5 Tips to Reduce Embodied Carbon in Construction

March 4, 2024

For years, developers and contractors have been aware of a building’s operational carbon emissions when developing and working on new sites. Responsible for most of the total emissions over an asset’s lifetime, many professionals have made it a priority for carbon reduction. Carbon emissions are a significant contributor to climate change, with 40% of the world’s carbon emissions coming from the built world/construction industry and of those, 13% are embodied carbon. That’s a number that needs to change, but how? Why is reducing embodied carbon in construction so important?

Carbon Emissions

What is Embodied Carbon?

Embodied carbon is the total amount of carbon emissions that are associated with the production, transportation, and other processes associated with a product or building. This phrase includes all the emissions that are generated during the extraction, processing, and transportation of things like raw materials. It also includes the emissions that are generated during tasks like manufacturing, construction, and even the delivery of the final result, such as a product or building. 

Embodied Carbon

Embodied vs Operational Carbon

Embodied carbon is considered a Scope 3 emission. This is due to the fact that it encompasses the entire life cycle of a product or building. This process includes the path from raw materials to end-of-life. Scope 1 emissions are those that are directly generated by a company’s operations. These operations include things like the burning of fossil fuels in a factory or warehouse. Scope 2 emissions are those that are generated by the consumption of electricity. This includes the power used to run a building. Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions can be referred to as Operational Carbon. These are much easier to influence, control, and reduce. Scope 3 emissions, otherwise referred to as embodied carbon are those that are generated by the entire lifecycle of a building or a product. This includes everything from the extraction and processing of raw materials to the transportation of goods and even the disposal of waste.

Why Reducing Embodied Carbon is Important

Many of the world’s leaders and scientists are concerned for our environment. There are many signs and forms of proof that global warming/climate change is real, and is something we should be concerned about. Reducing embodied carbon is important for achieving net-zero emissions, which is the goal of limiting global warming to below 2 degrees Celsius, or 35.6 Fahrenheit. This form of carbon is more important to target because embodied carbon emissions are often difficult to control and abate, as they are generated throughout the entire life cycle of a product or building. Therefore, reducing embodied CO2 emissions tends to require a comprehensive approach that focuses on all aspects of the supply chain, making it more difficult and therefore more important. It’s sort of like trying to eat a steak on a dinner plate, it’ll take more bites than the salad or green beans, and may even be more important to finish too. 

How to Reduce Embodied Carbon

There are a few different ways that those in construction can begin to reduce their embodied carbon emissions. It may take a few different steps, but reducing your carbon footprint is possible and worthwhile, especially when considering the certain economic incentives that may be available to you if you do. This includes the  Inflation Reduction Act of 2022, which provides grants, tax incentives, and even loans for buildings built to be more energy-efficient and climate-resilient. This includes $2.15 billion in available funds. 

There are many ways to reduce your embodied carbon footprint, including:

Designing building structures to efficiently use materials

Designing for Material Efficiency

Designing your building or structures to ensure that you use materials as efficiently as possible can make a huge difference in reducing embodied carbon, and even your project costs. Designing an efficient structure is also a benefit in itself. As an example, aligning the structural system of the building can reduce or even sometimes eliminate the need to use transfer slabs, which can require a large amount of high-emitting concrete materials. Structural optimization can help designers use materials and processes more efficiently. This in turn can lead to embodied carbon savings and even overall cost savings. Beyond that, these structures are often built with the future in mind and tend to last longer as a result. 

Build With Smarter Materials 

Building with smarter, lower-carbon materials has the potential to significantly reduce a building’s embodied carbon. Options include using low-carbon concrete such as Baker’s new ECOPact® low-carbon concrete mix. This mix is set to reduce the total CO2 in the concrete by 39%, enabling the owner to exceed its design standards for embodied carbon. There are also other low-carbon concrete mixes available.  

You may even consider alternative structural systems like mass timber or hollow core slabs. Changes to your insulation can also matter, instead of XPS insulation, alternatives like NGX insulation may also reduce embodied carbon. Additionally, steel sourced from an electric arc furnace that is also made with a high recycled content can lower embodied carbon as well. When choosing alternative materials to build with, it is also worth considering their carbon-storing ability, like wood, which naturally stores carbon within its mass. 

Minimize Underground Parking   

When building new spaces, it may be worthwhile to consider changing those parking plans. Underground parking for residential buildings in urban environments is becoming less of a necessity. This is true for many cities and towns,  as public transit systems are becoming even more reliable. 

An estimated 20 to 50% of concrete in a building is used below grade.

Unfortunately, concrete use is often the highest when dealing with underground parking in residential buildings.  By minimizing underground parking, you’ll be reducing your embodied carbon footprint because you’ll be using fewer materials that create embodied carbon,  including concrete, rebar, and insulation. 

Lower Energy Use

Another excellent way to reduce your carbon footprint is by lowering your energy use or alternating its source. You may also want to work with suppliers and manufacturers to do the same. For example, you may be able to reduce your energy use by optimizing your machinery, or by utilizing power sources like solar. Solar power is not only cheaper, but it’s also cleaner, and greatly reduces your carbon footprint. There are also many incentives to install solar panels both for your business and home, saving you money in the long run while also reducing your carbon footprint. 

Reuse buildings and materials

Reuse Buildings and Materials

One of the best ways to reduce your carbon footprint is by reusing buildings and materials. There are 16 million vacant housing units in the U.S. right now, meaning there is no reason to build new. Renovation projects usually save between 50–75% of embodied carbon emissions compared to the construction of a new building. If the foundations and structure are already well-preserved, most of the embodied carbon will already be there. This dramatically reduces the production of new embodied carbon. To save even more, consider salvaging materials and reusing them instead of using newer materials, this helps doubly reduce embodied carbon and also helps cut down on total waste. 

For The Greater Good

Reducing embodied carbon in construction not only helps our planet but also can help your business as well. Businesses that are shown to care about the environment have a greater reputation and tend to do more business with those that don’t. More and more people, manufacturers, and even governments are choosing to work with businesses that care about the environment. By making a few small changes, you’ll not only help the environment but you’ll also help your reputation in the process, meaning small changes add up to great changes for everyone involved. 

Reducing embodied carbon emissions is important, especially when you work in construction. Concrete tends to hold a lot of carbon, but is often required in much of our infrastructure. To help reduce embodied carbon, you can take a few simple steps, from reusing materials to choosing better materials and using alternative energy sources. The smallest changes are all that’s needed to start a domino effect into something greater. Aggregate Technologies is making small, simple changes to our operations and equipment. By using HydroDemolition, our repairs last up to 3 times longer, and reusing existing structures is the best way to reduce embodied carbon. We also recycle nearly half of all the water used in our projects! 

To learn more about how HydroDemolition can help your carbon footprint, contact us today. 

Contact us when you need a contractor with a record of safety and success for your concrete cutting and hydrodemolition needs.

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