Embodied Carbon refers to the carbon emissions associated with construction materials such as concrete, steel, wood, glass, and insulation.
What is Life Cycle Assessment (LCA)?
LCA is the scientific method for quantifying embodied carbon as well as other environmental impacts. Through LCA, we can analyze the environmental impacts of materials through all life-cycle stages, including resource extraction, manufacturing, transportation, construction, operation, and end of life.
Embodied Carbon from
new construction accounts for at least 11% of global CO2 emissions each year
Operational Carbon from
energy used to operate
all existing buildings emits
28% of global CO2 emissions
Global new construction
and major renovation
is projected to DOUBLE
the building floor area
that currently exists
on the planet by 2060 (230 billion m2)
This is equivalent to
building an entire
NEW YORK CITY
for the next 40 years
Embodied Carbon will be responsible for
ALMOST HALF of total new construction
between now and 2050
Embodied Carbon vs Operational Carbon
Embodied carbon results can vary widely, with results ranging from 100 to over 1000 kgCO2e/m2, as you can see in the data visualization below, which is a compilation of over 1000 Whole Building LCA studies from around the world.
Operational carbon emissions can also vary widely, depending on the energy efficiency of the building, the carbon intensity of the electricity grid, and the climate.
For example, the City of Vancouver's rezoning policy requires buildings to meet operational carbon intensity limits between 3 to 8 kgCO2e/m2/year. These are very low numbers, reflective of near Passive House level energy efficiency and a low carbon electricity grid powered mostly by hydro. Baseline buildings in Vancouver could have operational carbon around 20 kgCO2e/m2/year, while cities like Calgary may have baseline performance around 71 kgCO2e/m2/year.
Embodied carbon is not more important than operational carbon, but we also cannot afford to ignore it. We must make smart design decisions to reduce both embodied and operational carbon.
Embodied Carbon results from over 1000 buildings
The Carbon Leadership Forum compiled over 1000 Whole Building LCAs from around the world as part of their Embodied Carbon Benchmark Study. Explore the visualization below to see how embodied carbon varies by region, building type, floor area, and the number of storeys.
What are the drivers for addressing embodied carbon
and using LCA on projects?
1. Voluntary Standards
Through the MRc1: Building Life-Cycle Impact Reduction credit, projects can receive 1 LEED point just for performing an LCA study and up to 5 points for a 20% reduction in embodied carbon relative to a baseline building. This credit is often overlooked and can play a big role in projects achieving their targeted level of certification.
Requires calculating embodied carbon emissions through an LCA study starting at the Schematic Design phase. Also required to apply two "Impact and Innovation" strategies. 2 of the 5 pre-approved strategies are:
An embodied carbon reduction of at least 20% compared to baseline building.
Upfront carbon emissions equal to or less than zero.
In ZCB Performance v2, embodied emissions are required to be offset.
ILFI Zero Carbon Certification
Projects must demonstrate a 10% reduction in embodied carbon and not exceed 500 kgCO2e/m2, with remaining embodied emissions offset through approved carbon offset provider.
ILFI Living Building Challenge - Energy Petal
Projects must demonstrate a 20% reduction in embodied carbon, with remaining embodied emissions offset through approved carbon offset provider.
2. Policies and Regulation
City of Vancouver - Rezoning
Since 2017, the City's Green Building Policy for Rezoning (Requirement B.6.2) has required calculation and disclosure of LCA results in early design for rezoning submissions, which needs to be updated for Building Permit and Occupancy Permit. This rezoning policy will be updated in 2021 and will likely require a certain percentage reduction in embodied carbon. As part of the City's Climate Emergency Response, it has committed to a 40% reduction in embodied carbon for all new buildings and infrastructure by 2030, relative to a 2018 baseline.
World Green Building Council
The WorldGBC has recently released a call to action report Bringing Embodied Carbon Upfront, which also calls on the global construction industry to target a 40% reduction in embodied carbon from new buildings and infrastructure by 2030.
Policies and Standards Globally
There are over 100 standards and policies around the world that address embodied carbon, which are detailed in the Embodied Carbon Review by Bionova.
3. Market Leadership
Leading architects, engineers, developers, and manufacturers understand the importance of addressing embodied carbon and are already demonstrating leadership in this domain, even if it is not currently required by policies or standards.
While embodied carbon poses a big challenge to the industry, it also presents a major opportunity to those that demonstrate leadership in this domain.
Think of all of the companies, products, technologies, design strategies, and policies focused on reducing operational carbon. Compare that with the relatively little that has been done to address embodied carbon.
This is why we think those firms who act now to develop their expertise and competence in reducing embodied carbon will have a competitive advantage. It is also what is required of our industry, which has a major role to play in tackling the climate crisis.
Whole Building Life Cycle Assessment
We provide Whole Building Life Cycle Assessment (WB-LCA) modelling services for new construction projects across all building types including low to high-rise residential, office, commercial, and institutional buildings.
