Importance of Reducing Embodied Energy in the Built Environment

04/22/2019 | By Brent Trenga

Greenhouse gas emissions are producing climate-related shifts that are driving an increase in the earth’s average temperature and resulting in significant and costly impacts to our communities, our health, and our environment.

A new report by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) shows that 2018 was the fourth-hottest year since 1880, the earliest year for which reliable global temperature data is available.

“In fact, the warmest five years in the record are just the last five years,” Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City and one of the experts who described the new data in a press briefing, told NBC News MACH. “The long-term trends toward warmer temperatures are clear and continuing.”

Recognizing the impact of these rising temperatures, Congress recently amplified the discussion on global warming with the recent introduction of the Green New Deal, a joint congressional resolution containing a broad set of principles and goals for responding to climate change.

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The resolution recognizes that we are running out of time for cutting our greenhouse gas emissions to stave off the major impacts of climate change.

The data and discussion underscore the urgency of this issue and how critical it is for all industries—including the building and construction industry—to mount a comprehensive response to climate change.

Reducing embodied energy in the built environment is one way the building and construction sector can do its part to address one of the major challenges facing us this century.

What is embodied energy and why is it important?

Embodied energy is defined as the total energy required for the extraction, processing, manufacturing and delivery of buildings.

Think of embodied energy in terms of the way a building is built and the upstream value of the energy consumed by processes associated with building production, including everything from the mining and the processing of natural resources all the way to manufacturing and transportation.

[Read next: How Much Embodied Carbon Is In Your Building?]

It is a critical factor to consider when assessing the lifecycle of a building, and it relates directly to the sustainability of the built environment.

Reducing embodied energy to lessen the overall impact of the built environment must become a major priority when you consider that today the proportion of embodied energy in buildings has increased to more than 40% of energy consumption.

Consider that statistic in the context of a report from the Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction which indicates that the building sector growth rate over the next 40 years is expected to produce more than 736 billion square feet of new construction—adding the equivalent of the city of Paris to the planet each week.

What factors contribute to a material’s embodied energy?

To create low-carbon buildings, we need to choose low-carbon building materials. But right now, choosing these materials is challenging because the data is not readily available and what we do have lacks transparency to ensure it’s accurate. But additional tools are becoming available.

Microsoft is the first large corporate user of the Embodied Carbon Calculator for Construction (EC3) to track the carbon emissions of raw building materials, introduced by Skanska and supported by the University of Washington Carbon Leadership ForumInterface and C-Change Labs.

“We’ll use this in our new campus remodel. Our early estimates are that a low-carbon building in Seattle has approximately half the carbon emissions of an average building, so this could have a substantial impact on reducing carbon emissions in our remodel and eventually the entire built environment,” wrote Lucas Joppa, chief environmental officer for Microsoft, in a corporate blog.

Every building is a complex combination of many processed materials, each of which contributes to the building’s total embodied energy. In looking at reducing embodied energy in the building process, it is important to keep in mind that more processed materials will generally have higher embodied energy.

Some factors that contribute to a material’s embodied energy include:

  • Recycling potential
  • Efficient building design
  • Amount of raw materials used
  • Distance needed to transport materials (local sourcing results in lower embodied energy)
  • Complexity of the manufacturing process (the more complex the process, the more energy-intensive it is)

What can the building and construction industry do to reduce embodied energy?

Most lifecycle assessments show that the majority of embodied energy comes from the supply chain. As such, the drive toward reducing embodied energy in the built environment should also include a movement to make changes at the supply chain level, encouraging producers of steel, concrete and other materials to continue to shift towards more sustainable practices.

[On topic: Sustainable Solutions for Everyday Problems from Greenbuild]

It makes sense to look for options that minimize the initial energy investment—the embodied energy—in the built environment.

The building and construction community can make a significant impact by selecting materials that have a lifecycle assessment or an environmental product declaration, helping to impact climate change by making smarter, more sustainable choices in the products they use.

About the Author:

Brent Trenga, LEED AP BD+C, WELL AP is Building Technology Director for Kingspan Insulated Panels North America. His background as an architect, construction manager, developer and project owner give him a unique perspective on all facets of the construction industry.

Trenga leads Kingspan North America’s material health and transparency program and Kingspan’s North American NZE 2020 program, while collaborating with the company’s global healthy building team. Trenga can be contacted by email at brent.trenga@kingspan.com.

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