Sustainability in a Material World
Each year, the mainstream definition of “sustainable design” continues to broaden its reach. The emphasis has expanded far beyond energy, water and site into public health, social equity, wellness and transparency– underscoring how our effect on the environment is inextricably linked with its effects on us.
As the industry seeks to make the invisible visible, another exciting shift brings the sustainability conversation full-circle to the most direct and tangible components of architecture: materials– the physical parts and pieces with which buildings are made. The concepts of embodied carbon, zero waste and deconstruction and reuse often run on parallel tracks, but we are beginning to explore how they relate.
At its core, what does it take to create a material or product? Embodied carbon considers the energy and associated emissions required by a process, most commonly measured over the course of manufacturing from extraction into a piece ready for shipment—though there are a multitude of ways to measure it. For the record, embodied carbon is not necessarily the actual measure of CO2, but instead the equivalent value of global warming potential relative to carbon dioxide as a means of comparison across multiple known greenhouse gases.
Along with the actual carbon accounted for, this metric aims to capture the full backstory of a material. It is a number worth a thousand words.
While embodied carbon helps explain where things come from, zero waste guidelines consider where they go. Certifications like TRUE (Total Resource Use and Efficiency) activate policies from supply chains to waste streams that shift practices in the context of larger systems.
Embodied carbon and zero waste ambitions go hand in hand. With a supposed 2.48 trillion square feet to build in the next few decades(1), a global extraction increase of over 240% between 1970-2017 to 101.4 billion tons in 2017(2), and an estimated building material waste rate of over 1 billion tons per year by 2025 (3), these numbers represent truly inconceivable quantities and we must challenge the direct correlations between them. Deconstruction and reuse create the link between embodied carbon and waste diversion as methods to redistribute the value we have already invested. We can’t truly get to net-zero without considering it.
Deconstruction and Reuse
A project team is naturally able to use less “new” embodied carbon by incorporating re-used materials, and facilitate future “offsets” if material connections are planned for disassembly. Deconstruction and reuse together save natural capital and divert resources from landfills, reducing the impacts of both extraction and destruction.
The materials chapter in the sustainability story presents especially poignant challenges for retail architecture, where brand identity is embedded in the physical store design as much as in the products themselves. Brands must safeguard their identity, and building materials are often a part of that. For retail, it’s going to be a tough sell to consider the nuances of embodied carbon in the design decisions of character-defining finishes. It will also be a real hurdle to have these same materials free-floating in the market after a store closes. So, with the short life spans of a sector that must constantly evolve to thrive, how might we harness the power we have to make this cyclical nature more circular?
Deconstruction and reuse unlock opportunities to intentionally address waste and carbon footprints in a way that enriches, rather than threatens, core business and surrounding communities. Even if we only start with the universal and unbranded, we’ll have plenty of work on materials worth saving.
There is a groundswell of colleagues, clients and contractors wanting to do more. Several civic governments, in conjunction with salvage experts, are organizing policies to codify deconstruction practices and foster re-use markets. These policies support their carbon and waste reduction goals in long-term climate action plans that then affect us all.
As the industry collectively considers these concepts, it is important to realize how each of these priorities facilitates and influences each other so that we do not lose sight of what these terms really mean in real-life outcomes. Most people don’t want to cause pollution, whether in the air or in the ground. As some of us investigate carbon emissions, others can track the materials themselves. Rolling into 2020 is a wide ecosystem of people ready to mobilize. The best thing about dealing with the physical is that we can most literally see what we can achieve.