Cutting Back on Carbon Emissions

By Lisa Shulock & LeAnne Harvey

Posted May 13, 2020


At the beginning of 2020, we were excited and prepared to take on a monumental task – addressing climate change by significantly cutting carbon emissions from the built environment across our region. The current, immediate public health and economic problems we face may have shifted our plans, but they have not changed our goals. The COVID-19 crisis compounds existing climate, health, and equity challenges, and elevates the need for urgent action across sectors. 

As building industry professionals, the design decisions we make today have lasting impacts on our future. Our first educational event of the year focused on ways to drastically cut carbon emissions from our industries. Carbon and other greenhouse gases enter our atmosphere from building operations, construction, agriculture, and transportation. As we consider opportunities to address climate change while rebuilding our economy, we’re revisiting some of the key takeaways from our Living Future Community’s event, Carbon Cleanse: Reducing Carbon’s Impact.  


1. Equity is key 

Craig Johnson, self-described Habiteer of Interpret Green, led attendees through a land acknowledgment, honoring the Lenni Lenape and connecting us to thousands of years of history. Johnson’s opening provided an important framing for the problems we are trying to solve. We’ve seen how the coronavirus and climate impacts have disproportionately impacted black and brown communities and the benefits of green building are not always accessible to marginalized communities. Prioritizing equity and justice is essential for building toward a sustainable, healthy, and resilient built environment for all.   


2. We must address embodied carbon 

Kelly Roberts, Principal at Walter P. Moore joined via video conference to discuss the ongoing importance of measuring embodied carbon in building projects. As we build and operate more efficient buildings, we reduce the emissions associated with its energy use, or operational carbon. As a result, carbon emissions from manufacturing, transportation, and installation of construction materials, or embodied carbon represents a bigger piece of the overall pie. Embodied carbon generates approximately 3.8 billion metric tons of CO2 per year.  

Fortunately, whole building lifecycle assessments are becoming more common and new tools are being created to quickly evaluate embodied carbon on projects. EC3 (Embodied Carbon in Construction), is a free, cloud-based open access tool to evaluate the carbon emissions associated with building materials.  


3. The building envelope has a major role to play 

Steve Hessler and Ilka Cassidy, co-founders of Holzraum System, presented on the importance materials play in preventing heat transfer and reducing carbon emissions. After having trouble identifying Passive House structural components manufactured and sourced with low carbon impact, they created their own wood-based building envelope materials. Unlike concrete, steel, and other common materials, which require large amounts of CO2 to produce, wooden assemblies hold carbon in their structure, significantly reducing the embodied energy footprint while also reducing operational energy by employing passive house strategies. 


4. Electrify everything 

David Smith, Director of Energy Services at Burns Engineering, brought us back to operational carbon by discussing the importance of electrification to address on-site and off-site energy use. In order to reach the carbon reduction goal necessary to prevent the worst impacts of climate change, we will need to ramp up large-scale electrification to ensure that our buildings can be supplied by clean energy resources. While it won’t be easy, cheap, or quick, Smith believes it can be done and provided case studies of successful higher education campus retrofits. Lastly, this massive undertaking must be planned in the context of resiliency to prepare our buildings for extreme weather and rising sea levels. With this in mind, microgrids can be used as the strategic platform for monetizing on-site energy generation, storage, and smart buildings to help buildings stay connected to power even during widespread outages. 


5. Look beyond buildings 

To those of us more knowledgeable about the built environment, a truly eye-opening presentation came from Chad Adams, Founding Principal at Ground Plan Studio, who discussed the role of agriculture in decarbonization. Food production is one of the largest culprits in carbon emissions, generating over 20% of the global total. While animal production is a significant factor – all conventional agriculture is damaging to the environment. Adams posed the question, “Which has the lowest carbon footprint: conventional beef burger, Beyond Meat burger or Impossible Burger?” While there are many variables to explore in order to answer this question, farming methods play a substantial role in finding the answer. When using regenerative agricultural practices, properly managed herds of cattle will sequester more carbon than they generate. Chew on that cud for a moment. 


As we continue to examine how our design decisions impact our environment, the Living Future Community is hosting Water Water Everywhere: Planning for resilience in our region. Join us remotely on May 21st as we look at the implications of our everyday and long-term water decisions. 

Green Building United Legacy Partners

Green Building United Platinum Partners

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