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How to tally up your project’s carbon impact in 15 minutes

Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios reveal their quick materials assessment methods.

26 August 2021

Calculating your project’s embodied carbon as you design is becoming an easier task for non-specialists. Several practices and engineering studios have developed their own tools to use on their own projects, and then made them publicly available.

There is an increasing number of software-based tools that are by architects for architects. Architype, Hawkins\Brown and SOM have designed and released Eccolab, H\B:ERT and EA (Environment Analysis), respectively.

FCBS Carbon is a whole life carbon tool developed by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios. It gives the design team an insight into the whole life carbon impact of a building from the very outset of a project. Nick Hodges, an Associate at FCBS, will be giving a presentation entitled What good looks like and how to get there at the RIBA Smart Practice Conference 2021: Stepping up to the Climate Challenge, which takes place on 29 to 30 September 2021.

He will explain how FCBS Carbon helped inform the sustainable design of Croft Gardens, Kings College. The building is designed to be carbon negative for the first seven to 10 years of its operation.

When it comes to the embodied carbon of a building, the assessment of materials is crucial, Hodges states. At the heart of FCBS Carbon is an embodied carbon reviewing tool that can give designers a more or less instant snapshot of the impact of swapping one material for another at early design stages.

“What if it were timber frame? Is there an alternative to concrete? What if we changed the mix of the concrete? These are the kind of early decisions that we need to ask,” Hodges states.

“Choices about materials need to be questioned and assessed as early as possible if we want our buildings to be sustainable. It is best if sustainable materials decisions can be taken at RIBA Stages 0-2, perhaps leaning into Stage 3, before the wrong materials are locked in at the detailed design stage.”

Superstructure, substructure and envelope are the big three areas responsible for the vast bulk of a project’s embodied carbon, Hodges points out. The ability to experiment with different materials and quantities – swapping them out and seeing how this affects the overall embodied carbon – can be transformative.

It is spreadsheet-based and uses benchmarked data from the ICE Database, the same source as many other embodied carbon tools including Hawkins\Brown’s H\B:ERT, a Revit plug-in that is probably the best known of the current free to access offerings.

FCBS Carbon can be used at the earliest stages of residential buildings and is by no means only useful for large projects: it relies on a library of typical build-ups for different building types, and so does not have to be linked to any CAD model, detailed or otherwise, or any schedule of materials.

“We hope that the tool will be eminently usable by anybody at any scale,” Hodges suggests. “Once you get to know the software, and if you have a good understanding of the project in question, it can take only a few minutes to input data.”

Understanding how materials and structure relate to each other in terms of embodied carbon is crucial. There is now an increasing number of software tools that are making it easier to take the early design decisions that lead to sustainable outcomes.

The interactive spreadsheets can generate four graphical outputs: operational carbon, embodied carbon, whole life carbon and the impact of all this on carbon offsetting. Outputs are automatically compared to industry benchmarks, including the RIBA 2030 Climate Challenge targets.

The ease of inputting different materials options and seeing an instant graphical output makes the tool a great demonstrator for client presentations, Hodges points out.

FCBS is also looking at how they can obtain and refine data on the carbon cost of the transportation of materials. This is not straightforward. Transport from the immediate supplier is one thing, but transport and other impacts attached to the original source of processed materials and manufactured components can be far more complex.

Hodges suggests that materials suppliers are steadily getting better at providing this information. He is hopeful that this trend will continue and spread across the industry generally.

His practice has set itself a target of being ready to deliver whole life zero carbon projects by 2030.

“We believe that is where the market will be. We are seeing clients, including local authorities, who already share this target – way ahead of the government’s ambitions. But there are only two or three building cycles left before then, so we have a great deal to learn from every project to apply to the next.”

Nick Hodges will present What good looks like and how to get there at the RIBA Smart Practice Conference 2021: Stepping up to the Climate Challenge, which takes place on 29-30 September 2021. Tickets are now available.

Listen to Feilden Clegg Bradley discuss their approach to sustainable design in this RIBAJ podcast.

Thanks to Nick Hodges, Associate, Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios.

Text by Neal Morris. This is a Professional Feature edited by the RIBA Practice team. Send us your feedback and ideas.

RIBA Core Curriculum topic: Sustainable Architecture.

As part of the flexible RIBA CPD programme, professional features count as microlearning. See further information on the updated RIBA CPD core curriculum and on fulfilling your CPD requirements as a RIBA Chartered Member.

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