Two free, open-source tools for carbon-smart building design

Hoping to jump-start the market for embodied-carbon-zero new-building design, two recent initiatives hold great promise for the fast-growth new data center development sector.  

Thornton Tomasetti’s Beacon and Carbon Leadership Forum’s EC3 digital transformation tools are both intended to help structural engineers take a long step on the journey to zero embodied carbon by 2050 and the circular economy. 

Both are open-source and free download and bear the hallmarks of the kind of collaborative initiatives most common to the well-trod path of other pre-market open developments.

With new-building development estimated to contribute 39% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, construction is a very big target in meeting the mandate for carbon zero by 2050 and in holding global warming’s rise to 1.5°C. For the digital infrastructure industry, embodied carbon in the design/build of data centers teams with embodied carbon in IT and facilities power and cooling technology and operational energy to create the carbon-zero equation. 

Beacon, an Autodesk Revit API tool   

Global engineering firm, Thornton Tomasetti, recently launched its embodied-carbon management and optimization tool, Beacon for the design and build sector.

Beacon is an open-source, free API plug-in tool added atop Autodesk’s Revit building information modelling and management (BIM) platform. The intention of its developers is to arm structural engineers with a digital transformation tool to make it easier and faster to reduce and optimize the carbon embodied in commercial and industrial facilities, including mission-critical data centers. 

Revit is a long-popular professional tool for design and modelling of facilities MEP systems, among other AEC uses.

“We decided to make Beacon an open-source and easy-to-use tool,” says the firm’s CTO Robert Otani. “so it can be shared at a global scale. We hope this unique and comprehensive tool will push the industry forward into developing innovative strategies that result in more sustainable and efficient structures.”

The embodied-carbon design computational modelling plug-in was a three-year development effort by the firm’s CORE Studio, headed by Otani. CORE is a virtual innovation lab focused on data modelling and visualization. Its developers intent is to transform the structural engineer’s relationship to the carbon baked into the production of building materials. Beacon’s users will have a way to visualize embodied carbon in real-time throughout the design process, and allowing for optimizing designs for carbon reduction as a value in design parameters.

In the data center world, the principal carbon concern has been focused on reducing carbon from operational energy use, by on-site renewable power, sourcing for direct renewables on the grid, or through the use of carbon markets such as renewable energy credits (RECs) and cloud-based decentralized distribution of renewables known as Virtual Power Plants. 

However, GHG emissions resulting from carbon embodied in structural building materials may comprise as much as 11% of total global emissions, part of the 39%, including operational power, attributed to the building construction industry. 

That was a conclusion of the United Nations Environment Program’s Global Alliance for Building and Construction Status Report 2017, which then raised the red warning flag on structural building’s embodied carbon calling for “near-zero-energy, zero-emissions buildings need to become the construction standard globally within the next decade” (counting from 2017) to ensure average temperatures rise 1.5°C by 2050.

Toward the end of last year, the published the results of a multi-year, project-based embodied carbon measurement study to identify the type of structures, materials and components with the highest carbon emissions.

The Revit-Beacon product provides designers with a clear real-time “big-data” analytics visualization of embodied carbon quantities by material type, building element and floor levels, allowing engineers to quantify and optimize structural embodied energy and carbon and adding these values to the design parameters.

Beacon assigns a grade to the design model’s embodied carbon levels against the Carbon Leadership Forum’s database of models by building type using a red, yellow, and green rating system.

“(With) the built environment estimated to be responsible for about 40% of global GHG emissions when building materials are factored in,” says the design engineering firm’s corporate responsibility officer, Amy Seif Hattan. “Therefore, it’s up to us to help effect change. Beacon will help structural engineers address embodied carbon in new construction.” 

Hattan added that Beacon “will also be extremely valuable to measure progress toward the Carbon Leadership Forum’s Structural Engineers 2050 Challenge, the primary goal of which is zero carbon buildings by 2050.” Thornton Tomasetti is a major contributor to CLF’s work and Hattan serves on its board of directors.

Carbon Leadership Forum and the EC3 

Carbon Leadership Forum (CLF), headquartered at the University of Washington counts the Embedded Carbon in Construction Calculator (EC3) among its active projects. The free, open-source EC3 was a collaborative development project, initially, of Skanska, CLF, Interface and C-Change labs, It currently counts Microsoft as among its early adopters for building design, and it is served by Microsoft Azure Cloud.

According to Building Transparency, the EC3 tool allows for the benchmarking, assessment and reductions in building embodied carbon. It focuses on the upfront supply chain emissions inherent in construction materials. Incubated at CLF, the software had input from nearly 50 industry partners, and utilizes building material quantities from construction estimates, BIM models and a robust database of third-party verified Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs). 

Powered by this data, the EC3 tool can be implemented in both the design and procurement phases of a construction project to look at a project’s overall embodied carbon emissions, enabling specification and procurement of the low-carbon options.

EC3 was the brainchild of Skanska USA’s director of sustainability Stacy Smedley. In an interview published in Architectural Record on December, 23, 2019, Smedley said that she “was brought on (to Skanska USA) to help with carbon tracking for (the company’s) commercial development projects.” In the interview she detailed the problem that architects faced in determining the emissions of materials. “When you did find that information, it was typically at the end of a project. We weren’t able to influence projects early enough to actually reduce carbon.” 

Smedley said that in approximately 15 months from ideation, C-Change Labs delivered a proof of concept.  A structural engineer with a deep interest in embodied carbon, Don Davies of Magnusson Klemencic Associates, joined the development team, and, together with CLF leadership, the project has now garnered significant industry buy-in.

The EC3 tool — while principally aimed at structural design engineering professionals — also allows project developers, green building certification programs and policymakers to assess supply chain data in order to create environmental product declaration (EPD) requirements, and set embodied carbon limits and reductions, at the design, construction material and full project scale.

The tool’s collaborators hope that EC3 drives demand for low-carbon solutions and incentivizes construction materials manufacturers and suppliers to invest in disclosure, transparency and material innovations that reduce the life-cycle carbon emissions of their products.

Author’s Note: DigitalInfra Network will be soliciting comment from data center design engineers and builders to see if and how fast the industry will likely move to adopt front-end-loaded embodied carbon reduction and will update this story shortly.

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