Embodied Carbon – New Guidelines from the RICS

Sean Lockie
The RICS released in July the 1st edition of their guidance on embodied carbon calculation. Faithful+Gould’s head of sustainability Sean Lockie, with support from his team, were the lead authors.

Further to our Q&A with Sean in March of this year, we asked him to offer us an update on the flurry of recent embodied carbon activity. These are his comments:

So what has been happening in the embodied carbon arena over the last few months?

The RICS have just launched the embodied carbon guidance note after about 18 months of focus groups and industry engagement. The paper was commissioned by the RICS in response to the UK government’s Low Carbon Construction Plan (published June 2011), calling for the industry to support the development of embodied carbon measurement tools.

Answering a challenge from government to develop a methodology and data for measuring embodied carbon in construction projects, this 1st edition of the guidance note is really significant because for the first time it’s going to give practitioners a consistent means of calculation. The RICS are really pleased with the result and have included the topic in their series of Web Classes, due to start later this year.

These interactive sessions will give me an even greater opportunity to help members extend their embodied carbon learning still further.

(Visit www.rics.org/webclass for more information.)

The RICS always felt it should not be too UK-centric and I think what has been a developed hit the spot.

A second significant development – and one that demonstrates that this is not solely a UK issue – is that in June we were asked to present the methodology in Brussels, during the EU renewable energy week. The presentation went down very well, and subsequently we are seeing interest in adopting the methodology in Europe and new interest in China and Australia. The RICS always felt it should not be too UK-centric and I think what has been a developed hit the spot.

Finally since we last spoke there has been a real drive to develop Environmental Product Declarations (EPD’S) for products using a European standard called CEN TC 350. What this means is that we should be getting much better data on environmental impacts (including carbon) on product labelling. This data will feed BIM models etc., and will give us a better understanding of impacts in future.

Just what is embodied carbon?

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.

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. Emissions occur during extraction of raw materials (the cradle), processing in a factory (factory gate), and then transporting that concrete to a construction site (site). This we refer to as the ‘embodied’ carbon.

Embodied carbon in the construction lifecycle

Lifecycle diagram

Operational v embodied carbon

Embodied carbon is just as, if not more important than operational carbon. This is because embodied carbon is carbon emitted today to make a building. This proportion is increasing as the operational load reduces through the tightening of the building regulations. It can be as high as 65%.

Until now 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. So far the feedback we have had on this that have used it has been very positive.

Government stance on embodied carbon

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.

The Chief Construction Advisor, Paul Morrell set the industry a challenge to develop a methodology and data for carbon and I think the guidance note goes some way to delivering this.

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. The Chief Construction Advisor, Paul Morrell set the industry a challenge to develop a methodology and data for carbon and I think the guidance note goes some way to delivering this. Paul will be stepping down at the end of November 2012 and will be replaced by Peter Hansford, the former president of the Institution of Civil Engineers. The ICE also have a track record of developing guidance in the sustainability and carbon area so I think he will be a good champion going forward.

Why Faithful+Gould?

Faithful+Gould have been providing advice in this area for over a decade. We were 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.

This year we are investing in some pretty exciting software that will allow our QS’s to develop embodied carbon reports on every cost plan they develop. 

Impact on clients

On a CSR level, reporting embodied carbon analysis / mitigation has a direct impact on the attractiveness of a building. Some developers have realised that embodied carbon is their biggest impact and are taking steps to get their supply chain to quantify and mitigate it. Green buildings are becoming more in demand and carbon analysis of a development has a direct link into the sustainability score. 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. 

Other benefits such as cost savings

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. These interventions often lead to cost savings. 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.

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.

Next steps

The embodied carbon guidelines which we co-authored with RICS are launched and are available for sale through the RICS. We will be doing a number of web-training events with the RICS, the first of which will be in December, so keep an eye on the RICs website to book your space.

One Local Authority, Brighton, is requiring embodied carbon analysis on all developments. We might see others take this approach in the future. Then if government endorses the approach we might see some sort of taxation or conditions of planning or Building Control or penalty for projects that don’t pass a benchmark. However we will need much more data and someone collating data and producing benchmarks for this to happen.   

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.

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. 

Hear more about this emerging hot topic and find out about the RICS online web class delivered by Sean Lockie, our Head of Sustainability at www.rics.org/webclass or click here to find out more about how your organisation can benefit from our sustainability and carbon management expertise.