Episode 25

2 Build or Not 2 Build: Carbon Calculator

Carbon curious? Dedicated sustainable building practitioners Larry Siegel and Lori Ferriss discuss development of an easy-to-use tool for comparing the embodied, operating and avoided carbon impacts from reusing and upgrading existing buildings compared to constructing a typical replacement building. Listen in and learn how it might apply to your work.

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But we became clear that what was missing from all of the carbon calculation tools that are out there now is that they're all detailed, and they're all based on a real design of a real building. We wanted something that was before you made the design, when you were trying to figure out are we going to build a building in the first place? So it became a high level estimating tool. Larry Strain, Principal, Siegel & Strain Architects


CCB : [00:00:00] Welcome to the ONEder podcast, this is your host CCB, and today we have another episode with one of our 2020 ONEder Grant Award winners. We've described what the ONEder grant is in previous episodes, but I will just point out that it is a research grant that is awarded to architects and designers within the California, Northern California and Washington state area to conduct unique independent research about topics of interest relative to the built environment and the human experience within it. Today's guests are Larry Strain and Lori Ferriss. The award was given to Siegel & Strain, but his team is comprised of a group of individuals that are representing different organizations. So I'm going to let Larry and Lori Ferriss, who are joining us today, introduce themselves. And I'm going to start with Larry.

Larry Strain: [00:01:07] All right. Thank you. Yeah, so I'm Larry Strain of Siegel & Strain Architects. And our firm has been sort of practicing sustainable design for as long as we've been around about 30 years. And in the last 10 years or so, we've really focused in on sort of carbon emissions in the built environment. So that's what our focus became. How can we reduce the carbon emissions in the built environment? And so we got interested in both embodied carbon and reducing operating carbon. And that led me to a conclusion about seven or eight years ago that we really need to do the focus on existing buildings because the existing buildings are kind of this intersection of where body carbon can be avoided and where operational savings are possible. And so we started thinking about that and a tool to address that. So I'm getting off topic on who I am but-.

CCB : [00:02:07] That's ok, we'll roll back into asking lots of questions. Please be guaranteed about that. Lori, how about you introduce yourself?

Lori Ferriss: [00:02:20] I'm Lori Ferriss, the Director of Sustainability and Climate Action with Goody Clancy an Architecture, Preservation and Planning Firm in Boston. Our work also focusing a lot on sustainable and transformative building reuse. And personally, that's always been where my passion lies. I have a background in structural engineering and in conservation, so I have a very sort of technical building materials, hands on type of background. But I've always been interested in the relationship between our built heritage and our natural environment. So when I first got involved in lifecycle assessment also about ten years ago, I was really convinced that this story of total carbon and thinking about not just the carbon we use for operating our buildings, but they body carbon as well, was going to transform the way the building industry thinks about sustainability. That didn't really happen as quickly as I expected. So that's when I became really involved in the same type of advocacy that Larry's so deeply involved with and was lucky enough to be able to contribute to this tool, which I think is really important in helping to convey these principles to policymakers and practitioners in the public.

CCB : [00:03:24] The tool which we're going to talk about is an ongoing, iterative, evolving tool relative to building or not building. And so I'd love you to, Larry, why don't you start describing the proposal that you presented to the ONEder Grant.

Larry Strain: [00:03:43] So the idea was intuitively, it seems to make sense that if you can save an existing building and renovate it and maybe make it more efficient, it's going to use less carbon than building a brand-new building. Takes a lot of carbon emissions to build a building. And that's sort of been an accepted axiom of the green building movement. But there's been no way to quantify how that works in a real situation. What kind of remodel, what kind of new building, what's the existing building you're replacing? All those variables have to be considered. So we tried to come up with a tool that could sort of quantify the carbon impacts of an existing building, just leaving it alone and continues to operate with its current efficiency; of remodel of that existing building and making it more efficient. And then a brand new building that's even maybe more efficient than that. And what's the carbon of the total carbon impact of both embodied and operational and avoided carbon in those three scenarios? So it was really trying to give developers and planners and even designers tools to sort of make quick, early on decisions. Should we replace this building, or should we keep it and make it better? And what's the carbon impact of any of those decisions?

CCB : [00:05:02] So a question that comes to mind immediately is how did you build the consortium of Siegel & Strain, Goody Clancy and who is the third member of your team?