The simplest type of LCA studies we do is to model the building as it is currently designed. Such studies are useful for understanding the embodied environmental impacts associated with the building and identifying which building elements and materials contribute most to the overall impact. Such studies can be used to meet reporting requirements such as for the City of Vancouver's rezoning policy and CaGBC's Zero Carbon Building Standard.
We can also develop comparative WB-LCAs to model different material design options (e.g. comparing different structural materials and envelope assemblies). We work with the design team in Schematic Design or Design Development to identify high potential material options to reduce embodied impacts, which we then develop LCA models for. Such analysis enables the design team to identify optimal material design strategies to reduce embodied impacts. Once the design is finalized, we will update the LCA model to reflect the final design and compare it against a baseline reference building, providing the necessary documentation to meet relevant requirements such as for LEED v4.1 MRc1.
Embodied Carbon Research
We are also committed to doing work that has an impact beyond the scale of individual buildings. As such, we do specialized research projects that can help inform embodied carbon policies and initiatives. For example, we did a study for the City of Vancouver to understand the maximum embodied carbon reduction potential of a concrete high-rise residential building, as well as a study to evaluate the potential overlap between embodied carbon and circular economy policies for low-rise residential buildings. We also developed a report for the National Research Council that compares WB-LCA software tools and proposes features that may improve such tools. Note that this study has not been published yet.
Presentations and Events on Embodied Carbon
We are passionate about sharing the importance of embodied carbon. As such, we frequently give talks at conferences and lunch and learn presentations to architects, engineers, developers, policy-makers, etc. We put a lot of effort into staying up to date on the latest research and developments around embodied carbon, compiling this information into a compelling and informative presentation. You will find a copy of our latest presentation further down this website.
We also started ECN Vancouver, which is the first local chapter of the Embodied Carbon Network. Our local chapter organizes events in Vancouver that empower building industry professionals to champion the topic of embodied carbon on their projects and within their firm. The creation of the Vancouver chapter has inspired interest in over 10 cities to start up local ECN chapters. If you are interested in attending ECN Vancouver events, you can sign up for the mailing list on the website.
Example Results - Whole Building LCA
These results are from one of our projects modelling an office building based off of a Revit model using One Click LCA. It shows the contribution of different building elements and materials across multiple environmental impact categories.
In addition to the typical disclosure and comparative LCA studies we do, we also offer a Parametric LCA service for innovative projects aiming to drive significant reductions in embodied carbon.
We wanted to push the envelope to showcase the potential for using LCA to drive design decisions that lead to significant reductions in embodied carbon. This is why we developed our own Parametric LCA tool, which we offer as part of our consulting service (not sold as software).
We still use conventional WB-LCA software to run the underlying calculations, however, instead of only modelling a few material options as is typically done, we aim to model all possible material options relevant to the specific project. We model a range of material options for each building element separately and then import these element-level LCA results into our Parametric LCA dashboard, which enables us to interactively mix and match different material selections for the foundation, floors, columns, walls, and roof.
This tool empowers the design team to instantly compare the environmental impacts associated with all possible combinations of material design options. Our sensitivity analysis feature allows the design team to explore many "what if" scenarios, enabling them to discover the optimal combination of materials for their building. By going through this process, everyone also builds up their intuitive understanding of what matters most when it comes to embodied carbon.
We are passionate about sharing the importance of embodied carbon. As such, we give talks at conferences and lunch and learn presentations to architects, engineers, developers, policy-makers, etc. We put a lot of effort into staying up to date on the latest research and reports, compiling this information into a compelling and informative presentation. Below are some slides from our latest presentation, which will ongoingly be updated as we come across useful information.
Our industry needs to rapidly build awareness on this topic of embodied carbon, which is why we are making our presentation freely available. We encourage you to incorporate any of this material into your own presentations, lunch and learns, client meetings, etc. Please just make sure you include the references in each slide, as this presentation cites the hard work of many people.
This presentation goes over:
Why Embodied Carbon Matters
How Embodied Carbon compares with Operational Carbon
Policies and Standard that address Embodied Carbon
Comparison of LCA Software Tools
Design Strategies to Reduce Embodied Carbon (concrete, steel, wood, insulation, interiors, refrigerants, MEP systems)
If you would like us to present at your firm or event, please send an email to email@example.com
*The embedded presentation can only be seen on a desktop web browser and not on mobile phones.
You may also download the presentation here:
We also wrote an article in Canadian Architect Magazine called Embodied Carbon: The Blindspot of the Building Industry. It provides an overview of why the building industry urgently needs to address Embodied Carbon now.
Note: We will soon be creating a Resource Portal on this website, which will contain lots of useful reports, articles, and websites relating to embodied carbon.
Drive Radical Reductions in Embodied Carbon Globally
Our mission is to drive radical reductions in embodied carbon globally. It's a bold mission for a small company. We know this is not something we can achieve alone.
The only way the building industry can make significant reductions in embodied carbon globally is if there is a massive wave of bold leadership arising within every firm across every region.
At Priopta, we aim to be a catalyst for industry transformation. We work hard to raise awareness on the importance of embodied carbon and to inspire other industry professionals to tackle these issues on their projects and within their firms.