Breaking Down Embodied and Operational Carbon

This article was originally featured in Metropolis Magazine in September 2019.

Metropolis Magazine article

Metropolis Perspective: Sustainability took place September 12 and 13 in Seattle. Speakers included (left to right) Avinash Rajagopal, editor in chief of Metropolis; Myer Harrell, principal and director of sustainability at Weber Thompson; Stacy Smedley, director of sustainability for Skanska USA; and Sean Cryan, associate principal, Mithun. Photo courtesy Shadi Al; Seattle Pro Photography

In the early 2000s, the Seattle architecture firm Mithun was developing an urban design plan for the 35-square-block Lloyd Crossing neighborhood in Portland, Oregon. Lloyd Crossing was a designated EcoDistrict, and so was held to a higher ecological standard—its eight million square feet of new construction would request levels of carbon akin to a pristine Northwest forest. That ambition created design challenges for Mithun at a time—2007—when carbon-zero architecture had yet to become a hot-button topic in the industry.

The far-reaching environmental goals also prompted new lines of inquiry for the architects. How much carbon is emitted for each cubic yard of soil moved? Could the site subsist on just the water that falls from the sky in a typical wet Portland year? Mithun ended up developing a rough calculator that accounts for the potential of the landscape to release and sequester carbon, in addition to the carbon impact of construction and building performance.

These kinds of analytical tools are essential to meeting the ever-more strenuous standards that the architecture and design professions are facing with regards to carbon emissions. What was once a nebulous if laudable objective—designing a building with a small environmental impact—has become more concrete with hard-and-fast deadlines in the U.S. The Architecture 2030 initiative, for example, sets the goal a decade from now, at which point all new buildings should be net-zero; by 2050, it hopes that all extant buildings will have been retrofitted to that standard.

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