Perspectives February 6, 2024

3 Strategies for Reducing Embodied Carbon in Interior Renovations

By Jennifer McGrory
Perkins&Will Boston Studio

In the face of the climate crisis, architects and designers have the responsibility to reduce the carbon impact of our built spaces. Looking beyond the carbon that stems from building operations, the carbon embedded in building materials, products, and systems contributes to environmental degradation and the warming of our planet. Known as “embodied carbon,” these emissions released during the lifecycle of building materials—from extraction to manufacturing to disposal—are responsible for 11% of total global emissions. However, not all projects are the same when it comes to embodied carbon impact. Interior renovation projects present a meaningful opportunity to tackle embodied carbon through smart and strategic design choices.

Why is the embodied carbon impact different in interiors?

The cyclical nature of interior renovations creates an immense embodied carbon impact. Within office buildings, leases end, spaces fall vacant, and new tenants look to renovate every few years. While the typical lifespan of a core and shell office building is 50-60 years, interior spaces are often renovated every 8-10 years. As a result, the cumulative embodied carbon impact of multiple interior renovations can exceed initial core and shell construction. According to Carbon Leadership Forum, there are four interior product “hotspots” that have a striking impact: furniture, flooring, ceiling panel suspension systems, and walls.

In recognition of the significant carbon impact of our interior spaces, and in alignment with our Living Design Framework, Perkins&Will has pledged to achieve net zero embodied carbon office spaces by 2030. As we designed our new Boston Studio, we tackled embodied carbon head-on with several key reduction strategies and created a roadmap to shrink embodied carbon in interiors.

The number of specified finishes and the number of built surfaces was intentionally reduced throughout our Boston Studio.

1. Build Less, Reuse More

The lowest-carbon materials are the ones that already exist or the ones that never come into existence. When looking to reduce embodied carbon at the onset of a project, best practice means prioritizing design decisions that require less. For example, opting for office layouts with flexible huddle areas and open meeting spaces minimizes the quantity of walls and their associated materials. Instead of full walls, flexible partitions like AV systems and furniture modules can visually and functionally separate spaces while using less built materials and supporting MEP systems. For ceilings, exposed structure ceilings and natural fiber acoustical ceiling panel systems are great solutions to minimize ceiling panel systems and lower embodied carbon impact.

When it comes to furniture, look to eliminate materials where possible and minimize the layering of excess finishes. By teaming with craftsman and manufacturing partners committed to exploring creative solutions and low-carbon design, it is possible to meet functional and aesthetic needs while being lean with materials.

Instead of replacing furniture with new items, it’s both economically and environmentally responsible to repurpose and reuse. Early in the process, you should access existing furniture stock and reuse items that are in good condition and fit the needs of your future space. If you can’t reuse a piece, chances are someone else can. Organizations such as the Furniture Trust can decommission and donate unused furniture, which in turn diverts materials from landfills, benefits local communities, and ultimately lowers carbon impact.

Furniture reuse was prioritized throughout and remaining unused furniture was donated to the Furniture Trust, benefitting local schools and non-profits.

2. Identify, Verify, and Measure Product Impacts

When it comes to specific product carbon impacts, you can’t reduce what you can’t measure. Leveraging Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) when evaluating products is key. An EPD is a third-party verified report disclosed by product manufacturers, detailing the energy use and emissions surrounding the manufacturing of a product. A critical metric published in an EPD is the product’s Global Warming Potential (GWP), which illuminates the extent the product impacts the environment. With EPDs and GWPs in hand, you have sufficient data to effectively assess products, make informed decisions, and select products with lesser carbon impacts.

Requiring EPDs on all specified products allows you to identify, verify, and measure the impacts of all materials and products going into your project. While not all product manufacturers disclose EPDs, prioritizing working with transparent manufacturers paves the way for a more carbon-conscious and carbon-accountable.

3. Be Smart in Selecting New Materials

As every new material adds up, it’s important to choose wisely and opt for low-carbon and bio-based alternatives. For example, natural hardwood requires less energy-intensive processing compared to other flooring options, resulting in lower carbon emissions during manufacturing. Furthermore, unlike synthetic flooring materials, wood is a renewable resource that can be replenished and recycled at the end of its life.

In contrast, carpet can be a high-carbon culprit. New carpet can be one of the single largest contributors of embodied carbon among commonly used interior finishes. The production and industrial processing of carpet fibers is a significant source of carbon emissions that contribute to overall embodied carbon. However, carpet’s embodied carbon can vary substantially by type and brand. Instead of broadloom sheets, carpet tile is the smarter choice for reducing material and installation waste. Requesting EPDs from manufacturers and selecting a carpet with low GWPs can significantly mitigate carpet’s environmental impact. We suggest working with manufacturers that provide transparency in the materials and manufacturing process, source renewable energy for their operations, and commit to circular practices.

Natural wood provides durability and compliments our studio's biophilic aesthetic. Carpets were selected from manufacturers dedicated to transparency and sustainability.

Let’s approach design differently.

Reducing embodied carbon in interiors requires approaching design differently. Let’s rise to the challenge and reimagine what a successful interior renovation looks like, one that prioritizes material circularity, careful research, and smart selection. It is incumbent upon design professionals, along with our manufacturing partners, to work towards a decarbonized future. With the right strategies and mindset, we can reduce embodied carbon in interior renovations without sacrificing good design.

What are the keys to success?

  • Take stock of what already exists while saving what you can.
  • Design to increase material efficiency.
  • Require Environmental Product Declarations on all specified products.
  • Source local, natural, recycled, and reclaimed materials.
  • Select low-carbon product alternatives for high-carbon culprits.
  • Source high-quality materials that will withstand over time.
  • Design with disassembly and reuse in mind.
  • Work with manufacturing and industry partners who are committed to low carbon design.