Often sustainability in real estate has been synonymous with reducing carbon emissions; built environment being one of the largest contributors of GHGs. Till recently, it was all about enhancing energy efficiency of the building, but energy efficiency by itself does not translate to reduced environmental impact. This is just the operational carbon that we are tackling. What happens to the larger, often overlooked part of the pie- the embodied carbon – those associated with construction, maintenance and upgrading of buildings, which can contribute upwards of 65% of the carbon emissions associated with the built environment?
Realising the importance of built environment on climate, this year’s COP26 climate conference has dedicated a built environment day for the first time. Not only that, the European Commission has proposed to limit emissions from buildings for the first time.
While efforts to tackle embodied carbon have been more modest, architects can play a huge and vital role in this sphere. Owing to the fact that they have access to both the embodied and operational carbon of buildings, they have a very real opportunity to change our approach to the built environment. Understanding the implications of design choices on embodied carbon and the longevity of our buildings is critical.
We need to be able to measure and manage embodied carbon, which requires an understanding of how our choices in early stages of design and development impact downstream. In fact, a thorough carbon analysis as a part of design scope can help establish objectives, and understand what will make the project sustainable as well as cost effective. Commitments to sustainability should be firmed up ahead and monitored throughout the project. This may include whether to modify an existing building, selection of building materials, and how to design a building to reduce material use or even sequester carbon. In case of material, bio sourced and biomass materials like mycelium, hemp, algae, bamboo and cork are gaining popularity on account of their ability to store atmospheric carbon rather than emit it. Analysis of current energy requirement through energy reviews, occupant surveys and embodied carbon analysis can help stay the course.
While tackling embodied carbon is difficult, and bringing these emissions down to zero is near impossible, aiming to reduce embodied carbon to the maximum and then, offsetting the last part is doable.
Lastly, the challenge doesn’t stop here- one has to ensure buildings once built, also enhance the lives of those who occupy them and offer resilience in the face of a rapidly changing climate.
Achieving net zero or even, carbon neutrality cannot be an afterthought. Architects can’t reach zero carbon alone. To succeed, they need to work in tandem with other stakeholders, engineers, contractors, clients, governments and communities towards the common goal. As part of broader sustainability ambitions, this commitment is central to creating a built environment that is resilient to climate change, while creating a lasting social and economic impact.