New Data Helps Optimize Material Selection and Reduce Embodied Carbon in Commercial and Industrial Buildings

Choosing low embodied carbon building materials is a strategy that can reduce the environmental impact of the built environment to help create a more sustainable future.
By Brent Trenga
April 20, 2021

With the built environment growing at a record pace, it is estimated that the embodied carbon associated with the annual construction of 66 billion square feet of new buildings globally is a staggering 3.7 billion metric tons—that’s more than 11,000 Empire State Buildings every year. According to Architecture 2030, embodied carbon will be responsible for almost half of total new construction emissions between now and 2050.

A new white paper recently released by Kingspan Insulated Metal Panels is designed to help building owners and architects make more informed choices when it comes to reducing embodied carbon in commercial and industrial buildings. The new white paper, based on research conducted by architectural research and planning firm KieranTimberlake, focuses on embodied carbon and how materials regularly used in commercial and industrial building construction measure up, when put to the test.

The firm performed a life cycle assessment of four different industrial claddings—mineral fiber insulated metal panels, insulated concrete, tilt-up concrete and Kingspan QuadCore insulated metal panels—to understand the embodied carbon impact of each of the different wall systems.

The four variations of wall systems were used on a virtual 150,000-square-foot industrial warehouse in Philadelphia to determine the environmental impacts of structure, envelope and interior assemblies over a 60-year building life. The study used an R-value of 20, based on the building code climate zone for the area. The full cradle-to-grave analysis focused on material manufacturing, maintenance, replacement and end-of-life.

To conduct the study, KieranTimberlake compared 2.5-inch-thick Kingspan KS Series panels using the company’s QuadCore technology to 5-inch-thick mineral fiber IMPs, 12-inch-thick insulated concrete wall using polystyrene insulation, and 9-inch-thick tilt-up concrete wall insulated with fiberglass batts. The doors, windows, roofing and floor slab were kept the same across all materials. However, the wall assembly, vertical structure and foundations varied for the different applications.

KieranTimberlake used Tally, a Revit-integrated LCA tool, to generate a complete bill of materials for each type of assembly and assessed each for their impact on global warming, acidification, eutrophication, smog formation, ozone depletion and non-renewable energy demand.

The LCA comparison of embodied carbon, measured as global warming potential, revealed that the Kingspan QuadCore IMP had the lowest levels of all the wall assemblies—28% lower than the insulated concrete wall and tilt-up concrete wall, which registered the highest levels of embodied carbon. That reduction in embodied carbon for the single building scenario studied is the equivalent of removing the greenhouse gas emissions from the average car driving 27 times around the world or the CO2 emissions from burning 149 tons of coal.

While efforts to reduce GHG emissions from energy used in building operations are ongoing, the building sector is only now beginning to turn their attention to reducing embodied carbon in construction materials. The study detailed in the whitepaper provides data owners and architects can use to reduce their carbon footprint across the supply chain by optimizing material selection in the construction of commercial and industrial buildings.

The research results highlighted in the white paper show that choosing low embodied carbon building materials is a strategy that can reduce the environmental impact of the built environment to help create a more sustainable future. There is only one chance to make more informed choices when it comes to embodied carbon.

by Brent Trenga
Brent Trenga, LEED AP BD+C, WELL AP is Director of Sustainability for Kingspan Insulated Panels North America. His background as an architect, construction manager, developer and project owner give him a unique perspective on all facets of the construction industry. Trenga leads Kingspan North America’s material health and transparency program and Kingspan’s North American NZE 2020 program, while collaborating with the company’s global healthy building team.

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