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Introduction to Embodied Carbon and why it matters for commercial building owners

Building regulations in the UK are nothing new. In fact, Britain has led the way globally in some of the most prominent and forward-thinking regulations across the commercial and residential construction space for centuries.

As far back as the twelfth century when some of the first legislation was introduced into UK construction, British regulatory bodies at the time ruled that chimneys could no longer be made from timber, and other architectural encroachments should be at least nine feet above ground to allow people on horseback to ride beneath them.

It wasn’t until the Great Fire of London in 1666 that real change was enacted, when the Rebuilding of London Act 1666 stipulated that all building facades should be constructed from brick or stone (excluding window frames and doors of course).

Three hundred years later, the Building Act 1984 introduced functional performance standards to the construction industry. Today, construction firms in the UK work within a similar regulatory framework known as the Building Regulations 2010 which covers everything from safety and accessibility to waste and environmental impact.

The impact of buildings on our environment

According to a 2019 report from the World Green Building Council, buildings are currently responsible for an extraordinary 39% of all global energy related carbon emissions. Almost unbelievably, more than a quarter (28%) of these carbon emissions are a direct result of construction and the materials used in construction.

Most notably, ‘upfront carbon’ (the carbon emissions released before the building is used) will be responsible for half of the entire carbon footprint of the construction sector between now and 2050.

The importance of these findings shouldn’t be understated; by the middle of this century, global building stock is expected to double as the world’s population reaches ten billion people, adding significant extra strain on our already struggling ecosystem.

The good news is that coordinated action is being taken across the global construction industry to tackle the critical environmental challenges faced by humanity today.

Embodied Carbon: Bold solution to a global problem

The term Embodied Carbon means any carbon dioxide emissions associated with the construction process and materials used during construction and throughout the whole lifecycle of a building (including CO₂ emissions from deconstruction and disposal at the end of its lifetime).

Embodied Carbon emissions also include any CO₂ created during the manufacture of materials such as concrete, glass, façade panels or steel used in the construction of a building.

When calculating a building’s Embodied Carbon impact, the sourcing, extraction, transport and manufacture of materials also count towards the overall environmental impact of each building.

Crucially, Embodied Carbon is very different from operational carbon which only includes the CO₂ emissions a building produces from its day-to-day operations AFTER it has been constructed. This would typically include the CO₂ waste from things like heating, cooling and lighting.

According to recent data from the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, the Embodied Carbon profile of a typical commercial building represents up to 76% of its total carbon emissions over a 60-year lifespan. But despite the significant threat Embodied Carbon poses to our ecosystem, it is still completely unregulated in the UK. Ironically, the primary regulation in place focuses on operational emissions which represent a fraction of all emissions generated by the construction sector.

Graph outlining the carbon impact of the commercial construction sector globally

Introduction to ‘Part Z’

Although there is currently no finalised Embodied Carbon legislation in place in the UK, things are progressing slowly.

The UK Government recently committed to consult this year on proposals to regulate the measurement and reduction of embodied carbon in the construction sector.

One of the most prominent proposals is something called ‘Part Z’, an amendment to current building regulations which promises to address the issue of Embodied Carbon head on. The proposed bill, which has been backed by more than 170 leading construction and investment firms up and down the UK, aims to introduce compulsory Embodied Carbon assessments to all major commercial building projects in the UK.

If successful, the Part Z amendment will revolutionise the way construction firms approach building projects and materials sourcing. As a result, new rules are likely to come into force restricting builders from tearing down older buildings if there is a viable case for refurbishment.

The conundrum of refurb over replacement

At See Brilliance, we are big advocates of refurbishment and restoration due to both the environmental benefits and cost savings. Our own data shows that, on average, restorative cleaning – the process we use to restore building facades, stone, glass and other building materials – is around 1/20 of the cost of replacement and one third of the cost of respraying.

According to a report by the Institute for Environmental Design and Engineering at University College London, one of the major elements of reducing the Embodied Carbon profile of a building is to reuse or recycle where possible. The report also found that refurbishment typically offers a significantly better carbon footprint profile compared with replacement.

Nigel Bennett, Technical Director at See Brilliance, explains:

“We’ve long supported the view that restoration is, in most cases, a more suitable option than replacement. Not only does restoration provide stunning results at a fraction of the cost of replacement but the environmental benefits are often unmatched. The recent report by University College London confirms this.

“Furthermore, our restoration systems are generally eco-friendly, non-hazardous, and supported for use by the Royal Institute of British Architects and Historic England.”

Supporting the commercial sector for three decades

See Brilliance has over 30 years’ experience in providing cost-effective restoration alternatives to respraying, rebuilding and replacement.

Utilising advanced systems and certified skill, our experts can restoratively clean metal, glass and stone facade surfaces to their factory finish and standard, enhancing company and property image by leaving a protected finish that is practical, aesthetically pleasing and to an almost ‘as new’ condition and appearance.

To find out more about our restoration methods, including DOFF Steam Cleaning, TORC Cleaning, commercial façade and cladding restoration and restorative cleaning, get in touch with our restoration specialists today.

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