Larry Strain: [00:05:17] The third person who is not here, which is Erin McDade is the Senior Program Director at Architecture 2030 who's been working on reducing carbon emissions in the built environment since 2007. And they've done incredible work. And I started presenting with Erin about seven or eight years ago at various conferences around embodied carbon mostly and embodied carbon had to be part of the way we're looking at buildings, it's not just operational carbon. And so I developed this really rough Excel tool that I did. I don't know how to use Excel. I don't how to do any of this. But I had an idea and I developed it and showed it to Erin at a conference in 2019. And she said, this looks great, but I actually know how to do excel. Let me take a pass at it. And she developed a much more sophisticated tool that pulled in all kinds of data that I didn't know how to access, which is, you know, operational data from different states and great efficiencies from different states. And so we could build all these real things into the tool to make it more real. And then at the same time, then I'll turn it over to Lori, I got I started hearing about preservation and historic architects that were really committed to addressing climate change. And there was this group called ZNCC is a Zero Net Carbon Collaborative that Lori was part of. And I'll let Lori talk about that, because the existing building piece is such a huge piece of the tool.

Lori Ferriss: [00:06:45] Yeah, yeah, so I'm one of the founding co-chairs of the ZNCC the Zero Net Carbon Collaboration for existing and historic buildings, and we were, as Larry said, we were founded, really for this focus to kind of champion this intersection between preservation and heritage and sustainability and architecture and construction and really bring all of those groups together. And so we also we're looking for this tool, this method to quantify and make a tangible statement about the benefits, the carbon and climate benefits of building reuse. So Larry became involved in ZNCC you see very early on, and Architecture 2030 was one of our founding organizations. So it all kind of came together around this group of people that had that expertise in design and sustainability and the metrics of sustainability and in existing buildings. So it was really kind of the right place to foster this kind of development.

CCB : [00:07:42] So there's this whole coalescing of the passions and the interests and the expertise coming together. Tell us like actually when did it start? Because I know that there is a level of evolutionary movement that continues on today.

Larry Strain: [00:08:01] Yeah, there really is. The actual impetus for the tool itself. Even though the idea had been in the back of all of our minds, I think for a while, was an ex-employee of our firm. Seigel & Strain, worked for the office of the president of UC the system, the UC university system in California. And he called me up one day and said, hey, we're looking for a way to quantify carbon impacts of our buildings. And can you just point me to the right tool and total carbon operational and voided everything? I said, well, actually, there isn't a tool like that where we all want that tool. And he said, really? And I thought about it and I thought, well, maybe we could come up with some simple way of talking about operational interbody carbon for different scenarios. And I made this very simplistic version of an Excel spreadsheet that did that and showed it to him and ended up presenting to the UC system. But I didn't really know what I was doing in terms of making a tool. I just had the idea of what we needed to quantify. And so that's when Erin got involved at the end of 2019 and made it a more real tool. And at the same time we were talking to ZNCC about the idea of this tool. And actually, the ZNCC have always been kind of the strongest advocate of this tool. There's Architecture 2030 or the Carbon Leadership Forum who’ve been interested in it. But it's not really their main focus. And existing buildings are the main focus of ZNCC, so they were really the champions of saying this is a great tool. Let's go for it. So if you want to add anything to that, Lori. But that was how I saw it start.

Lori Ferriss: [00:09:41] Yeah, no, I think that's it. And so that's when I joined to bring that preservation of existing building voice as part of the ONEder Grant development. And I think the tools really come a tremendous way since then. I think it started off as a quantification tool and also a bit of a storytelling tool. And I think both of those are important characteristics of how it's evolved. It's evolved both technically, as Larry mentioned, becoming more sophisticated with the data and tapping in to make it more compatible with other metrics that exist. But also the storytelling is advancing. And I think that's really important because the tool is it's just that it's a tool. It's not a policy, it's not an advocacy platform. It's just a tool to make the case that, it's not a design in itself. So I think continuing to advance it so that it can better serve those different purposes. It's been one of the key focuses.

CCB : [00:10:30] So when you talk about the tool and creating it with the passion of all of your interests, there had to be the audience, I'm going to say, the levels of audience that you were intending to tell the story and have used the tool. So could you talk a little bit about that, the audiences that you were most interested in?

