
Any definition of a high-performance building today must start with a consideration of the carbon impacts of that project. There wasn’t a single moment where this became my attitude. Rather, it was a steady, daily reinforcement of this idea, backed by each new government study, news article, IPCC report, and more, that underlined the immediacy of climate change as an existential issue.
The idea of embodied carbon is pretty interesting from an architect’s perspective. We’re looking at the most basic material inputs of our work – concrete, steel, timber, glass, aluminum – and trying to understand their performance in a new way. This gives us another avenue to connect the aesthetic and the performative aspects of our work. That’s really exciting to me.
What kind of projects do you typically work on, and in what role?
As Director of Innovation for KPMB, I split my time between research projects in our KPMB Lab and applying the output of that research to the firm’s architecture projects.
My role on projects varies, but really it’s about adding a layer of experience and specialization to the team. I help our project teams collaborate effectively to arrive at optimal solutions, and I advocate those solutions to our stakeholder groups.
Which projects and achievements are you the proudest of?
The first project I worked on with KPMB Architects was an office building for the Elementary Teachers’ Federation in Toronto that had an aggressive sustainability agenda. I worked on that building for three years, from schematic design all the way through to construction. It went on to become the first LEED Platinum certified building in Toronto.
I’ve been fortunate to work on a number of interesting projects since then, including a mass-timber design school in Vancouver, and a small mass-timber cottage that is now in construction and is seeking Passive House certification.
I’m really proud of the work we’ve done with Kingsett Capital in Toronto that charts a path to zero carbon for an existing office building at 700 University Avenue. This project will involve a renovation of the existing public concourse, the addition of new floors of office space and a new residential tower on the southwest corner of the site. Together with our collaborators and the client group we developed a strategy for the complete project to be fully electrified and net zero carbon. Maybe most impressive, the residential building is designed to achieve Passive House certification, making it the tallest Passive House project in the world – that we are aware of. It’s an exemplar for what is possible, and I am excited to replicate this success on other buildings.
How do you see carbon performance evolving in the market?
In Canada and the U.S., we’re at the beginning of a decade of transformation in our industry. Notions of performance and accountability have been talked about in architecture for some time. However, they’re becoming integral to the concept of a ‘good’ project now in a way that they were not historically. Excellent design now implies high-performance.
I see three main factors driving this change:
- Public awareness of climate change. The palpable experience of a changing climate is creating an appreciation for the immediacy of climate change and is driving the demand and adoption of solutions.
- Regulatory evolution. Progressive jurisdictions in Canada and the U.S. are enacting regulatory requirements for new, and in some cases, existing projects that are driving a shift to high-performance buildings.
- Climate risk is investment risk. A push for transparency and reporting around climate risk in financial markets is translating into a demand from our clients for lower carbon and more resilient buildings.
Generally, the timelines associated with the regulatory changes have the industry arriving at a new, high-performance status quo around 2030. The decade between now and then will be marked by a once-a-generation re-thinking and re-tooling of our industry to accomplish that shift.
How does your engagement on materials sustainability vary over project phases?
Efforts to minimize materials carbon impacts track design phases of the project. In Concept and Schematic phases, the structural system, building envelope, and mechanical systems receive a lot of materials carbon attention. As the project moves through the Design Development and Construction Drawing phases, the materials carbon attention shifts to include finishes and furnishings.
What level of embodied carbon reductions are your projects achieving today?
For our projects pursuing the LEED Whole-Building Life-Cycle Assessment (WBLCA) credit or CAGBC Zero Carbon Building Design Certification, we are seeing a 20% to 30% reduction in embodied carbon relative to self-defined baseline designs.
How does One Click LCA help you achieve your goals?
One Click LCA helps us gain an intuition for carbon-saving measures. For example, if we were interested in the impact of purchasing a material locally versus sourcing it from overseas, we can very quickly quantify the benefit using One Click LCA. Small exercises like this play a big role in building our internal knowledge base of embodied carbon best practices.
What do you find most useful in One Click LCA?
I appreciate that One Click LCA automatically regionalizes Transport (A4) and End of Life scenarios based on the project location. The scenarios provided in the EPDs themselves are not always applicable, and it can be time-consuming to look for better data. One Click LCA removes this burden, allowing us to focus on carbon-saving measures.
Which best practises or lessons have helped you the most in this work?
At a high-level, we’re pursing research on materials carbon reduction strategies with a number of partners including the University of Toronto, ARUP, Aspect Engineering, RDH Building Science, and others. These projects are invaluable in arming us with strategies we can use to reduce materials carbon in our own work.
On a project-specific level, the One Click LCA documentation page provides plenty of good technical information about WBLCA. I would also recommend Whole Building Life Cycle Assessment: Reference Building Structure and Strategies by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) as a resource.
As a general comment, I’d say that these are still early days for the topic of materials carbon, particularly in markets like Canada. That said, the imperative to reduce emissions is clear and urgent. It’s critically important to remain focussed on the goal of eliminating greenhouse gas emissions and any strategies that can help us achieve that are welcome pursuits.
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.