Net-zero carbon in construction is a pointless aim if we don’t also reduce consumption

Posted by Derek Mason

4th January 2022

Photo by on Unsplash

As you know if you’ve been reading my articles for a while, I like to bring in different ideas and perspectives from a range of sources, and today is no different. While I wasn’t able to attend Dutch Design Week 2021 live and in person, some of their talks are available online, and it was fascinating to watch the one entitled Good Design for a Bad World – a talk about carbon.

Led by Dezeen founder and editor-in-chief, Marcus Fairs, there were contributions from a biomaterials researcher, Dr Darshil Shah, from Hélène Chartier who leads zero-carbon developments at C40 Cities (an organisation that coordinates climate strategies for 97 cities) and Teresa van Dongen, a lighting designer based in Amsterdam.

Speaking from the Dutch city of Eindhoven, with its futuristic buildings including the UFO-like Evoluon (built in 1966!) these subject specialists shared some interesting views on how we tackle carbon in the construction industry and beyond.

I couldn’t possibly share with you everything that was discussed in this talk in one article, but I’ll cover some of the points that stood out for me. I found this first point unsurprising, but still shocking:

  • We’ve reached a tipping point, where anthropogenic mass (the mass of all human-made materials) exceeds biogenic mass. Concrete and aggregates are 85% of the total anthropogenic mass.
  • Every year, our industry produces 100 billion m3 of materials and 80% of that tends to be concrete, aggregates, bricks or other mineral-based materials, so we urgently need to use more renewable building materials.
  • We might consider building with plants, as these act as efficient carbon stores. One kilogram of plant-based material holds 1.4 to 1.8 kg of carbon dioxide. Two examples – a beech forest would hold between six to eight tonnes of CO2 per hectare, and hemp plants grow so rapidly they’ll store up to 15 tonnes of CO2 per hectare per year.
  • Architects and designers need to look to timber as we tackle the climate crisis. Innovations in timber include transparent timber, radiative cooling timber and compressed, densified timber that is stronger than steel.
  • Cost of construction is one of the main barriers to timber construction. We need experimental collaboration if these alternative materials are to end up in the mainstream.
  • Putting measurement at the heart of design will help. We need to make sure we’re calculating the embodied energy and the lifecycle carbon, as well as looking at elements like reduced on-site construction times. More efficient construction includes fewer trucks delivering concrete and less traffic in the area around the site during the build. A whole lifecycle cost analysis and understanding would help send timber and other materials more mainstream.
  • Deconstructible buildings are important. Circularity is important. Buildings must be designed with deconstruction and reuse in mind.
  • One elephant in the room with renewables is the carbon emissions involved in constructing a wind turbine. Substantial concrete foundations are needed because of the turbine’s weight, and the blades are not recyclable, so they end up in landfill. We need collaboration between designers, engineers, architects, material scientists and biologists to change this.
  • There’s more to net zero carbon than construction. You could build the most environmentally sound apartment block on the planet, but if everyone who lives in it is eating steak flown in from Argentina, drinking mineral water from Belgium and driving an SUV, then it’s all pretty pointless.
  • One example of this conundrum is Copenhagen. It’s one of the most ambitious cities in terms of carbon neutrality, but if you add in consumption-based emissions, the city is getting worse over time. Every city needs to think about the supply chain of goods that are not produced within their boundaries. It’s an important mindset shift.

There was much more packed into this talk, and it gave me some real food for thought. If you’d like to view it yourself, it’s available here.

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