Aspect Climate Chronicles – Part 1: Steps Towards Sustainability

Happy Earth Day! As we take this day to celebrate our planet and spotlight worldwide efforts in sustainability, we thought it would be a good opportunity to share our insights, and how Aspect is approaching the need for low carbon construction. Through this series of articles, we’ll highlight the challenges we face and the steps the industry needs to take – right now. 

Accountability is one of Aspect’s core values. Not only does this include accountability to all those with whom we work, but also to the planet. We must do our part to ensure that planet earth is healthy and habitable for generations to come. Sadly, with extreme weather events happening more frequently, we’re reminded of the climate crisis almost every day.

According to the UN IPCC Climate Change 2023: Synthesis Report released in March 2023, we are running out of time to effect severe climate change. To limit warming to max 1.5 °C, greenhouse gas emissions need to be cut by almost 50% by 2030. Countries, regions, and municipalities around the world are heeding this call, and declaring climate emergencies alongside action plans to address this extremely urgent crisis.

What impact do buildings have?
Buildings and construction account for around 40% of energy related carbon dioxide emissions. For typical buildings, the majority of this has historically come from the operational energy (heating, cooling, electricity for appliances etc.). However, with modern efficiencies in mechanical and electrical equipment, as well as better insulation methods and thermal envelope design, the proportion of embodied to operational carbon is increasing. By 2030 it’s estimated that embodied carbon will account for 50% of the total carbon emissions over a building’s life – making it the clear target towards reaching our carbon goals.

The Canadian government has joined over 120 other countries committed to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050 with Cities, Provinces and Territories setting ambitious targets as well. The Toronto Green Standard is an excellent example, and the City of Vancouver has set a new precedent for embodied carbon requirements as part of their own Climate Emergency Action Plan. As mentioned in this recent SABMag (Sustainable Architecture & Building Magazine) article:

 “The City of Vancouver’s initiative to monitor, regulate and ultimately codify the embodied carbon requirements for buildings is the first of its kind in Canada and provides an example for other authorities, whether municipal, provincial or federal, to follow.” 

From July 2023, the City of Vancouver will require all new 4 to 6-storey residential buildings to report and limit embodied carbon to no more than double that of a functionally equivalent baseline. Following this, all new Part 3 residential and commercial buildings will have embodied carbon reporting and reduction requirements – a major step in the drive toward more low carbon construction.

What is Embodied Carbon?
Embodied carbon is the carbon dioxide (and other equivalent gases that contribute to global warming) emitted during the production, construction, and the eventual demolition of a building and its constituent parts.

A Whole Building Life Cycle Assessment can be carried out to calculate the entire environmental impact of a building which includes both embodied and operational carbon. Creating an understanding and baseline around where embodied carbon ‘hides’ within the construction process is the first step toward appropriate answers.

Graphic above from the IStructE Guide How to calculate embodied carbon (Second edition)

What can we do?
By reducing (or eliminating) embodied carbon in buildings, Structural Engineers can have a huge impact on the industry, making significant steps towards reaching net zero carbon before 2050. As demonstrated in the figure below, by focusing on low carbon design, Structural Engineers are in a unique position to make an overwhelmingly disproportionate impact on carbon emissions. We must recognize this and take it upon ourselves to advocate for, and reduce carbon emissions, to our fullest potential.

Graphic above from the IStructE Guide How to calculate embodied carbon (Second edition)

At Aspect we’re addressing this issue head on. In some situations, there are simple changes that we can make in our day-to-day work, having little-to-no impact on architecture, or cost to the client:

  • Raising the concept of limiting embodied carbon if not a predetermined goal
  • Providing early consultation on structural materiality and layouts to reduce inefficiencies
  • Being efficient with materials and using low carbon materials where appropriate (eg. light wood frame, mass timber, low carbon concrete)
  • Designing for a circular economy wherever possible

Time is of the essence and the construction industry needs to do more. We are actively trying to push our peers and the industry in the right direction, adding embodied carbon accounting requirements to building standards, advising on new guidance documents and promoting the use of embodied carbon calculations generally. Aspect is active through industry collaborations, round tables, webinars, etc. We’re making progress if our collaborators fully appreciate the subject matter and recognize the impact their work has.

In this series of articles over the next few days, we’ll be elaborating on the above, as well as the continued efforts we are making here at Aspect – stay tuned! We hope this series will drive change or perhaps just inspire someone to embark on their own journey towards carbon reduction.