The dangers of embodied carbon, and what we can do about it!

Climate change is an issue close to our hearts, and in the scheme of uncontrollable crises around the world today (hello coronavirus!) it’s actually one we have the power to do something about!

Durra Panel Benifits
Durra Panel - Sustainable Building product

Embodied Carbon

As a business in the construction industry, we know that buildings emit massive amounts of carbon long before they’re completed. For builders this means gearing towards more renewable energy infrastructure when designing new buildings, and as a result trying to reduce the amount of carbon generated by the fossil fuels used to operate buildings.
As effective as renewable energy is, there’s another more insidious culprit when it comes to greenhouse gases being emitted during construction – the embodied carbon generated by manufacturing building materials themselves.

What is embodied carbon?

According to the United Nations Environment Programme, the manufacture of building materials makes up 11% of total global greenhouse gas emissions. Embodied carbon refers to the carbon footprint of a particular material, and the carbon dioxide emitted during the manufacture, transport and construction of them.

While embodied carbon does not generate as many emissions as operational carbon emissions (created after the building is up and running), unlike its operational counterparts embodied carbon emissions cannot be reversed, as once they are released there is no further opportunity for improvement. Buildings always have the opportunity to improve operational emissions though, by (for example) implementing a range of energy efficiency measures.

How to improve embodied carbon emissions.

The design team (architects, structural engineers and designers) of construction projects have a significant role to play in determining the environmental impact of a new building. When reducing embodied carbon is prioritised from a design’s inception, there are many positive outcomes, most of which don’t cost anything!

To start, assessing upcoming projects for their potential energy and carbon emissions is a great way to get clarity on its footprint.

Embodied energy and carbon assessments often include:

  • Streamlined building embodied carbon assessment for planning statements
  • Embodied carbon reduction advice through design
  • Detailed embodied carbon assessment of whole buildings and construction assets
  • Embodied carbon assessment of products
  • Embodied carbon training workshops and seminars.
  • Review of similar projects

After assessing a project, the next step is to identify carbon “hot spots,” which are materials or systems that contribute the most to a building’s embodied emissions. That way, project teams can prioritise using the materials that make the most difference and can start finding solutions that have the biggest impact.

What are you building with?

The materials chosen in a building’s construction have a huge impact on the embodied carbon emissions being produced.  The first consideration for any new building venture should be to ask whether new materials are actually needed to complete construction. By avoiding the use of new materials, you can avoid their embodied carbon impacts completely, and by incorporating salvaged building materials you can greatly reduce the embodied carbon of construction.

At Durra Panel ® we’ve made it part of our brand mission to reduce our carbon footprint through considered design of our sustainable product, thus reducing the amount of carbon generated and fossil fuels we burn in order to operate. Durra Panel® is manufactured from wheat and rice straw, a natural, renewable annual resource. This agricultural waste by-product would otherwise be destroyed by burning following harvest contributing to carbon emissions. In addition, no extra chemical binding agents, glues or resins are added to our product during the manufacturing process, nor does it produce any toxic waste.

Durra Panel® can also be recycled or composted at the end of its lifespan, making it one of the world’s most sustainable building products with an embodied energy content of only 12.6 MJ/m² throughout its entire manufacturing process. The straw it is made from grows quickly, also making it an easily replenished resource. A stud and plaster wall by comparison has an embodied energy content of 153 MJ/m² and the timber used takes thirty years to grow, putting a great strain on natural resources.

To explain that in practical terms, it takes seven acres of straw to build a standard three-bedroom house with Durra Panel® and that straw will regrow in a year as a by-product of harvesting wheat or straw. The 44 trees used in a typical stud-and-plaster-wall house on the other hand requires the clear felling of around half an acre of forest and takes around 30 years to regrow. It’s amazing how the choice of material can make such a significant environmental impact… even in the construction of a single house!

The structural systems in a new build almost always encompass the largest source of embodied carbon, up to 80% depending on the building type. Targeting the structural system is a great place to start when looking to reduce the embodied carbon in a project. Concrete, steel, and wood can all be tweaked to minimise environmental impact, and choosing a sustainable product like Durra Panel ® is even better!