UW Today

April 20, 2017

Toward greener construction: UW professor leads group setting benchmarks for carbon across life of buildings

News and Information

A University of Washington-led research group has taken an important step toward measuring — and ultimately reducing — the global carbon footprint of building construction and long-term maintenance.

The Carbon Leadership Forum is a collaborative effort among academics and industry professionals based in the UW’s College of Built Environments that studies reducing carbon emissions over a building’s entire period of use, or life cycle.

There is growing recognition in the building industry of the need to track carbon emissions across a building’s full life cycle, said Kate Simonen, architect, structural engineer and UW associate professor of architecture, who leads the carbon forum. But she said industry professionals need better information and guidance on how to implement low-carbon method in practice.

More on the Embodied Carbon Benchmark Study:

  • Download the report from the Embodied Carbon Benchmark study online.
  • Read an interview with Simonen about the Carbon Leadership Forum and the benchmark study.

The forum took a step in this direction in December by publishing the results of its Embodied Carbon Benchmark Study. “Embodied carbon” is the name for all carbon emissions that occur when extracting, manufacturing and installing building materials. The study employs a process called Life Cycle Assessment — LCA for short — to measure embodied carbon emissions in buildings. Simonen wrote a book on the subject in 2014.

The benchmark study provides data to building industry professionals so they can include study of embodied carbon into their decision making. It includes the largest known interactive database of building-embodied carbon with information on more than 1,000 buildings. The report also provides a foundation for the next stage of the project, the development of a Life Cycle Assessment Practice Guide, due by the end of 2017.

“Manufacturing materials and constructing buildings results in significant energy use and carbon impact,” said Simonen. “This research helps us answer questions such as: Is this a high (or low) carbon building? Which material choices or building systems lead to lower carbon solutions? How significant are ‘green’ design choices?”

To place construction-related carbon emissions in real-world perspective, Simonen added: Construction alone of a single “low embodied carbon” office building could save 30 million kilograms, or 33,000 tons, in carbon emissions — “the emissions equivalent of avoiding driving a car around the Earth 3,000 times.”

This benchmarking stage follows the Carbon Leadership Forum work in 2012 to create one of the first sets of “product category rules” for reporting the environmental footprint of concrete, enabling concrete producers to more accurately report on their product’s carbon emissions. These standards have been used by the top six concrete producers in the United States to inform their selection of concrete mixes.

“In the design phase, our data enables architects and engineers to use carbon, and other environmental impacts, as a performance criteria in addition to common criteria such as cost and strength, when specifying and selecting concrete,” Simonen said.

To meet the goals of the Paris Agreement on climate, global carbon emissions must peak by the year 2020 and fossil fuels be eliminated entirely by 2050.

The Embodied Carbon Benchmark Study is the first stage of the ongoing project called LCA for Low Carbon Construction, and was funded by the Charles Pankow Foundation, Skanska USA and the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.

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For more information, contact Simonen at 206-685-7282 or ksimonen@uw.edu

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