Designers, manufacturers begin to tackle embodied carbon
When he first read about MEP 2040, the challenge to system engineers to achieve net zero operational carbon on their projects by 2030 and net zero embodied carbon by 2040, Alexander Stough was stunned.
“I was flat-lined. I thought that’s impossible. I know how to do those calculations and it’s impractical.” said Stough, a mechanical associate with James Posey Associates (JPA).
But several days of thought and conversations with colleagues changed Stough’s mind.
“MEP 2040 actually does a really good job at laying out a process and tangible steps to move the needle in the right direction. It formalizes where the industry is already heading,” he said. “We can do this. It will take a long time but we will get there.”
Embodied carbon – the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with building construction, including extracting, manufacturing, transporting and installing materials, as well as emissions from ongoing maintenance – has not been a topic of discussion on most projects before now. However, LEED, the Living Building Challenge and other sustainability standards have gradually fostered demand for low-carbon architectural products. Industry associations have launched initiatives, such as the MEP 2040 Challenge, the AIA 2030 Commitment to carbon neutrality and ASHRAE’s position that new construction should lower its total GHG by half (compared to 2015) and cut embodied carbon 40 percent by 2030. This summer, members of the International Code Council Standards Development Committee began analyzing multiple proposals to add embodied carbon provisions to the next version of the Commercial Energy Code.
Gradually, this trend is requiring architects, systems engineers and other construction professionals to become more aware of the opportunities and obstacles to lowering embodied carbon in future projects.
“The big change is that embodied carbon is now a mainstream concept where it wasn’t just a few years ago,” said Wes Sullens, LEED Director at the U.S. Green Building Council and an expert on the carbon impact of building systems, architectural products and construction processes. “It’s a whole new field for many designers and engineers.”
It took nearly a decade, but LEED has motivated some manufacturers to develop Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) – especially for floor coverings, wall coverings, plastics and nylon projects – and gradually add more low-carbon products to their offerings, Sullens said.
Mechanical and electrical manufacturers may be about to follow suit.
Recently, a lighting manufacturer met with JPA staff to discuss its plan to begin adding environmental labeling to its products – a response to Declare 2.0, a sustainability information initiative by the Living Building Challenge.
“It will be similar to the ingredients label you find on a box of food, but it breaks down environmental impacts,” said Patrick Morgan, an electrical associate with JPA. “We are going to see a lot of standardization over the next few years of how sustainable products are labeled with carbon in mind.”
“We are on the cusp of this happening with MEP equipment,” Stough said. “Manufacturers are actively trying to improve their sustainability and, coincidentally, that results in lower embodied carbon for the equipment they are producing. There has been a sea change in the past couple of years to where this is becoming second nature in the design process. Daikin has made strides in their manufacturing to reduce energy waste and toxic water generation… The next logical step for them is to develop these Environmental Product Declarations where they can tout the fact that they are developing sustainably conscious products.”
Achieving the kinds of sustainability goals laid out in MEP 2040 and elsewhere, however, will require more than environmental impact labels.
“The problem is it doesn’t make financial sense for manufacturers to make certain changes such as converting their factories and doing research to bring us to the next generation of efficiency,” Stough said.
Government incentives and sustainable purchasing requirements as well as some code changes might be needed to support those changes in the industry.
For example, “Daikin is leading the research and development of new sustainable refrigerants that will have lower global warming potential,” Stough said, “but they are waiting on code adoption for the next generation of refrigerants.”