Embodied Carbon of Commonly Specified Materials in Architecture

Buildings consume 50% of the world’s energy resources. Much attention has been devoted to operational energy use in buildings with increasingly stringent legislation, guidance and standards over the last two decades. Energy efficiency is a commonly used term which is now familiar to most home owners.
Less well understood is the concept of Embodied Energy (EE); the energy needed to transform raw materials in the ground into a completed building, including raw material extraction, processing and manufacturing, transportation, and construction.

It is the energy which has been constructed into a building and which cannot be recovered during the lifetime of the building, regardless of operational efficiencies. Architects and designers are currently handicapped by a lack of usable information in the right form, which can be used to quickly and effectively assess the energy, carbon and/or environmental impact of materials specified. As progress is made towards zero carbon buildings, research shows that the embodied energy of a building will increase both in absolute and percentage terms.

By 2019 embodied carbon, in theory, will make up 100% of a building’s footprint. This paper describes the status quo in embodied energy of materials: its research, policy status and application within the built environment. The paper also describes how the authors adapted current published embodied energy and carbon values, materials ratings and environmental product information into a useable set of pro formas for architectural specification in new build and retrofit projects. A number of commonly specified materials are discussed, and examples of how low carbon design information can be used to inform projects are given.

To advocate truly sustainable and low carbon architecture requires skilled designers to champion low carbon building design issues, and ensure that data is easily applied and information presented in a useable format.

Dr Gillian Menzies Lecturer – Environment and Climate Change Michael Laird Architects – speaker at the International Urban Design Conference in 2011
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