A lot has changed in the last 10 years. AI has become ubiquitous, cultural trends have come and gone; politics has...happened. But importantly - arguably more importantly than anything else to happen during that time - the global approach to sustainability has shifted and really kicked up a gear. In 2015 and at CoP 21, the Paris Agreement called for action to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial revolution temperature. Since then, there has been a focus within the built environment to act on reducing the carbon emissions across the whole lifecycle of buildings. 

“Things have changed substantially,” says Aidan Mullan, Sustainability Manager at Interface. “Materials and processes have changed, and there is support from all corners of the industry driven largely by the GBCA's focus on Net Zero buildings and NABERS development of an upfront emissions rating tool”.

But Aidan points out that even recently, being front-footed with a sustainability agenda in the construction industry was no mean feat. Not necessarily because participants were unwilling or opposed, but because a lot of the knowledge and information infrastructure we now rely on simply didn’t exist. 

Lendlease was one of the first companies to focus on upfront carbon emissions reductions. “When I talk about LendLease’s Barangaroo South project, it’s significant,” says Aidan. “Because that was back in 2009, when they were contractually required to reduce the embodied carbon of their buildings by 20%. And that was a big ask.” Environmental Product Declarations or EPDs (now a cornerstone of sustainable specification) were in their infancy. Interface had just published an EPD for its carpet which was the first North American carpet EPD. Databases that could be referenced to identify low-carbon materials were only just beginning to come on the market. This meant the task of achieving and verifying a 20% embodied carbon reduction required a huge amount of administrative legwork.

To achieve such an ambitious goal, LendLease looked at three elements for the building: design and materials optimisation; onsite construction; and the availability of carbon neutral products for fit-out. They challenged suppliers through a rigorous competitive tender process to develop low embodied carbon designs, focusing on materials with the biggest impacts such as concrete and steel. Further savings were achieved using LED temporary lighting, energy efficient cranes and on-site batch mixing of concrete in the building phase. They then searched for carbon neutral materials for the internal fit out - and that’s where Interface stepped in.

“We provided 220,000 square metres of carpet for the buildings, and it was all carbon neutral,” says Aidan. “So that was a substantial reduction in emissions associated with our material. And not only was it low footprint, we also mitigated the remaining life cycle emissions through the purchase of carbon credits and had the carpet verified as carbon neutral.”

These days the sorts of reductions that were achieved by LendLease all those years ago have become far more common - with many of the gains we see today coming off the back of pioneering projects like Barangaroo South. 

One of these great examples is the University of Tasmania River's Edge building. UTAS achieved a 32% reduction in carbon emissions associated with the initial construction of the building. Again, early engagement with a supplier procured reduced carbon concrete. Interestingly, the second most impactful initiative was the reuse of an existing gas pipeline for structural piles - using 3.6 kilometres of unused pipe was an excellent circular economy outcome.

The drive to reduce not only the building's construction footprint but also the fit-out is becoming a lot easier with the development of product databases making it easier to find low-carbon materials. When re-adapting an existing building for use as its headquarters, Interface used one such database: the Embodied Carbon in Construction Calculator (EC3) to reduce the embodied carbon in the fit out. EC3 provided greater visibility on material impacts and using a "less is more" approach, the company achieved a 50% reduction for the fit-out. 

For Interface, being able to contribute positively to projects is what it’s all about. “We are thrilled with the excellent reductions in upfront emissions that our clients have achieved through their material selection.” says Aidan. “Sustainable collaborations like this are essential in continuing to drive down the embodied carbon of our built environment. And with dedicated companies continuing to drive this agenda forwards with a growing arsenal of information, technology, and systems to smooth the process, everything (except carbon) is looking up.”