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Decarbonization: Challenges and Opportunities in Reducing Embodied Carbon

By Ed Benes, P.E., and Jake Zach, S.E. 

As the urgency to address climate change intensifies, reducing embodied carbon becomes an important factor in decision-making for architecture, engineering, and construction professionals. Reducing embodied carbon lessens the climate impact of our buildings and is a key way to create a more sustainable built environment. Designers can use materials more efficiently and choose materials with less carbon footprint across their entire lifecycle, from production to disposal.   

 Every project has many requirements and objectives to meet the client’s needs. When we add the elements of sustainability and embodied carbon reduction, we need to make carbon-friendly design decisions that still meet all the other performance objectives of the project.     

 As building material manufacturing processes and technology evolve, low-carbon building materials will become more and more accessible and economical. In the meantime, owners and designers must select the best options that are currently available in the market.  

We face challenges, including limited access to sustainable, low-carbon materials, navigating rising material costs, and adhering to complex regulatory frameworks.  

Sustainable Design Challenges and Opportunities  

 The following are some of the most pressing design and construction challenges when it comes to reducing embodied carbon in buildings and strategies to overcome them:    

 Selecting the right low-carbon material

Low-carbon materials may not be consistently available in all regions or may not yet be produced at scales needed for larger projects. To overcome this issue, AEC firms need to be proactive in understanding market trends and developments in sustainable materials. Potential questions to consider could include: What sustainable materials are available in my region? What are material suppliers’ roadmaps for carbon reduction for their product? What materials and technologies are other companies in our industry specifying? Do we know what roadblocks our suppliers might be facing?   

 Building strong relationships with multiple suppliers of a material product category can also help AEC firms understand the state of carbon reduction for that product. By collaborating closely with these suppliers, they can more quickly understand the available options.  

 High cost of low-carbon materials

Building material prices are on the rise across the industry due to record inflation over the past few years. For some materials, an equally performing low-carbon alternative may come with a price premium. The increased cost of low-carbon materials can present a major obstacle for some owners. Vendors are working to create these materials that are as economical as possible to compete in the market; however, it may take time for some low-carbon materials to reach cost parity with their traditional equivalents.   

In the long run, these low-carbon alternatives will likely become the standard. Until then, designers can use a hybrid approach to incorporate these materials while keeping the project within budget. An example of this strategy would be to specify low-carbon concrete mixes for structural elements such as slabs-on-grade or pavements while specifying a traditional mix for building elements like foundations, beams, and columns. Of course, while slabs-on-grade and pavements often undergo lower magnitude structural demands relative to structural system elements, they still have significant requirements that must be considered if specifying a low-carbon mix.  

Complex regulatory environment

The regulatory landscape for sustainable building materials has begun to take shape, presenting both challenges and opportunities for designers and building owners. For example, the Inflation Reduction Act included appropriations for low-carbon materials on General Services Administration projects. Sustainability certification programs such as LEED also include provisions for low embodied carbon materials.  

Standards and requirements vary significantly across different jurisdictions. As they evolve, AEC firms must proactively stay informed about local, national, and international regulations to ensure compliance and effectively advocate for sustainable practices. This can be achieved through regular training sessions for staff, active participation in industry forums, and collaboration with regulatory bodies, which not only enhances a firm’s adaptability to regulatory changes but also positions it to take a leadership role in sustainability. This leadership can be influential in promoting policy development that facilitates the wider adoption of low-carbon materials.   

Tackling embodied carbon in our projects goes beyond technical fixes — it’s about embracing a broader strategy that includes education, strategy, and teamwork. For those of us in the architecture, engineering, and construction sectors, this means we have a real opportunity to boost the sustainability of our built environment. By staying sharp through ongoing education, choosing our materials wisely, and using innovative building methods, we can make a significant impact. This approach helps reduce embodied carbon and lays the groundwork for a more sustainable future in construction.  

Ed Benes, P.E. is CEO of the Leo A. Daly Company

About the author

Edward Benes, P.E., is the Chief Executive Officer and has been with the Leo A. Daly Company since 2012. As CEO, he develops strategies and operations for the firm. He is responsible for managing the company’s business operating groups and overseeing its legal, human resources, and finance functions. He has a background as an engineer and a lawyer.  

About the author

Jake Zach is a senior structural engineer and associate at LEO A DALY. In addition to his expertise in structural engineering, he is a subject matter expert in embodied carbon and leads the firm’s efforts associated with our SE 2050 pledge. Jake also serves on the LEO A DALY Greenworks team, focusing on sustainability initiatives within the built environment.