Larry Strain: [00:10:55] Yeah, I mean, in some ways, the audience that was the most vocal was the historic and existing building architecture group of people, and they really wanted this tool. And I think a lot of people early on wanted it kind of it as a design tool, an early design tool to make early design decisions. And we went down that road for a while and we're still interested in that. But we became clear that what was missing from all of the carbon calculation tools that are out there now is that they're all detailed, and they're all based on a real design of a real building. We wanted something that was before you made the design, when you were trying to figure out are we going to build a building in the first place? So it was a it became a high level estimating tool. So we wanted good enough numbers to make good decisions, but they didn't have to be perfect because you're not going to get a perfect or a real number until you actually have a real design to base it on. So the way that the tool developed, as we sort of said, OK, we have data on existing building operations and that's the CBEX and REX databases that the federal government publishes, operational efficiency and stuff like that. So we could use the existing buildings. And then for new buildings, we sort of said, well, you can't just say a replacement building is this much carbon. It depends on what kind of building it is. So we developed four kind of basic building types from a small single-family wood frame house to maybe a mixed-use, mixed-concrete and wood building that's maybe a residential three story building to then a mid-rise building all the way to high-rise super carbon intensive buildings and said these are the four basic building types you could replace your building with. And then the next thing was it took a lot of evolution, but we realized that for the retrofit we needed a menu of retrofit options because your retrofitting a building and renovating a building, there's all kinds of decisions to make. And so we wanted the user to say, well, our building is going to need this, this, and this. We know that because we know what the existing building is and they could just choose the menu. And each one of those menu items had an embodied carbon footprint to it. So it was a way to compare sort of a rough but real estimate of a remodel versus a new building versus leaving the building alone and getting the carbon input/output for all of those scenarios. And it's hard because most of the embodied carbon studies have been on new construction, they haven't been on existing buildings. So the existing building data, we're trying to collect it, we're trying to vet it, but we're also kind of well to develop the existing building menu retrofits, we sort of have to look at the whole building and break it out by pieces. Well, the envelope is typically twenty percent. So that's what the envelope is going to be. So there's ways to get at that data, but it's not from detailed studies because they don't exist yet.

CCB : [00:13:51] So I'm going to toss it over to Lori and say, that by virtue of introducing the data tool and the storytelling, you're implying that there is an audience that needs to hear the story more, probably more broadly. So I'd love to because you're, Larry's description starts to talk about building owners clearly, and architects and designers and who else needs to hear the story? There's that piece that I have in my head. And then I'm also going to say there's the policy piece that needs to be addressed. So, Lori, would you talk more about that storytelling?

Lori Ferriss: [00:14:34] I think the question of audience is really critical and has been really challenging for us, because in order to develop the tool really well, you have to know who is going to be using it. And so many people want to use it. So many different types of people. There's such a demand. I think the preservation community, as Larry said, is one of the biggest advocates and most vocal groups requesting this tool. And that's because there's this real sort of vacuum when thinking about climate policy for existing buildings and heritage. And so I think, the preservation of existing building community is trying to kind of get a seat at the climate table. But it's really hard when the climate you know, we're in this era of data and it's all about data and numbers and measuring positive impact and heritage is a lot about history and identity and materials and authenticity. And they kind of don't historically have an aligned as well. So I think that group is really searching for that quantifiable way to convince people what we all know intuitively, which is that we're using what you already have, makes less of a footprint on the environment than making something new. So I think that's what this group is hoping to use this tool for, to kind of put numbers to that message that they've been trying to communicate for decades and which they know is true. I think the policy side is really interesting also not even just about existing buildings, but looking at embodied carbon policy in general, policymakers are struggling to understand how to regulate or legislate to reduce our carbon emissions. That's pretty easy to put operational carbon emission reduction targets into play because everyone knows what their energy bill says. And it's easy to say reduce your energy bill. And I kind of know how to do that. But it's not as easy to measure or cap embodied carbon. And so I think creating a tool that, as I said early on before, you know, what you're designing is in a way that's not expensive to a team to develop or it's not expensive to the city to review that can provide that snapshot is a really good opportunity and something that there's a lot of need for.

