Climate Impact November 14, 2022

The carbon-reducing design process, simplified

Minimizing a building’s climate impact can sometimes feel daunting. But with the right partners—and the right mindset—it’s totally doable.
Line drawing showing carbon reduction process
Line drawing depicting carbon reduction process

Reducing a project’s whole-life carbon emissions is a complex and technical process, yet it’s entirely possible when a building owner teams with bona fide experts in sustainable design. The key is early commitment to both embodied and operational carbon reduction strategies—and holding everyone on the team accountable. From using reclaimed, recycled, and carbon-sequestering materials like timber to installing energy-efficient lighting, heating, and cooling systems, let’s demystify what goes into reducing a project’s carbon profile:

What is embodied carbon?

Embodied carbon refers to the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from a building’s construction, including manufacturing, transportation, installation, and material disposal.
Line drawing of two figures holding a sign that reads, Line drawing showing how to reduce a building project's embodied carbon.

Commit to accountability.

Make carbon reduction a project requirement (versus a nice-to-have) and hold every member of the extended team accountable.

Line drawing showing carbon-reducing benefits of adaptive re-use / renovation of existing buildings.

Start with what’s already there.

The lowest-carbon building is one that already exists. Renovate, adapt, or reuse a building whenever possible.

Consider structure and enclosure—but don’t forget about interiors.

Structural elements can make up the biggest percentage of embodied carbon, so it’s essential to take them into account. But a building’s interiors are often just as problematic. Include both in a project’s calculations.

Get to know products’ impacts.

Opt for products with Type III Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs), the gold standard for verifying a material’s carbon impacts. EPDs can be sourced using Building Transparency’s EC3 tool. Materials with Cradle to Cradle Gold or Platinum certification may also have EPDs.

Choose wisely.

Use reclaimed or recycled furnishings and materials from a local supplier; alternatives to high-carbon materials; and bio-based materials or FSC-certified timber, which naturally sequester carbon. Low-carbon materials can be identified through the EC3 tool, Sustainable Minds Transparency Catalog, or Material Bank.

What is operational carbon?

Operational carbon refers to GHG emissions released when a building is in use.
Line drawing of two figures holding a sign that reads,

Design for low energy consumption.

Prioritize low energy use, and let that guide every design decision, from building orientation to window placement and ventilation. Carefully consider how the design can support lower energy use in extra-sunny, extra-cold, or extra-windy climates.

Integrate smart and efficient building systems.

Look for the most up-to-date energy-saving technology, including lighting, HVAC, low-flow water fixtures, and refrigerants. The Energy Star program is a good place to start.

Remember renewables.

Solar panels on rooftops and parking lot canopies help generate renewable energy onsite. Consider these options only after reducing a building’s overall energy demand.

Give people control.

Design ways for owners, operators, and occupants to control their own indoor environmental conditions, such as lighting. Teach them how it’s done.

Offset what’s left over.

After exhausting every other carbon reduction strategy, turn to credible offset programs to address any remaining emissions. The World Green Building Council’s website offers guidance.