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How could CO2 legislation shift the building industry?

Research Project Name

Building Environment Impacts from Pending CO2 Legislation

What We Did

We defined and illustrated the current political and economic trends on carbon dioxide (CO2) limitations with regard to the building industry as of 2009–10. We also evaluated the relevance of developing a CO2 mapping and footprinting tool focused on a material’s transportation footprint. We considered the implications of scientific findings, both in the US and abroad, that are concerned with the effects of greenhouse gases (GHG) on our climate, along with the potential impact of legislative limitations proposed to curb the effects of GHG emissions. Our discussion was framed in the context of the built environment, over which we as architects have direct influence.

The Context

With the imminent threat of further increases in energy prices, people all around the globe are beginning to look for ways to limit their energy liabilities. The enormous popularity and success of the Toyota Prius in the United States is just one indicator of a response to this trend. However, unlike fashion trends that change from year to year, this transition appears to be as much about far-reaching implications for the future of life on our planet as it is about lifestyle and culture change.

The implication most relevant to the built environment is the growing sentiment for the need to limit or more rigorously understand energy consumption of buildings, as they currently account for more than 38% of all CO2 emissions in the United States alone. Architects and designers do more than select materials. We make critical choices about how well a building performs based on what we design, and we have an opportunity to significantly improve building performance through more informed decision-making.

The Results

Every indicator available suggests that carbon limits will be the metric for building performance in policies of the future. Carbon will be a liability on every company’s balance sheet. Building operations currently represent by far the largest portion of a building’s overall carbon footprint. Recognizing this impact, we see a shift in focus toward energy efficiency as a prime means of controlling the carbon footprint generated by buildings.

This expands the architect’s focus beyond materials and embedded energy, which represents a smaller proportion of overall carbon use. The majority of embodied carbon in materials comes from the production and manufacturing process, which we believe will be lowered in the future due to separate limitations and regulations. Energy efficiency over a building’s life cycle is becoming a more important metric—led by aggressive standards such as the 2030 Challenge and the Living Building Challenge, both of which aspire to go beyond LEED requirements. As this shift in focus occurs, we see an opportunity for life-cycle energy use to take up a smaller proportion of a building’s overall carbon footprint, through the application of innovative efficiency strategies.

What This Means

Designers and builders should expect increasingly stringent codes. Ongoing regulation will drive energy use and overall carbon footprints down. Programs such as the 2030 Challenge, the Living Building Challenge, and California’s Title 24 all aim to conserve energy.

We should communicate the benefits of carbon-efficient design. Designers and builders must consider and illustrate the financial benefits of carbon-efficient design at the early stages of the design process.

Carbon is becoming the metric of choice. Programs like the UK’s Carbon Reduction Commitment are moving the focus away from energy efficiency alone to a conversation of carbon management, both embodied and operational.

What’s Next?

We continue to monitor emerging policies concerning energy codes worldwide as they relate to carbon, with the intent of developing best-in-class expertise in carbon management strategies to raise carbon awareness within the firm and with clients.

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Shawn Gehle, Benjamin McAlister

Year Completed