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Embodied carbon and operational carbon: working together

The race is on to achieve net zero buildings. Key to decreasing the built environment’s impact on climate change is to reduce carbon emissions. Environmentally friendly building materials help, but to achieve long term benefits the whole lifecycle of a building must be taken into consideration.

Embodied carbon, also known as embedded carbon or carbon capital, is defined by the UK Green Building Council (UKGBC) as ‘the total greenhouse gas emissions generated to produce a built asset’. This means knowing how much carbon dioxide (CO2) is emitted from extraction, processing and manufacturing, transportation and assembly of every building product used. 

Operational carbon is often measured alongside embodied carbon. It is the collective CO2 emissions produced for a building to run, from the energy and ventilation systems through to IT equipment.

Image depicting carbon lifecycle of a building

Building with less carbon

According to the Institute of Structural Engineers (ISE), embodied carbon can contribute 10 to 20% of a building’s total carbon footprint. In a typical new office building, 50% of the embodied carbon is in the structure alone.

To identify how much embodied carbon a building creates, and therefore how it can be reduced, involves looking at the entire building life cycle, particularly at the design and build stage and demolition stage.

There are numerous assessments and guidance available that identify ways to reduce embodied carbon including:


Embodied carbon is usually measured on a cradle-to-gate basis. According to RICS, this is the “confines of the ‘cradle’ (earth) up to the factory gate of the final processing operation. This includes mining, raw materials extraction, processing and manufacturing.”

Using the RIBA’s Plan of Work, cradle to gate incorporates the Preparation and Design stage. These are the stages where positive changes can be made to ensure embodied carbon is reduced.

Recommendations to reduce embodied carbon include:

    • Specifying natural and renewable materials such as timber, particularly for the structure;
    • Specifying alternatives to cement mix such as lime and fly ash;
    • Checking the Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) of a product for details on its carbon footprint (Wood products can be checked using the Lifecycle Database);
    • Using offsite construction to minimise wastage, reduce build time and improve quality;
    • Applying circular economy thinking, particularly reusing materials or using fewer materials. This is key for the end of a building’s life.

Image credit: from RIBA's Embodied and whole life carbon assessment for architects 

Running with less carbon

At the centre of a building’s life cycle is where operational carbon emissions really kick in. This tends to be where the focus is when aiming to create a more energy-efficient, environmentally friendly building, however, it needs to extend beyond renewable energy and HVAC systems.

At this year’s Alliance for Sustainable Building Products (ASBP) conference, John Palmer, research and policy director at Passivhaus Trust, talked about the challenges for all homes to become net zero if reliant on renewable energy. “Homes need to be as fabric efficient as possible.” This is a sentiment that can be extended to all buildings.

A collaborative effort between UKGBC, the Better Buildings Partnership (BBP) and the London Energy Transformation Initiative (LETI) has identified key requirements for new buildings achieving net zero operational carbon. The key requirements that would contribute to more environmentally responsible and efficient buildings include:

    • Low energy use
    • Measurement and verification
    • Reduction of construction impacts
    • Low carbon energy supply
    • Zero carbon balance

The plan encourages those involved with the design, construction and management of buildings to consult the following:

 Reducing embodied and operational carbon in practice 

In practice, Larch Corner, designed by Passivhaus architect practice, LEAP, is an excellent example of how designers are getting closer to achieving net zero homes. This Cotswolds home was built with longevity in mind. By specifying timber as the material of choice it is calculated that embodied carbon has been reduced by 40%.

The cross-laminated timber (CLT) structure is combined with wood fibre insulation, timber windows and doors and external larch cladding. Space heating, air-source heat pumps, photo-voltaic panels and a sedum roof attribute to the property being completely airtight.

Larch Corner

Another timber engineering feat is Norfolk school, the Open Academy. The CLT structure saved nearly 3,000 tonnes in CO2 in comparison to using steel or concrete. Ramboll, the engineering firm responsible for the school’s construction compare this to approximately 8.3 million car miles.

The amount of carbon sequestered (or stored) by the building offsets the operational carbon emissions for ten years. The project had an impressive construction time for a building of its scale and its modern methods of construction meant the building was installed by only 10 people in 18 weeks.

In Scotland, Cairngorms National Park Authority’s new headquarters have perhaps the most impressive saving on operational carbon. Using CLT, the structure allows for a flexible space featuring timber-clad screens and by not using a reinforced concrete frame, it will offset operational carbon emissions for 47 years.

Wood CO2ts less

One of the simplest ways to capture carbon and reduce COin the atmosphere is by increasing the use of wood in construction. In the Committee on Climate Change’s 2019 Net Zero Technical Report it stated:

“Using Wood in Construction (WiC) provides a long-term store for carbon in the built environment. The potential contribution of WiC to removals of carbon from the atmosphere depends on both the level of future house building and the extent to which timber is used as part of the construction process. Avoided emissions from the production of cement and bricks are an additional advantage of using WiC.”

And in a report published by the BioComposites Centre at Bangor University it also highlighted the benefits of building more new homes using timber:

“…using timber frames rather than masonry can reduce carbon embodied emissions by around 20% per building. When CLT is chosen in place of concrete structures the effect is even greater, with carbon embodied emissions reduced by around 60%.”

To find out more facts about achieving net zero through designing and building with wood, visit here.

Cover image credit: Mark Siddal 

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