Skip to content

Moving Toward Zero: Q&A with Associate Professor Kate Simonen

Architecture Associate Professor and CLF Director Kathrina Simonen
Architecture Associate Professor and CLF Director Kathrina Simonen

What is the Carbon Leadership Forum and why is the group is relevant?  

The Carbon Leadership Forum is a collaborative research effort between industry and academics. The group is focused on understanding and reducing the total life cycle carbon emissions in buildings. In particular, we study embodied carbon emissions—or the emissions that takes place when building materials are manufactured and used.

Our UW research team collaborates with a range of building industry professionals who are experts in low carbon construction. Through our partnerships we are able to advance research and develop industry initiatives, which lead the industry towards low carbon solutions.

Photo by Architecture 2030

Photo by Architecture 2030

The CLF has defined and published a number of new benchmarking best practices for industry. How are the new guidelines being used?

In 2012, the CLF developed one of the first sets of Product Category Rules (PCR) for reporting the environmental footprint of concrete, which enables concrete producers to more accurately report their product’s carbon footprint. This standard has been used to develop and report the average concrete mix data for both North America and Canada enabling concrete to contribute to LEED v4 materials credits. Concrete suppliers throughout North and South America have started adopting this standard, which is crucial to our research and studying the impact and potential reduction in carbon outputs. In the design phase, our data enables architects and engineers to use carbon, and other environmental impacts, as a performance criteria in addition to common criteria such as cost and strength when specifying and selecting concrete.

The Embodied Carbon Benchmark study is the first stage of a project looking to establish benchmarks for the embodied carbon in buildings—the total carbon emissions related to the products and materials used to construct and maintain a building over its life span.

For this project we compiled the largest known database of building carbon footprints—normalized to units kgCO2e per square foot (or meter) of floor area. This project helped us establish the order of magnitude, typically around 1,000kgCO2e/m2, and range, commonly between 200-500kgCO2e/m2, of building carbon footprints. For the next stage of the project we will develop standards to track and report building Embodied Carbon (the LCA Practice Guide).  

The Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) Practice Guide tackles the need-developing guidance on how to conduct whole building life cycle assessment studies as well as report embodied carbon results. In practice, architects and engineers can use the LCA Practice Guide to achieve green building credits.

How are the results of your research being used to move the needle on policy and industry practice to reduce carbon emissions in the building life-cycle?

The Carbon Leadership Forum is supported by a great group of building industry professionals with a passion for reducing the use of carbon in the built environments and working to integrate LCA into practice. Many of the leaders in our partner firms engage with us closely so we can be effective.  As a group, we sponsor initiatives where we feel the industry needs additional tools, inspiration, or data.  Current initiatives include developing model specifications that engineers can insert into their project specs to collect LCA data, creating the Embodied Carbon Network—a communication group to extend our reach into the building industry, and Collaborating with Ceres and the U.S. Green Building Council to launch the Building Industry Climate Declaration.  

Zero net energy (ZNE) buildings are the current gold standard for reducing emissions.  However, building new, ZNE buildings will generate substantial emissions. Is there a solution to the problem?

In order to meet the ambitious targets of the Paris Agreement and keep global temperatures from rising above 2°C and avoid catastrophic, irreversible climate change, global emissions need to peak no later than 2020 and fossil fuels be phased out by 2055. That means that in addition to driving to zero operational carbon, we need to drive to zero embodied carbon.

When Ed Mazria from Architecture 2030 first proposed the idea of driving to zero embodied carbon by 2050, I laughed. I’m not alone in thinking that this is an impossible goal.  We know how to build zero operating carbon buildings, lots of insulation, solar panels etc. In order to make a path to zero embodied carbon we need to know more about where we are today. The CLF research and initiatives are focused on understanding where we are and developing strategies to help the building industry move to zero embodied carbon. This will likely be a multi-pronged approach to use materials more efficiently and less of them, use lower carbon materials, and reduce the carbon intensity of our power. However if we look at buildings built today, embodied carbon will contribute over 50% of the carbon emissions before 2050.  For those of us designing and building buildings, the embodied impacts are a major part of our industries contribution and an area that must be addressed if we are to meet climate targets.

Learn more about the CLF’s carbon research on their publications page.