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Big Data And AI Target The Built Environment’s High Carbon Footprint

How buildings are built and operated can have far-reaching environmental implications.

While there has been some movement toward more sustainable energy portfolios with net-zero energy and net-zero carbon targets for buildings, less focus has been paid to buildings' embodied carbon.

A new nonprofit organization, Building Transparency, aims to change that by working to reduce the embodied carbon or the carbon dioxide emissions associated with the materials, construction and maintenance of buildings. Such emissions can come from sources such as the mining of raw materials, manufacturing, transport of materials, installation and replacement through the life cycle of a building.

“We now know that over the next 35 years we're building about 2 trillion SF of construction globally — that’s the equivalent of an entire New York City every 35 days for the next 35 years,” Building Transparency Executive Director Stacy Smedley said during a presentation at RETCON 2021 Build Summit on March 31.


Smedley, who is also director of sustainability for Skanska USA, added that achieving zero carbon emissions by 2050 to mitigate climate change impacts will require a greater understanding of the role that buildings play and efforts to reduce those emissions. Embodied carbon can be upward of 50% of the buildings' carbon emissions, she said.

Building Transparency is working to reduce embodied carbon in the built environment through a tool called EC3, an embodied carbon database, calculator and tracker tool that is open access, industry-led and supply chain-focused.

For example, 19% of carbon dioxide emissions from manufacturing comes from cement, according to data from Rhodium Group presented by Smedley. However, there are differences in the carbon footprint of particular cement products. Furthermore, companies like Blue Planet are developing aggregates for use in concrete mixes produced from sequestered carbon.

Launched in November 2019, EC3 was created through a combined effort between Smedley, Skanska and C-Change Labs, a tech tool developer. Microsoft Co. provided seed funding and piloted the tool on a campus project, and EC3 was then incubated at the Carbon Leadership Forum, a nonprofit hosted by the University of Washington.

EC3 is geared to help commercial real estate and construction companies make lower-carbon choices during the design, building and maintenance phases. For example, if a general contractor intends to use generally carbon-intensive products such as cement, iron or steel, they can use the EC3 tool to identify specific products with the lowest carbon footprint.

“What EC3 does is take material quantities from construction estimates or BIM products like Autodesk and 360, and then multiplies those quantities by the carbon impacts of the manufacturing emissions of materials,” Smedley said.

Instead of providing a typical cost per unit of material, EC3 yields kilograms of carbon per unit of material. Such measurements offer carbon estimates for a given project and enable users to set targets and compare options for materials.

The EC3 database relies on third-party verified environmental product declarations, or EPDs, which Smedley said are akin to a nutrition label for a building material. The EPDs originate as PDF documents that are verified by program operators and then digitized for queries on the EC3 database.

“You have a declared unit or a serving size and then a kilogram of CO2 equivalent per unit similar to a carbohydrate on a label for a food item,” Smedley said.

So far, EC3 has over 12,000 users, including Amazon and Microsoft, and Smedley added that it is also beginning to be used by federal and county policymakers in climate action plans and policy proposals.

“We’re moving at the speed of collective impact by reducing the embodied carbon of what we build,” Smedley said.


As EC3 takes off, momentum is increasing to tackle emissions at the operational level. Autonomous building technology company BrainBox AI has partnered with WattTime, an environmental tech nonprofit, to drive CO2 reductions in CRE by targeting HVAC systems, according to a statement.

By continuously making tiny adjustments to a building’s HVAC system based on many indoor and outdoor measurements, BrainBox AI’s technology can reduce energy costs by 25% and decrease a building’s carbon footprint by between 20% and 40%.

WattTime has an Automated Emissions Reduction software that enables Internet of Things devices such as building energy management systems to optimize the timing of wind and solar energy use and thus minimize reliance on fossil fuels.

Under the partnership, BrainBox AI integrates WattTime’s software to achieve more significant insights into opportunities to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and mercury emissions. The merging of the two technologies could add another 15% of emissions reduction potential, according to a statement from BrainBox AI.

“Buildings are the largest consumers of energy on our planet, and this exciting partnership with WattTime will not only create significant energy savings but also make a very meaningful impact on the GHG emissions of buildings,” BrainBox AI President Sam Ramadori said in the statement. “Combining WattTime’s emissions data and signal with BrainBox AI’s autonomous AI technology is the kind of game-changing, scalable innovation that we desperately need to battle climate change.”