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Choosing Insulation for Carbon Value – Why More is Not Always Better Part 1

SWA’s Enclosure Group is acutely aware that insulation is the most important single material choice to maximize the enclosure’s thermal resistance over its operational life. Many of us in the building industry believe that, combined with a good continuous air seal, the highest insulation value makes the greenest enclosure, helping to reduce a structure’s carbon footprint and combat climate change. It may come as a surprise, then, that some of the most commonly used insulation materials are so carbon-heavy to manufacture and/or install, that for many decades they wipe away the carbon-energy savings they are supposed to provide.  The following is a detailed discussion of how and why this is, and what the industry is doing to change the equation.

Embodied vs. Operational Carbon

The built environment looms large in the climate picture, because almost 40% of the total carbon put into the planet’s atmosphere each year is attributed to buildings. Over the past 30 years of green building, we have overwhelmingly focused on operational carbon – the carbon that buildings emit as they are being used. Only recently have we begun to focus on embodied carbon – the carbon that goes into constructing buildings, which is typically far greater than the energy saved in the first decades of operation. Changes in energy codes are aimed at operational carbon, and even those organizations and standards that have been at the forefront of promoting sustainable building [LEED, PH] have not been quantifying or limiting embodied carbon, although they bring attention to it.

The Time Value of Carbon

Assuming that a building stands for many decades, or even centuries, its operational carbon will eclipse its embodied carbon over its lifetime, and therefore when the building’s carbon Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is calculated, operational carbon savings will be more important than embodied carbon saved/spent in the long run. Why does embodied carbon deserve equal weight with operational carbon? Because of the total global carbon emissions from buildings, 28% is pegged to embodied carbon. That’s already a large percentage, but when you consider the near term, the first 30 years of a building’s life, the percentage jumps to about 50%. In effect, every new building is in carbon debt upon completion due to the huge amount of carbon emitted  in order to construct it., And in order for the climate to benefit from the energy savings provided by a well-insulated and sealed enclosure and a high efficiency energy system, the building needs to last and be used for a very long time. The problem is that we may not have 30 years, let alone 60, to pay off that carbon debt.

In the first 30 years of a building’s operational life, 50% of its total carbon emissions are still due to embodied carbon (Source: Architecture 2030)

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Become a Carbon Hero with Five Easy Tactics

Before you can really dig deep into the advanced design concepts of embodied carbon analysis and whole building energy modeling, you must first perform some bare minimum prep work. An easy way to get the pre-schematic plan up on its legs quickly is to add qualitative performance measures to the architect’s program study or create an Owners Project Requirements (OPR) document. For this article, “qualitative performance measures” refer to the metrics that express embodied carbon, but can also include operational energy, water, and even healthy materials.

Integrated Design Process Image An integrated design process (IDP) anchors the architectural program to performance metrics such as carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e), Energy Use Intensity (EUI), and zero Energy Performance Index (zEPI). So, by completing the IDP, you’re getting the basic tools to optimize embodied carbon and operational energy use in your design:

  1. Target the early phase of the project
  2. Prepare a Carbon Hotspot and Simple Box energy analysis to compare carbon sensitivity of different schemes not limited to wall and roof construction, massing, and solar exposure.
  3. Schedule a workshop with the design team and owner to discuss findings and recommendations.
  4. Establish performance targets such as total Carbon Dioxide equivalents as a basic program requirement.
  5. Choose a compliance pathway and verify design with Life Cycle Analysis and a Whole Building Energy model.

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Building Energy Performance Standards (BEPS) are Coming to D.C., Are You Ready?

In January of this year, the Clean Energy DC Omnibus Amendment Act of 2018 was signed into law, establishing minimum Building Energy Performance Standards (BEPS) for existing buildings. The law requires all private buildings over 50,000 square feet to benchmark energy use and demonstrate energy performance above a median baseline beginning January 1, 2021. If a building does not score above the median performance, it has five years to demonstrate improvement or face financial penalties.

While quite a few of the details on enforcement are still being worked out, the median scores will be based on 2019 building performance and there are actions you can take today to get ready for BEPS.

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Climate Week NYC: Seven Days of Climate Action and Discussion

 

Climate Week logoLast week, as I was writing this blog, I came across a New York Times article: “The Amazon, Siberia, Indonesia: a World of Fire.” By now, I’m sure most of us are aware that the Amazon Rainforest has been burning for weeks, but this deliberate act of environmental destruction will contribute to a feedback loop. These fires release carbon dioxide and kill the trees and species that not only remove greenhouse gasses from the air but are part of vital fragile ecosystems. As more climate-warming gasses fill the air, extreme weather patterns, drought, species loss, and global warming are exacerbated. These effects then accelerate the spread of infectious disease, global poverty, and human health defects. Overall, climate change and environmental degradation negatively affect both humans and the planet, which makes us less resilient and allows for climate change to accelerate even more aggressively. And the cycle continues.

So, for the sake of our (really wonderful) natural planet, and humankind, it is crucial that we try to hinder this feedback loop and make climate action a priority around the world. And, although individually we can try to have a more reciprocal relationship with the planet, our actions and voices carry more weight collectively, which is where Climate Week NYC comes in.

What is Climate Week NYC?

Organized by The Climate Group, Climate Week NYC is an annual week-long gathering for citizens and global leaders to join forces and take action to mitigate environmental harm caused by human activity. There will be a number of public events each day from September 23-29, including tours, film screenings, conferences, and more.

Fun fact: Swedish teenager and activist Greta Thunberg sailed across the Atlantic all the way from England to meet with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, and to attend the United Nations Climate Action Summit, scheduled on the first day of Climate Week NYC!

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What the Climate Mobilization Act Means for Developers, Designers, and Construction Teams

Image of central park and New York City buildigns

The construction industry has been increasingly focused on meeting ever-tightening codes and achieving higher ratings in sustainability certification programs (e.g., LEED, Passive House, etc.). These standards do a good job of raising the bar, but there is a new bar in town and we’re not talking about whiskey.

Local Law 97

NYC’s Local Law 97 of 2019 establishes carbon emissions limits for buildings 25,000 square feet and larger. These emissions limits, which are based on current building performance data, will begin in 2024 and will rachet down in 2030 and beyond. While we continue to work with building owners and portfolio managers of existing buildings (“What Does the Climate Mobilization Act Mean for Building Owners?”), we need to make sure that new buildings and major renovations are set up for success. Developers, designers, and construction teams must take LL97 into account during design, construction and turnover to protect the value of these new assets.

A developer or asset manager’s least favorite word is probably uncertainty, and now there’s a whole new host of uncertainties to think about:

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