Larry Strain: [00:16:39] And I would just add one thing to that, which is I think that this could be a tool that was used by city planning departments or cities to set their carbon climate action goals and things like that. But it's also, I think, portfolio managers of large properties, lots of properties. This is a great tool for that. Potentially. It's not just saying it's set up as a building by building, but if, you know, you have ten buildings of a similar kind, you can say we have 300,000 square feet of this building type and get these bigs; That's what we originally started for like you see UC Berkeley and the UC system is that they have these massive portfolios of buildings and so giving them a tool to be able to evaluate, does it make sense to remodel half of them? Maybe some of them make sense to tear down? I mean, the tool doesn't always show that it's better to save. Sometimes if you have to do a huge structural upgrade to an existing building, that's a lot of carbon. So then maybe it's better to build a new building. So it doesn't, it's not just automatically that the existing building option is the best. This one actually quantifies it. So I think we're seeing lots of and then yesterday we talked to someone who's really interested in this, who is a big global lender and real estate market. And they mostly lend on existing buildings. So they want to give another reason to renovate and reuse existing buildings. And they have a $700 Billion portfolio that's global. And so that's another potential type of user that could use this tool to say, hey, there's a real opportunity here to save a lot of carbon.

CCB : [00:18:17] So that just makes me think about everything that's going on in the world today and the news that the news cycles of interest in climate action and the activities most recently over the last couple of weeks with all of the large oil companies. There such advocacy rising up levels of the hierarchy. So I wonder if you're seeing any of that, having Lori, to your point of it's taking so long or it's you know, is there a greater appetite? Do you believe today than there has been in the last five years, say?

Lori Ferriss: [00:18:58] I think so. I mean, I think I'm seeing this pick up really rapidly in particularly discussions around body carbon are just it's really accelerating tremendously in the past two years, I would say. I do think the political pressures are mounting and I think there's a lot of action towards the COP26, the Conference of the Parties, which is the UN's large environmental gathering this fall, I think many different industries are all mobilizing towards that goal. So I yeah, I do think we're seeing a lot of good momentum here, Larry. I don't know what you think.

Larry Strain: [00:19:31] I think that's true. Architecture 2030, which Ed Mazria founded. The reason it was so revolutionary was you can look at the carbon pie chart and it looks like it's mostly transportation and it's mostly the oil industry that's doing it all. But you have to look at where the oil is used, the buildings use the fuel and the cars use the fuel. So it doesn't just, you've got to look at the end user of these fuels. And it turned out that the built environment was about forty percent of global emissions. And for a long time, we just focused on the twenty-eight percent that was operational. And then people said, hey, there's eleven percent or so that's also embodied carbon from building materials and like that. And so there's a big shift now looking at embodied carbon, which is great. But we're sort of saying it's the total carbon we need to look at. We need to look at how these intersect and how operational efficiency impacts embodied carbon. And we need to have a tool that can do that quickly. And so that's what this was really designed to do. And really to sort of say, reusing a building isn't just about saving embodied carbon from not building a new building. It's about making that existing building more efficient or maybe even making a net-zero. So that's what we hope this tool can kind of inspire and give people a numbers justification for why they're doing it.

Lori Ferriss: [00:20:59] I also think that one thing that's happening right now that is aligned here is are all the co-benefits that when you're looking at climate action, it's not just about carbon, it's not about one thing. And building reuse comes with so many co-benefits like bolstering local economy and local skilled labor and supporting social equity and preservation of local culture. And there's so many other reasons to save buildings right now that I think are getting a lot of attention locally and globally. I think this really kind of dovetails into a lot of other movements.

Larry Strain: [00:21:30] Yeah

CCB : [00:21:31] Well, I think we would all completely agree with you, at least all of us sitting here on this call. But I will also ask the question about there's a timeline for enhancing the tool that you're working with right now. And are there data gaps that need to be filled? Like what's what are your next steps?

Larry Strain: [00:21:54] Well, there's a couple of things we, what we've done is we've we've looked at lots of different carbon studies and we've sort of put in our best estimates on all these different carbon impacts for different remodeling scenarios, different new buildings. They're still just estimates. And so we're collecting data from firms that are doing whole building lifecycle assessment. And we're trying to go back continually and see if we need to refine the numbers. And that's fine. We think the numbers are good enough right now so that refining of the numbers will continue to go on. But the other piece is we're trying to make the tool easier to use, more powerful, but not get it too complicated so it becomes a design tool because that's not the intention of it. So we've done another couple of actually a couple of iterations of the tool since we turned in for the ONEder Grant to actually make it more usable and people can see exactly what this selection means, what was in that assumption. So I think we're doing that. And then the final thing is it's right now it's an Excel based tool that that Erin McDade developed. We want to turn it into a web-based app so that anybody can access it and use it. And so that's what we're doing right now is looking for both continuing to refine the numbers, but also trying to find funders and sponsors that will develop it into a web-based tool. That's then just open source. Anyone can use it.

