The 2030 Challenge and new energy codes to reduce building’s energy use and climate impact are critical steps forward in addressing our climate crisis. But they are not enough. Until governments are willing to take lead on a carbon-free economy, architects and the building industry must do more. As we advance toward key global targets, like the Paris Agreement’s 100% net reduction in greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) by 2050, it has become clear that embodied carbon—the greenhouse house gas impact of a building’s materials production and its construction—is one of the most significant opportunities to reduce our impact.
As a firm deeply committed to sustainability, we consider it our duty to push ourselves, our industry and our clients toward more meaningful and sustainable solutions. As such, we are making a commitment that every ZGF project adhere to the following principles:
- Consider and address both operational and embodied carbon. Starting in 2020, ZGF is establishing both operational and embodied carbon benchmarks for every project as part of our 2030 Challenge commitment. At the start, these metrics will be simple, but useful, tools to enable the conversation within the design team and with our clients. These benchmarks will open the door to a deeper life cycle assessment process, which we are already doing for our highest performing LEED projects. We are also working on other simpler and faster tools, including a tool to compare and optimize envelope systems.
- Reduce impact of the worst materials. Starting with concrete, which represents 10% of the world’s GHG emissions, ZGF recently developed a calculator to quickly compare and assess the impact of various mixes and supplementary cementitious materials. This calculator, along with tools like the forthcoming EC3 tool, allows teams to see all environmental product declarations (EPDs) for every concrete mix in their area and “performance spec” a mix for specific qualities, including lowest possible GHGs.
- Get serious about carbon sequestration. One of the transformative opportunities for architecture is to have our buildings pull carbon out of the atmosphere. How do we do that? There’s considerable talk about the role of mass timber, but research shows that “conventionally” grown forest products have limited benefit. Sustainably harvested FSC-certified wood is significantly better, but the real game changer is materials made up of agricultural waste products (like straw MDF board available on the East and West coast) that would otherwise be burnt or left to decompose.
The other game changer? Building re-use, upgrading the energy performance of existing buildings while taking advantage of the “sunk” carbon emissions already embodied in the building structure and other components.
ZGF fully endorses these strategies as the means to understanding and making vital advancements toward an equitable and sustainable future.