Uncovering the Story of Low Carbon Building Materials
Carbon Experts Live is One Click LCA’s monthly live conversation series where we have great conversations with smart people. Learn more about the series and register for future episodes here.
An Introduction to Helen Cheng
I had the pleasure of sitting down with architectural expert Helen Cheng, Director of Sustainability and Decarbonization at Turner & Townsend, for our monthly Carbon Experts Live conversation series. One of the first things I noticed was her evident and captivating passion for all things design. Her devotion to sustainable and equitable building practices and her love affair with architecture began at a young age, fueled by her fascination with Lego. This led to the realization that every piece of a building had the power to come together and tell a story.Though Helen has over 25 years of architectural experience, what really sets her apart is her commitment to sustainable design. She believes in the transformative power of architecture to propel societal change. One of her notable achievements was achieving the 6-Star Green Star rating from Australia’s Green Building Council. The 6 Star Rating represents ‘World Leadership’ in environmentally sustainable building practices, and is the highest rating in the Green Star rating program. She believes the construction industry can conserve and manage natural resources, enhance urban ecosystems’ adaptability and resilience, and advocate for the integration of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in design through the use of low carbon building materials.
Helen’s commitment to sustainability is not only applicable to her design work, but also extends to her personal life. She, along with her family, embraces an eco-friendly lifestyle. They prefer cycling or using public transport for their daily commute. They process compost in a worm farm, collect water from food preparation to irrigate plants, and produce only 250 grams of waste per week.Meeting Helen Cheng was an inspiring experience that left me and the viewers in awe of her dedication to sustainable architecture, and I loved diving into some of the major topics with her: How do supply chain and disruptions tie into the whole-life cycle of materials and manufacturing? What is the connection between low-carbon materials and equitable design? How do you approach policy from a sustainability perspective? How do you design for longevity while sustaining fleeting trends? And how can we support/encourage architects to take a hands-on approach with embodied carbon? Helen genuinely believes in the power of the construction industry to drive positive change. Her story serves as a reminder that one person’s actions, no matter how small, can significantly impact building a more sustainable and equitable future for all.
How a Material’s Past Can Tell a Story
During our discussion, Helen challenged us to ponder the stories behind the low carbon construction materials we often take for granted. How many people were involved in their creation? What impact did their production have on the quality of life for those involved? Were the social benefits shared among communities, regardless of affluence? Is it better to hire locally, even if it means more money spent on training, because having a skilled workforce will be better for the local economy in the longrun?She also urged us to consider the environmental footprint left behind by the building process. Think about all stages, from the mining processes to the pollutants emitted and the energy consumed during production. She challenged manufacturers to think about the people who live where materials are produced, and use higher standards for things like waste management, regardless of the cost. These questions reminded us to think about all of the hidden aspects of materials’ past life, and what unintended consequences could result from too narrow a view.