AJ Summit 2021

A spotlight on whole life carbon

As with lots of events over the past twelve months, the AJ Summit was hosted on a virtual platform. The advantage of a shift to a digital delivery, is the improved reach of an event like this. This year’s summit was a fantastic way to encourage a wider audience to move in the same direction to address the issues the planet faces. It has also provided an opportunity for longevity of content with all sessions being available to watch on demand.

Importantly there were also calls to move from talk and pledges to actions. Presenters from LETI called for architects, clients, contractors and built environment professionals to meaningfully change the design and construction of buildings through collaboration.

The themes that emerged from the summit were: a push for retrofit over new construction; a focus on embodied carbon; and need to collaborate and share best practice, tools, and methodologies. As we push for change in 2021 these are the points I believe are key to success.

Retrofit

The AJ have been running their Retrofirst campaign since 2019 to promote the reuse of existing buildings; a topic discussed by many speakers. There was a consensus that this should be the first thing to look at when starting a project. Kiru Balson, Paul Hunter and Victoria Herring discussed the importance of community within developments in their talk “reuse first, new build second – should we be minimising new builds”. If an existing building can be redesigned and retrofitted, to create better community spaces then it has a positive impact from both a social and environmental perspective. This includes adapting to societal changes following the impact of COVID, such as the integration of different generations to combat loneliness.

Embodied carbon

A focus in various presentations was embodied carbon, something largely overlooked by the industry. Whilst operational carbon has been prominent in discussions and guidance for a long time, embodied carbon is a much more recent focus for the industry. The summit provided a great overview of both types of carbon; operational carbon being the emissions related to the in-use phase of a building, and embodied carbon being the carbon related to a product. A recent study from Architecture 2030 showed that embodied carbon represents 49% of all carbon emissions related to new construction from now until 2050, so it has been a significant blind spot for the industry.

Embodied carbon is linked to retrofit, as using what already exists will have a much lower footprint than building new. But it goes beyond reusing existing buildings. The summit saw lots of discussion on the materials selected for projects, including low carbon and carbon negative products such as cross laminated timber (CLT) and Interface’s carbon negative (cradle to gate) carpet tiles which will help reduce the carbon footprint of a project.

It was interesting to hear different perspectives on the issue of embodied carbon. Juliette Morgan from British Land discussed some of the challenges they have faced when trying to reduce embodied carbon on their projects – the difficulties getting insurance when using CLT highlighted an area where improvement is needed. But ultimately showed that measurement and progress is possible when embodied carbon is set as a key metric.

Tools, methodology and solutions

‘You can only mange what you can measure’ was a message reinforced by several of the presenters. At Interface we would agree this is an important first step for anyone looking to reduce the environmental impact of a project. The summit brought together lots of tools and methodologies from across the industry, and demonstrated just how achievable measurement and reduction is.

Clare Murray and Clara Bagenal George shared the great work that LETI have been doing in creating guidance and roadmaps for architects to design net zero buildings. LETI are pushing for a move from relative targets to absolute targets; and their guidance provides clear steps to reach their targets on operational carbon. ACAN’s embodied carbon report was mentioned by Sustainability Editor of the AJ, Hattie Hartman, which gives a great overview of the topic and discusses carbon regulation in the built environment.

Peter Fisher from Bennett Associates, talked about the importance of science-based targets. In his very interesting presentation, he talked about how they have measured their own footprint as a business, and how that enabled them to understand the impact of their clients.

Towards the end of the day Duncan Baker-Brown of BakerBrown spoke of a range of solutions available to the industry from the reuse of materials to post-consumer recycled content. This reinforced the view that although the need for action is urgent, there are solutions already available to the industry.

Industry optimism

The summit celebrated and shared best practice examples of how the industry is beginning to respond to the climate emergency. It clearly demonstrated that tools and solutions are readily available for architects and designers to use to drive to further positive change within the built environment.  So regardless of the size or scale of your project, there are steps you can take immediately to reduce its environmental impact – be it through carbon measurement, reuse and/or material choice. Where will your focus be?

All of the talks are still accessible on demand and can be found here until June 2021.

If you would like to learn more about embodied carbon Interface have a RIBA and RIAI certified CPD on the topic. Please contact marketing@interface.com to find out more.

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