The building and construction industry is responsible for a significant amount of carbon emissions. With the world moving towards a more environmentally-responsible way of life, developers are gearing towards more renewable energy infrastructure when designing new buildings, with a view to reducing the reliance on carbon-producing fossil fuels when the building is operational.

Buildings emit massive amounts of carbon during the construction phase. However, there’s another more insidious culprit when it comes to greenhouse gases being emitted during construction – the embodied carbon generated during the manufacture of building materials.

Understanding embodied carbon

According to the United Nations Environment Programme, the manufacture of building materials is responsible for 11% of total global greenhouse gas emissions. Embodied carbon refers to the carbon footprint of a particular material, and the carbon dioxide emitted during manufacture, transport and construction.

While embodied carbon does not generate as many emissions as operational carbon emissions (created after the building is up and running), embodied carbon emissions cannot be reversed – once they are released, there is no further opportunity for improvement. Buildings always have the opportunity to improve operational emissions by implementing a range of energy efficiency measures, for instance.

Reducing embodied carbon emissions

The design team consisting of architects, structural engineers and designers has a significant role to play in determining the environmental impact of a new building. When embodied carbon reduction is prioritised right from the design stage, there are many positive outcomes that don’t cost anything.

To begin with, the design team can assess projects for their potential energy and carbon emissions to get clarity on carbon footprint.

Embodied energy and carbon assessments often include: Streamlined building embodied carbon assessment for planning statements; embodied carbon reduction advice through design; detailed embodied carbon assessment of whole buildings and construction assets; embodied carbon assessment of products; embodied carbon training workshops and seminars; and, review of similar projects.

Following a project assessment, carbon ‘hotspots’ must be identified – these are materials or systems that contribute the most to a building’s embodied emissions. That way, project teams can prioritise using the materials that make the most difference and can start finding solutions that have the biggest impact.

The impact of the materials palette

The materials specified for a building’s construction have a huge impact on the embodied carbon emissions being produced. A key consideration prior to the specification of materials for any new building project is to check if new materials are actually needed to complete construction. Instead of new materials, if the building is built using salvaged materials, the developer can avoid the embodied carbon impact of new materials. Incorporating salvaged building materials, therefore, helps you greatly reduce the embodied carbon of construction.

Through considered design, it has been possible to reduce the amount of carbon generated as well as fossil fuel use, assisting Durra Panel with their brand mission to reduce their carbon footprint.

Durra Panel is manufactured from wheat and rice straw, a natural, renewable annual resource as well as an agricultural waste by-product, which would otherwise be destroyed by burning following harvest, contributing to carbon emissions. In addition, no extra chemical binding agents, glues or resins are added to the product during the manufacturing process, nor does it produce any toxic waste.

Durra Panel can also be recycled or composted at the end of its lifespan, making it one of the world’s most sustainable building products with an embodied energy content of only 12.6 MJ/m² throughout its entire manufacturing process. The straw used in its manufacture grows quickly, making it an easily replenished resource. A stud and plaster wall by comparison has an embodied energy content of 153 MJ/m² and the timber used takes thirty years to grow, putting a great strain on natural resources.

For instance, it takes seven acres of straw to build a standard three-bedroom house using Durra Panel with the straw replenished within a year following a harvest. The 44 trees used in a typical stud-and-plaster-wall house requires the clear felling of around half an acre of forest and takes around 30 years to regrow. The choice of material, therefore, can make a significant environmental impact in the construction of a single house.

Up to 80% of embodied carbon can come from the structural systems of a new build depending on the building type. Targeting the structural system is a great place to start when looking to reduce the embodied carbon in a project. While concrete, steel and wood can all be tweaked to minimise environmental impact, choosing a sustainable product such as Durra Panel can substantially reduce the building project’s carbon footprint.