In December 2015, the Paris Agreement brought hope to the global community setting a goal to be a net zero carbon society and pursue efforts to limit the global temperature increase to 1.5 0C.

I learnt that the real problems are natural problems; all other problems are problems that we have created. When we think of the real natural problems, Global Warming is the most well known. Looking at our social system and where the impacts that cause global warming are coming from, we quickly think of consumerism, transportation, food, our cities and infrastructure, waste and a few others. Now imagine a net zero carbon society, where we work through every aspect of our social and economic systems and quantify how we are performing on an annual basis. It’s complex, but there are many good stories happening within the construction industry, and it is getting more traction every year.

How is my building contributing to the situation?

When discussing building environmental performance with designers and builders we all want a best performing building, but the carbon performance target is not very often part of the project brief. It’s common to hear people talk about the “big picture” and reference the financial aspect as the most important but in reality there is no economy without ecology. Energy efficiency, durable materials, solar passive design to name a few, are all important design considerations and will improve building performance. But again, how good for the planet are the buildings we are designing? We can only reduce impact when we quantify potential issues throughout the whole building lifespan.

What performance are we measuring?

Before we can answer that question we have to remember what problem we are trying to solve and what our target is. To put it simply, the problem is Global Warming; a gradual increase in the overall temperature of the Earth’s atmosphere attributed to greenhouse effect, caused by increased level of carbon dioxide and other pollutants. The target we’re aiming for is a net zero carbon society, where all annual emissions are naturally absorbed by the planet without causing any harm to its natural cycle. The specific environmental impact indicator is Global Warming Potential (GWP), and it’s measured in mass of carbon equivalent (kgCO2e).

How to truly quantify environmental performance of buildings?

The only way to quantify the true environmental impact is by looking at the whole of building life cycle performance. Life Cycle Design utilises Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) to model whole of building performance, from construction through to end of life, all include use phase impacts. It also analyses functionality, and how well the project is delivering the proposed primary function. When designing a house for example, we want a dwelling that is comfortable, secure, healthy and in balance with the planet. By maximising the lifespan of a house, or the number of people it will provide shelter for, we can significantly improve the performance on a function unit basis (impact/occupant/year).

Our buildings are living organisms, and by understanding their impact on the environment and how we can design in balance with the natural life cycle, we will be able to make a more realistic plan towards the net zero carbon society we want to be part of.

Henrique Mendonça
Business Development Manager, eTool Global.

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