The Hidden Carbon in our Buildings

Photo courtesy of The University of Kentucky

When people discuss the best ways to make our buildings more sustainable, folks in the know will usually talk about energy and water efficiency, indoor air quality and maybe something a little more esoteric, like biophilic design. These are all valuable pursuits on their own terms, but what if I told you that there was a huge, sneaky source of greenhouse gas emissions associated with most buildings before they even get connected to the grid and begin using power?

With the impacts of the climate crisis beginning to become apparent in the form of 3 “100-year floods” in the span of a decade or 100-degree temperatures in places that recently never needed air conditioning, the need to understand how carbon gets into the atmosphere has never been greater. According to Architecture 2030, 39% of yearly greenhouse gas emissions are associated with buildings, but within that very large figure, building operations only account for 28%. So, what gives with the other 11% of the building sector’s emissions? Well, take a moment to think about a large construction site. Most construction is about assembly. Erecting steel, pouring concrete, installing insulation, and placing windows are all about putting the right components in the right places. The simple questions of “where do those components come from?” and “how are they made?” begin to point us to the missing 11% of yearly global carbon emissions.

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