Embodied Carbon Limits: Sustainable Design Strategies to Achieve Absolute Targets
A synopsis of our conversation with Amy Leedham of Atelier Ten
On a recent episode of Carbon Experts Live, I sat down with Amy Leedham of Atelier Ten where we discussed effective sustainable design strategies, challenges in meeting regulations, and the pivotal role of perception. Amy Leedham’s expertise sheds light on the dynamic shift towards sustainable building practices, highlighting the importance of early collaboration and the impact of industry perceptions in driving meaningful change.
Amy’s journey into sustainable construction began during her undergraduate studies when a passionate teacher introduced her to sustainability and environmental systems. This led her to focus on building science and sustainability during her postgraduate studies.
Eight years ago, she joined Atelier Ten, her dream job, where she has been a driving force behind the firm’s carbon practice, which is focused on embodied carbon. Amy notes that the construction industry has seen rapid global adoption of embodied carbon reduction strategies since she started. She said that five years ago, the primary challenge was making people aware of embodied carbon, but today, clients are actively seeking whole-building life cycle assessments (LCA) that account for core, shell, structure, foundation, and enclosure.
Sustainable Design Strategies for Reducing Embodied Carbon
As we discussed the construction industry’s rapid shift from a focus on operational carbon to embodied carbon, Amy noted that the industry is shifting once again. Embodied carbon reduction strategies are beginning to include operational systems like mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) as industry players recognize that these systems contribute significantly to overall carbon impact. The UK leads the charge in this area, with the MEP 2040 Challenge signifying a global shift toward sustainable building practices. One Click LCA’s new MEP Carbon Tool is helping architects and designers meet this challenge head on.
Balancing Emission Reduction with Costs
In the growing efforts to measure and reduce embodied carbon, many businesses anticipate increased costs when pursuing emissions reductions. Amy emphasized the delicate balance between sustainability goals and budget constraints. Clients often consider costs, and Amy’s strategy to address this challenge involves minimizing third party involvement and streamlining communication. Uncertainty driven upcharges are mitigated by directly engaging with suppliers and manufacturers for realistic cost estimates, enabling clients to make informed decisions.
The Top Strategy for Reducing Embodied Carbon
As our discussion delved deeper into strategies for reducing embodied carbon, an audience member posed a challenging question: What were the top one or two strategies? Amy’s answer was refreshingly straightforward — close coordination as early as possible. We work in a very nuanced industry where every project is different. She emphasized that there is no one-size-fits-all solution but stressed the power of collaborative innovation when teams share the goal of reducing embodied carbon from the project’s inception. Tools like One Click LCA’s Carbon Designer 3D can help teams look at reducing carbon early in the design phase, supporting this strategy of close coordination as early as possible.
A Case Study: San Mateo County Office Building
Before concluding our conversation, Amy shared an inspiring case study — the San Mateo County Office Building. This publicly funded initiative achieved Net Zero Energy status and surpassed stringent embodied carbon targets, thanks in part to the use of mass timber. This project illustrates that we can achieve groundbreaking sustainability with clear goals, close communication between the owner and design teams, and starting the focus on cutting carbon emissions early.
The key takeaway is that the strategies for reducing embodied carbon should be tailored to the specific project, region, and budget. However, the most effective way to make progress is to unite the entire project team around a shared goal of carbon reduction from the project’s inception.
Defining, Measuring, and Hitting Targets
One of the key issues in achieving sustainability targets is a clear path to defining and measuring progress. Amy emphasized the use of a whole building life cycle assessment. However, the scope and specifics of what constitutes a “whole building” can vary based on location and technical standards. In North America, for example, LEED standards require accounting for core and shell elements but exclude interiors and HVAC systems. In contrast, the UK’s approach considers a more comprehensive view of the entire building, including interiors and mechanical systems. This discrepancy in terminology and assumptions underscores the need for clear definitions to enable meaningful comparisons of results.
Amy provided clarity on the distinction between reduction-based targets and absolute, or hard, targets. Reduction-based targets, like those used in LEED, offer points based on carbon reduction percentages from a baseline, but they lack an absolute, straightforward goal. On the other hand, hard targets provide a specific, constant limit on embodied carbon emissions, aligned with global carbon emission limits and the goal of limiting global temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius. While hard targets offer simplicity, adapting them to diverse regional practices can be challenging.
The Power of Perception
In closing, I asked Amy what one thing she would change in the industry if she had the power to do so. Her response was clear: she would change perception. She firmly believes that if everyone in the industry truly understood that reducing carbon emissions is the linchpin to safeguarding our planet’s future, everything else required to achieve that goal would fall into place.
Our conversation revealed the complex and evolving landscape of embodied carbon reduction in construction and underscored the importance of early collaboration, clear sustainability targets, and a unified approach to tackling carbon emissions. Ultimately, changing perceptions in the industry may be the most significant step toward achieving a sustainable future in construction.
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