Why Everyone is Talking About Embodied Carbon

As Earth Day 2021 approaches, the building industry’s focus on sustainability has found new resolve as a parallel path to pandemic-related design solutions in the health and wellness in the office of the future. While the green building movement has been maturing over the last half-century, the recent emphasis on carbon neutrality has the design world examining not only how efficiently buildings operate, but also the carbon footprint of each material we put into our new projects.

A building or interior space contributes to carbon emissions in two ways, totaling 39% of the total global CO2 emissions. Operational carbon refers to the carbon emitted once the space is occupied – the heat or air conditioning is running, the lights are on, and people are using the space for everyday tasks. Operational carbon is responsible for 28% of the global CO2 emissions. Embodied carbon, in contrast, is what goes into the space before anyone even occupies it: carbon goes into making, transporting and installing every material and product that is put into the project, from the wall studs to the ceiling tiles, the carpet to the furniture. Currently, building materials and construction – the area where embodied carbon comes in – accounts for 11% of the global CO2 emissions.

As the industry continues to make buildings that operate more efficiently with the improvement of its systems, we’re now putting more emphasis on reducing the embodied carbon upfront, further cutting down the carbon footprint for any given project. Since embodied carbon is locked in once the space is moved into, it is important to zone in on what is in the project specifications. Fortunately, there are materials and methods available to reduce embodied carbon today, and advancements in technology are pushing carbon-conscious materials into greater and greater market share.

Materials are challenging the boundaries, and while more manufacturers are finding ways to lower their carbon footprint with both inherent design changes and the purchase of carbon offsets, more information (such as the standardized EPDs – Environmental Product Declarations) is provided to end users and designers to clarify how much carbon goes into manufacturing one product versus another. What’s more, manufacturers are taking it a step further and presenting solutions that help create carbon negative projects. Some products, such as some woods, concretes, or carpets, can store atmospheric CO2 in themselves. These materials “sequester” carbon, capturing carbon dioxide already exhausted into the atmosphere. This creates a carbon-negative credit, making up for other materials that may have an unavoidable carbon footprint.

Sustainable goals must cooperate with a company’s triple bottom line – how does the embodied carbon of the materials we select stack up against the company’s design vision, budgetary expectations, and ultimate mission? For many companies, a holistic discussion of the office of the future is one where the employees find their health and safety resonate in tune with the larger context of environmental impact. We look forward to continuing to discover new innovations that meld these goals together, creating cohesive spaces that welcome employees back to a sustainable office of the future.