Converting commitments into canceling carbon

With building operations, materials, and construction contributing almost 40% of global annual CO2 emissions, we who create the built environment are at the heart of taming the emissions of its legacy and future.

By Erin McConahey September 1, 2022
Courtesy: Arup

In the run up to COP26, it seemed like net-zero-carbon commitments were everywhere, even on the commercials of my favorite TV show. With so many stakeholder, investor, governmental, and corporate good intentions at play, the newly found fervor here in the US runs the risk of eager misalignment. Nevertheless, I choose to hope that we’re finally rising to the  Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s call: “Stabilizing the climate will require strong, rapid, and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, and reaching net-zero CO2 emissions.”

With building operations, materials, and construction contributing almost 40% of global annual CO2 emissions, we who create the built environment are at the heart of taming the emissions of its legacy and future.

Architecture 2030 has long preached a three-part formula for net-zero-carbon buildings:

Energy efficiency + electrification + renewable energy = net-zero (operational) carbon

With electricity companies now committing (or mandated) to full decarbonization, reducing embodied carbon within the material supply chain is the next focus. We know the path; we have the technology and now we finally appear to have the collective will. So the only question is: how fast can we turn our “new decade resolutions” into sustainable carbon diets? What we’ve learned from working with early adopters is that making progress, while challenging, is also surprisingly simple. It simply takes insight and ingenuity to position yourself for implementation.

Insight – “You can’t manage what you can’t measure.” (Peter Drucker)

Prior to this age of carbon accountability, many building operators judged their success on improving energy efficiency and stabilizing utility costs. In a few jurisdictions, if the buildings were large enough, perhaps they were required to report annual energy use. But decarbonization requires the diagnostic skills of a forensic analyst: outcomes must be disaggregated to find root causes of excessive emissions so that they can be fixed.

For instance, when the City of Boston wanted to understand pathways to achieve its 2050 carbon neutral goal, the buildings sector was its top priority.  Using digital analytics, Arup’s analysis helped the City understand the problem better and focus attention on the decarbonization of existing buildings, which is 80% of the City’s building stock, by 2050. Our work on Carbon Free Boston work served as the foundation for the law now known as BERDO 2.0. When navigating significant transitions, data-driven strategy development helps to build influence, credibility, and confidence in the decision makers to better equip them to negotiate support for critical stakeholders. The State of Massachusetts’s development of its 2050 Decarbonization Roadmap provides a similar example. Again, data analysis was used to discover that the residential sector was not only the second largest contributor of greenhouse gases, but that 27% of the entire State’s emissions came from residential direct-fired fossil fuel use.

Insights like these lead to focus, and focus allows for problem-solving. Perhaps the greatest problems to solve in decarbonization are the cost and speed of change. When NYSERDA was looking to test various electrification policies for the New York State Carbon Neutral Buildings Roadmap, granular hourly analyses demonstrated the cost effectiveness of technology packages in widespread application and the associated impacts on the electrical grid, leading to the development of policy and incentive mechanisms to support market adoption of newer technologies.

Ingenuity – “Vulnerability is the birthplace of ingenuity, creativity, and change.” (Brené Brown)

While it would be easy to take a technocratic approach to society’s decarbonization, it is surely not preferred. What we have learned from city-scale climate action planning is that equity demands that we approach any problem by first respecting the wisdom of those closest to it and crowdsourcing their creativity.

For example, a facilitated conversation with over 40 stakeholders at the San Francisco International Airport about the benefits and obstacles to pursuing decarbonization aspirations under the existing capital improvement processes ultimately led to SFO’s ten-year plan that reflects not only the details of the capital improvement plan but also the augmented staffing to support it.

The Bay Area Low-Carbon Concrete Code is another instance of engaging practitioners in an industry, this time to reduce the embodied carbon of their almost ubiquitously used product. By reframing concrete’s embodied carbon problem as one shared among designer, contractor, and mix provider, all parties were able to share just how far they could afford to deviate from business as usual and still meet standard budgets and schedules. With this information, the team was able to identify the key drivers for the over-specification of cement, test five sample low-carbon mix designs, and develop template specification language acceptable to all parties.

There is a level of ingenuity found in multidisciplinary excellence. Integrating the practicalities of mutually beneficial solutions requires that the cost and benefit to each party over time is tested against the full diversity of stakeholder perspectives. In short, we all need to trust that we are all experts in the ways of the past and together are on a journey to become advocates for the future.

But what happens when the past offers no model of success? We must lean even more heavily on ingenuity. With no option to strengthen the existing structure and a desire to maximize prime leasable area, the solution to heightening the building at 80 M Street while remaining within the older loading limits was a mass timber overbuild. Once the fire-rating equivalency of the timber was proven, even the weight of finishes could be eliminated. The solution to a structural capacity problem became the best performing option overall due to its lower cost, lower disruption, and lower embodied carbon as compared to standard construction methods. Innovation so often finds us in our moments of greatest challenge.

Implementation – “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” (attributed to Voltaire)

Yet with all this insight and ingenuity, it still feels like we’ve just started to scratch the surface of decarbonization in the industry. Even the most enthusiastic team will arrive at a crossroads where a single difficulty could determine whether the initiative will travel the path of organizational apathy or the path of promise. The reality is that carbon management requires change management and a certain willingness to commit to action even in the face of continued unknowns.

Just take the notion of a net-zero energy building itself. It might well conjure up visions of small buildings covered in solar panels, but compare this to the 160,000ft2 Bloomberg Center at Cornell Tech, the anchor educational building for a net-zero-energy campus on Roosevelt Island.  Having applied almost every best practice design method available, the innovation hub’s process loads remained so high that it took the roofs of two buildings to host the one acre photovoltaic array by “scale-jumping” beyond the project’s boundary.

The 65,000ft2 Wilkes Elementary School similarly pivoted towards future proofing with its “net-zero ready” status. Designed to provide a very low 35 kBtu/ft2/year energy use intensity, this all-electric building runs on Washington state’s very-low-carbon power until 100% clean energy is truly available. The district’s strategy of getting to low (even if not quite “no”) net-zero carbon back in 2012 allowed the project’s small capital budget to fund more student-focused sustainability features by foregoing the first cost burden of on-site generation.

Ultimately, the success of decarbonization is realized not through intention but through verification. As part of the MarketZero pilot project funded by the California Energy Commission, Whole Foods Market agreed to adopt as many low-carbon solutions as could fit within the $2m grant, a four-month construction period, and its high traffic 25,000ft2 San Francisco grocery store. With 100 human-generated starter ideas, machine learning unlocked the potential for up to 74% energy cost savings available to stores of this type. Measurements for the completed retrofit have confirmed what the algorithm projected for the subset of packages incorporated, namely 44% operational energy reduction and 60% annual energy cost savings. With deep savings like these, enough on-site renewable energy can be produced on the roof to offset annual energy use, making the site “net-zero ready” until photovoltaic panels are installed.

While there are still many questions and work to be done to make our industry more sustainable, the time to act is now. Momentum for net-zero carbon implementation is growing, drawing upon all the insight and ingenuity we can muster as the creators and caretakers of the built environment.


Arup is a CFE Media content partner.

Original content can be found at Arup.

Author Bio: Principal at Arup