When such structures as the Jerwood Gallery at London’s Natural History Museum are constructed, the way that their building materials are manufactured, transported, and used can affect their carbon dioxide emissions—referred to as embodied carbon. A database under development in the United Kingdom seeks to track embodied carbon data from a variety of buildings to provide engineers and builders with benchmarks against which to measure their efforts to reduce embodied carbon in their projects. Wikimedia Commons/ John Cummings
A United Kingdom nonprofit has launched a publicly accessible database to help engineers and construction professionals worldwide benchmark their projects to reduce emissions.
May 6, 2014 —In 2013 the United Kingdom’s government and members of its construction industry announced a joint initiative to increase sustainability in construction, in part by reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the built environment by 50 percent by 2025. To advance that goal, a nonprofit organization recently launched the United Kingdom’s first publicly accessible embodied-carbon database so that engineers and construction professionals can benchmark their designs against data from across the industry.
WRAP, a government-funded nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting the efficient use of resources throughout the United Kingdom, launched the online database in April in collaboration with the U.K. Green Building Council, a nonprofit organization devoted to creating a more sustainable built environment. The organizations developed the system in partnership with significant industry members, including London-based Arup, Los Angeles-based AECOM, and other multidisciplinary consultancies.
“The database has been created in the context of the joint government and industry ambition to reduce carbon emissions associated with the construction industry by 50 percent,” says Gareth Brown, the built environment program manager for WRAP. “It will be instrumental in helping organizations meet this ambition by providing a source of data that people from across the whole supply chain—including engineers, architects, and quantity surveyors—can use to benchmark building designs, and as a result, assist in identifying where carbon reductions can be made.”
The database amalgamates lifecycle-assessment data from firms around the world. That data can be analyzed to determine the best means of reducing embodied carbon in construction projects. Embodied carbon refers to carbon dioxide that is emitted when building materials are manufactured, transported, and used in construction as well as during their end-of-life disposal. It differs from operational carbon, which refers to carbon dioxide that is emitted from such systems as heating and cooling when a building is in operation.
While operational carbon tends to be the focus of most sustainability efforts, the impact of embodied carbon on a building’s overall emissions tally is gaining an increasing amount of attention. “There are a number of people who are looking at whether you can trade the operational and embodied carbon off against each other,” Brown explains. “The idea is once you’ve managed down your operational carbon, you can determine how much focus you should put on the embodied carbon.” The database will help advance that discussion, he says, by providing a better understanding of how embodied carbon reductions can be achieved.
Firms are invited to upload their lifecycle assessments into the database, which presents the information in a manner that is compliant with current U.K. and European building standards to help project teams better understand the carbon footprints of different building types. More than 200 assessments have been uploaded into the database so far. “We are encouraging anybody who has completed an embodied-carbon assessment of a whole building or building element to upload their data into the database,” Brown says. “The more information we get into the database, the more useful that resource becomes for clients and engineers.”
Anyone can access the database from anywhere in the world to upload assessments and review data. The only thing they have to do is register on the website so WRAP knows who is supplying and using the data. The goal is to attract a variety of users to create a comprehensive resource that the industry can rely on as it gives greater consideration to the impact of embodied carbon in construction projects, Brown says. The database “has to have enough data in it for people to trust that the data are meaningful.”
If the database is successful, it has the potential to inform environmental policy in the United Kingdom and around the world. “On this journey around the balance between operational and embodied carbon, if people have a better understanding about what that actually means, they’re in a better place to have evidence-based policymaking to address the issue,” Brown says. “It’s about helping people determine where they can best focus their efforts to reduce carbon emissions.”