Headshot of Laura Soma

Laura Soma

Project Manager+Sustainability Specialist

Meet Laura

Embodied carbon emissions—three small words with heavy implications for our future. You're probably starting to hear the term across the A/E/C landscape, if you're not already neck deep in it.

For those new to the concept, we thought you'd like a summary of what embodied carbon emissions really are, how we see the contractor's role on projects, and some of the great tools available.

Defining Embodied Carbon Emissions

Carbon emissions are the greenhouse gas releases caused by construction, building operations, or any other source. Embodied carbon emissions refer specifically to the manufacturing and construction process. These are the lion's share of any new building's carbon footprint. Typically, carbon emissions during construction of a building are larger than many years of its operational emissions. Elements include the harvest and manufacture of construction materials, their transport, and onsite construction.

As a result, our industry is a substantial contributor to climate change. We can, however, greatly reduce these emissions by working together with the right tools.

Source: Seattle 2030 District

Clients and A/E/C Partners are Responding

A growing number of top construction clients, designers, and contractors are tracking and taking action when it comes to embodied carbon. We're rethinking projects from start to finish, from materials and systems to local sourcing.

The general contractor can play an important role alongside the design team and owner. We advise on the cost, schedule, and impacts of material choices, and can include embodied carbon as a major piece of that analysis. Since we keep in touch with local subcontractors and suppliers, we can often identify alternate materials for consideration. We can seek out local suppliers and help the design team refine the product specifications to make sure carbon factors are clear and build the project with an eye for low-emission methods.

Great Tools Are Available

There’s no need to start from scratch. Great tools are available to help A/E/C teams navigate solutions for their projects, with valuable information and lessons learned along the way. I'd like to share five of the best.

  • Start with a deeper understanding. Microsoft's white paper Reducing Embodied Carbon in Construction is a treasure trove of insight and tips for anyone involved in the building process. It speaks to designers, builders, project owners, and everyone in between. It also makes the company's business case for emissions reduction. I encourage you take a deep dive.
  • Consider carbon footprint in material selections. Most manufactured products come with third-party Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs). Building Transparency has created the EC3 Tool for tracking EPD data collectively on your project. EPDs cover manufacturing methods, transportation methods and distances, and material efficiency. Most manufacturers and product reps have them. Those without EPDs will be under pressure from clients that require them! The Carbon Leadership Forum offers great breakdowns for building materials including their manufacture, transportation, installation, maintenance, and disposal. I recommend using this along with EC3 to get a more complete picture.
  • Track your equipment and transport emissions. The EPA's Simplified GHG Emissions Calculator is an easy tracking tool covering your fossil fuel usage, mileage, power usage, refrigerants, gases, and numerous other factors in spreadsheet format.
  • Stay Current. BuildingGreen is a constantly updated source of perspective and resources on carbon emissions and other aspects of sustainability, like site runoff and air quality, targeting general contractors, architects, and MEP designers.

The Table Is Set

Attacking embodied carbon emissions used to be a daunting challenge, requiring invention on the go. But thanks to a lot of great tools—and a lot of committed players—it's easier than ever to track your project's impacts and start reducing them.

The best time to start is at the project concept phase, with the whole team's commitment. The second-best time is now.