Integrated Project Controls Platforms Help Tackle Embodied Carbon

Tech enhances project owners’ decision making to make progress in net-zero construction.
By Brad Barth
December 5, 2022

Toward the end of summer, the United States joined the Industrial Deep Decarbonization Initiative—an international coalition focused on decarbonizing steel, cement and concrete. The commitment adds to a growing portfolio of initiatives that will spur the U.S. construction industry to achieve net zero by 2050.

Some initiatives are tackling more obvious challenges, such as how to produce heat at sufficiently high temperatures with renewables. However, there are also several initiatives seeking to surmount the less obvious. One such challenge is how to track and reduce construction’s embodied carbon emissions. While once the use of low- and no-carbon materials was a “nice to have,” initiatives such as The Green Public Procurement Pledge will soon see governments set it as a prerequisite. Governments committed to the Pledge will need to disclose the embodied carbon of their projects by 2025 and require the use of low-emission cement/concrete and steel in their construction projects from 2030.

To make those disclosures and project prerequisites meaningful, an industry standard that sets out how to capture, verify and share data relating to embodied carbon is needed. Without standardization, it is difficult to compare project proposals, track progress against targets and create reliable and realistic industry benchmarks. Furthermore, while tracking high-carbon products such as steel, cement and concrete is understandably the priority, there are numerous other sources of carbon emissions that come into play on a construction project, such as machinery usage, waste disposal and transportation.

Steps toward a standard

Agreeing on a global or even national standard is likely to take years, but that should not stall progress toward creating greater transparency on embodied carbon. Owners and developers can leverage existing technology, such as an integrated project controls platform, to take a proactive step in the right direction. An integrated platform connects and manages all data to create meaningful, real-time insights across a project’s life cycle to enhance scope, cost and schedule decision making. The same platforms, by enabling planning and tracking at a detailed level, can also be used to improve visibility and decision making as it pertains to embodied carbon.

By accounting for the exact materials and quantities used, the number of machine hours, how waste is disposed of and other factors related to onsite construction activity, an integrated platform can give users an accurate read on the embodied carbon of a construction project at every stage. Every detail can be scrutinized, allowing users to make better decisions as a result.

Take building a new highway, for example. Different cost and schedule scenarios are often already undertaken to establish optimal balances between cost, schedule and life of the asset, such as whether to opt for asphalt or concrete and to determine the most productive way to build. With an integrated platform, those same scenarios can also be used to model the carbon implications of those decisions. Deciding whether to obtain concrete by trucking it from an existing plant or establishing an onsite batch plant is no longer just a cost and schedule issue but also a decision that can be assessed based on its varying carbon implications. With greater access to data, users can better determine the full carbon “cost” of each project decision as well as its impact on the whole project life cycle.

Real risks, trends and benchmarks

A further benefit of an integrated project controls platform is that all historic project data is captured in a knowledge library. Over time this builds a comprehensive picture of how construction projects are being delivered in practice, which can include the carbon implications of different choices. Using artificial intelligence and machine learning capabilities, an integrated platform can mine historic data to identify typical risks and portfolio trends. At the same time, it could be used to highlight potential opportunities for carbon reductions, on projects already under construction and in the planning and execution of future projects.

Operating as a continuous feedback loop, the more embedded carbon and generic project data are added into the knowledge library, the more comprehensive and insightful the outputs become. This can be especially powerful as alternative delivery projects continue to trend upward. Insights drawn from the knowledge library will provide a comprehensive view of how projects are translated from design into construction, influencing the design of future projects to assess embodied carbon impacts and providing real benchmarks against which to measure.

Less rework, less carbon

Another area where cloud-based project information platforms can make an impact on carbon emissions is by doing away with the traditional paper-based methods of communicating project plans and design documentation and their subsequent revisions. A digital approach is inherently more environmentally friendly and serves to almost entirely eliminate the embodied carbon associated with paper-based project methods, including the transport of documents. But more importantly, digital project documents are inherently more current, reducing the risk of working from outdated plans, which can lead to costly re-work.

Reducing re-work has a direct impact on reducing the overall carbon footprint of the project.

In the coming years, contractors will increasingly find themselves assessed not just on the traditional metrics of cost and schedule but also on their ability to support owner/operators and public entities in their efforts to reduce embodied carbon. Using an integrated project controls platform to facilitate planning and tracking work at a detailed level lays the foundation to begin tracking embodied carbon. In turn, project owners will benefit from a wealth of insights, allowing them to substantially enhance decision making to make progress against the net-zero construction agenda.

by Brad Barth

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