Embodied Carbon - a Q&A with Sean Lockie

Danielle Wynn
We sat down with Sean to understand what embodied carbon is and why it has become such a hot topic these days.

Danielle Wynn: Sean, I think the first question a non-expert would ask with respect to embodied carbon is – what is it?

Sean Lockie: There are two types of carbon emissions with respect to a building, operational carbon and embodied carbon. Operational carbon refers to carbon dioxide emitted during the life of a building, from the ‘regulated’ and ‘unregulated’ loads associated with the use of a building. This includes the emissions from, say, the heating, cooling, lighting, and ICT. Embodied carbon refers to carbon dioxide emitted during the manufacture, transport and construction of building materials, together with end of life emissions. So for example, if you are specifying concrete on a project then carbon will have been emitted making that concrete. Their emissions occur during extraction of the raw materials (the cradle), processing in a factory (factory gate), transporting the concrete to a construction site (site). This we refer to as the ‘embodied’ carbon. 

Embodied carbon in the construction lifecycle

Lifecycle graph

DW: I’ve heard of operational carbon before. Is embodied carbon just as important as operational carbon? More important?

SL: Embodied carbon is just as important if not more important than operational carbon. This is because the amount used to make a building can be as high as 65%, especially as the operational load reduces through the tightening of the building regulations. Unfortunately, there has been a lack of consensus on exactly how embodied carbon should be defined and calculated. Undertaking embodied carbon assessments is not as straightforward as it sounds and without a standard methodology, agreed rules, data and data structures, clients have not been assured of consistent and evidenced results. There are guides but they are either too high level or very complicated if a full lifecycle assessment is undertaken. Hopefully the guidance I have co-authored with RICS will shed light on this issue and provide the Government with the necessary methodology and rules to simply calculate embodied carbon and allow Quantity Surveyors to play their part in this important process.

DW: Why has the Government taken such a strong stance with respect to embodied carbon?

SL: Current legislation addresses the reduction of operational emissions as a way of achieving ‘zero carbon’ but fails to account for the 65% embodied carbon required to make a building. As the construction industry accounts for 40% of total carbon emissions, there is a growing demand by the Government and industry leaders to address the challenges of measuring embodied carbon.

DW: What makes Faithful+Gould the leading consultant in embodied carbon management?

SL: I was commissioned by the RICS to address the issues of calculating embodied carbon, as required by Government, in the production of a standard methodology. This has culminated in the publication of an embodied carbon guidance of which we are lead author and makes Faithful+Gould an industry expert at the forefront of this initiative. Moreover, the economic viability of embodied carbon management relies on having the right tools for the job. In parallel with our strategic role on the RICS guidance, Faithful+Gould has invested in the future of our own cost planning tools, to allow them to quantify and calculate embodied carbon. Our quantity surveyors are best equipped to quantify the embodied carbon in projects and as such are undergoing a series of training modules to be fully prepared to advise clients. The intention is that every cost plan we produce will be accompanied with an embodied carbon estimate and this will be included in our cost planning scope. This will enable clients to manage their whole life carbon across their global businesses in a consistent, comparable way.

DW: So, how does all of this impact our clients and why is it important to them?

SL: On a CSR level, reporting embodied carbon analysis / mitigation has a direct impact on the attractiveness of a building. Most potential clients are more likely to settle for a more sustainable building. On a legislative level, it seems likely that embodied carbon management may become a mandatory industry standard in the future and, as methodologies develop and data sources improve, Government might move to some form of taxation if projects exceed ‘typical’ benchmarks. Additionally, as the construction industry moves towards BIM’s integrated design, construction and asset management principles, whole life carbon can be included once BIM models contain useful comparable carbon data. On a competitive level, it has been evidenced that some clients are starting to include embodied carbon quantification and mitigation on their projects placing them a step ahead of their competition. As pioneers and early adopters of the tools, they have already started capitalising on the added value gains and are already seeing results on both a construction efficiency level and a CSR level. This has been particularly voiced by clients in the developer, retailer, utilities and banking sectors.

DW: Are there any other benefits inherent in adopting a coherent embodied carbon approach? For example, will clients see any cost savings?

SL: Measuring embodied carbon will allow owners and occupiers to easily understand and compare the carbon value of different buildings. This can then be fed into any option appraisal with respect to, for example, refurbishing a building or building it from scratch. For many of the projects we have undertaken, it is cost effective to reduce a project’s embodied carbon by 30% through using less materials, substituting high carbon materials with low carbon ones, using higher levels of recycled content and materials which last longer. Our work with Waste & Resources Action Programme (WRAP) in adopting a resource efficient approach to construction reduced the capital costs on projects by 1%. Operational and embodied carbon work hand in hand. Acquiring a complete understanding of both allows design teams and consultants to create the best design plans and specifications for a low carbon building. A range of advisors including IPD, RICS and the Australian Property Institute have brought forward results which make the link between sustainable / energy efficient building and improved rental levels (3-5% improvements), less voids (reduction 5%) and increased values (10- 12%). This has a direct impact on the attractiveness of a building as most potential building tenants will more than likely settle for the more sustainable building.  

DW: Sean, in summary, can you just touch on where we stand now and what we should expect for the future?

SL: The embodied carbon guidelines I co-authored with RICS are ready to be launched at Ecobuild in March. I would encourage all to attend this event as many industry leaders and policy makers will be present and will be asking the same questions that may be of interest to you. Following Ecobuild, and our presentation of a standard for measuring embodied carbon, Government will convene and give a position statement on the industry standardisation of the guidelines. If and when the guidance is passed, clear accountability for building use efficiency will be brought to light and those organisations who do not give it sufficient attention (if any) may have to pay the price, perhaps in the form of taxes or as conditions of planning or Building Control. Faithful+Gould is continuing to successfully trial our purpose-built tools that work alongside the guidelines. So far, we have had an excellent response to our pilot with clients already giving evidence of added value gains. Our aim is to include embodied carbon reporting as part of every client’s cost plan. Faithful+Gould staff are being trained in the field to ensure that they are prepared to advise clients on any queries they may have. Faithful+Gould remains at the forefront of this initiative through our expert knowledge and the collaborative work we have done with RICS. We are investing in our staff to provide clients with prime consulting that puts them a step ahead of their competitors on both a legislative and cost efficient level.