Our clients are increasingly asking us how they can construct a carbon-neutral facility and accounting for the embodied carbon of construction must be part of the equation for any carbon-neutral project.

Embodied carbon is defined as the carbon footprint of a material, and is expressed in metric tons of CO2e –  the global warming potential of an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide.  Determining the amount of embodied carbon considers the global warming potential of all greenhouse gases (GHGs) that are released within the material’s supply chain. This can include the extraction of raw materials from the ground, transport, refining, processing, assembly, in-use, and the end of a material’s life.

Three forces have come together to motivate development teams to address carbon:

  • Consumer Preference: Multifamily tenants and corporate employees are driving faster adoption of high-impact carbon strategies. The consumer market is ready for businesses to take action on climate, and their expectations for climate response are intensifying faster than the commercial real estate industry is changing.
  • Corporate Reporting: Investors are requiring transparent and science-based reporting on ESG (environmental, social, governance). Companies seeking investor dollars are expected to have a strong position on climate, including calculating embodied carbon.
  • Entitlement Hurdles: Reviewers in the entitlements process now want to understand the building’s lifecycle impact, including embodied carbon.

To bring embodied carbon into the commercial real estate design and construction processes, we need to address this multi-dimensional and multi-actor challenge by retooling the integrated design and construction process. Project leaders must expand the depth of their sustainability bench and clarify the carbon accountability of each team and its members. Doing this is as good for business as it is for the environment – because increasingly those two tracks are mutually inclusive.

Here are four high-level steps that projects should take today to address embodied carbon in the sustainability program:

  1. Expand the team upstream of the development PM and downstream of the GC:  Development project managers focus on bringing a new asset online and typically are siloed from operations. Onboard the Operations person responsible for reporting carbon to the project stakeholder team. Similarly, the GC must onboard the trades to the new requirement for environmental product declarations on embodied carbon and material quantities needed for emission calculations.
  2. Estimate the project’s embodied carbon in the design phase, validate in the construction phase: By including embodied carbon modeling early in the design phase, proactive design decisions can be made for the betterment of the project and the environment. It will also demonstrate to consumers that the interest in carbon is authentic, to entitlement committees that the embodied carbon strategy is thoughtful, and to investors that the ownership is transparent and committed.
  3. Engage vendors through clear, supportive, and informative procurement strategies: One of the biggest challenges in the shift to carbon goals is that vendors are still catching up and struggle to know what to share with buyers or how to quantify their own carbon. We’ve worked with clients and their procurement teams to develop industry-specific guidance related to Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) so that all good vendors, even if they are new to the world of embodied carbon, have a chance to compete and win the work. We also recommend informational sessions as part of the bidding process. For us to get the embodied carbon issue right, we need to be supportive of our vendor communities and help them help us.
  4. Track embodied carbon throughout the value chain: Two products may have the exact same metric tons of CO2e per unit of measure. But if one product is made locally and the other is imported internationally, the added emissions of the transport must be included to make an apples-to-apples comparison. Sophisticated multi-national clients are making this analysis standard practice. Be prepared to provide the next level of information for your aspirational projects by designating a carbon subject matter expert in your group.

By considering embodied carbon through a 360-degree view, it can accurately be estimated, managed, and tracked. The changes needed are complex – but not necessarily complicated.

My advice is to lean into this carbon issue sooner rather than later – and if you are already looking at operational carbon emissions, take the challenge further by going after embodied carbon. You aren’t doing any of this alone, and the rewards for being in front of carbon far outweigh the risks of being behind.

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