CCB : [00:23:24] I think that's fantastic, give us a ballpark, if people are listening to this and they might be interested, what exactly are you looking for?

Larry Strain: [00:23:34] Well, we've talked to one group of web designers, the people that actually worked on the zero tool for Architecture 2030 and after a one-hour conversation, and it's showing them the tool they threw out of ballpark of $35,000.00 to turn this into a web based tool. Now, that's turning the tool we have right now just into a web based tool. There's further refinements we want to make. So that could add cost. One of the things we'd like to do that I think is really important, is turning into a tool that translates into the into UK and EU. So it's not just a North American tool. So the numbers and the terminology have to work for wherever you are in the world. So you may have to change in, a drywall might not be called drywall in Europe. It might be called something else, plasterboard or whatever. So you have to adjust things. We might have a North American. So those are all things that I think are really important to do. But and we're sort of taking it one step at a time. We're trying to finish the current model we have, which is North American based, and then expand it.

CCB : [00:24:37] Ok, there you have a gigantic energy effort that has already been committed to this project and clearly you have a lot more to do. What other things might you want our audience to know about this project? I'm going to start with Lori.

Lori Ferriss: [00:25:03] Gosh, I'm stumped by that question, even though I know it's coming. What do I want people to know? I, I don't know, I think we're really just excited to get people using the tool and yeah, I think we're looking for feedback, but I think I want people to know that if you're doing whole building lifecycle assessment of existing buildings, we want your data and you're doing great work. And there aren't that many people working on this. So I'll put out a call for that and an invitation to collaborate with us in that way and for feedback about ideas of how to use this tool. I think one of the most helpful types of feedback we've gotten are from people who want to use it with the Minnesota State Historic Preservation Office, who wants to use it to quantify the carbon benefits of their tax credit program. That's a very discrete way in which we hear the tool wants to be used, and that helps us think about how to develop it. So ideas about how this could be impactful for advocacy or policy or decision making about your own buildings or your own designs is a really helpful.

Larry Strain: [00:26:06] And I'll add that's totally right, and that because of who we are and our backgrounds, our advisory group of the people we reach out to tend to be engineers, architects, and kind of climate focused scientists. We haven't reached out because we don't have as many contacts in the real estate realm or the developer realm or the large portfolio asset manager people. And so we need to get that kind of voice having input into how the tool. So we were excited to talk to this global asset manager in real estate the other day because they're really interested in this, which would be great to have that kind of, that's a major impact when you're looking at that kind of amount of assets that you could potentially impact by this tool. The other thing is, we're trying to figure out how to make like how to make this tool known, how to make it clear that this is something you can use right now to tell whether you should be building a new building or not. I mean, it's partly it's still, unfortunately, partly convincing people of the story that the existing buildings really are important. They're really the key to the whole thing. We can't get to carbon neutral built environment by building more new buildings. We're going to keep building new buildings and we have to do a better job at it. But we've got to take all the buildings we already have and make them way better or perfect.

CCB : [00:27:44] Well, that's an aspirational goal that I think we can toss out to the entire listening audience. What I will say, though, is our ONEder Grant's intention is to share that kind of information, and some of what I'm hearing here if our audience is listening. If there's any strong marketing groups that have a passion for sustainability, one of the things that I will also comment on about, our fairly large client-base across northern California and the state of Washington, the topic of sustainability and in every element is ratcheting up. Lori, you said two years. I would say yes, over the last two to five years from an interior standpoint, because that's really more our bailiwick, our swim lane. But it is at the highest level of conversation. So if we can communicate that and frankly, that's one of our intentions with the ONEder Grant to help do that. So whatever we can do, we will whatever our audience can do, we will. Whatever connections we can make, we certainly will to promote the enhanced use and development of the Carbon Calculator Tool. So I want to say thank you very much, Larry and Lori, for joining us today. The podcast will be available on all your streaming systems, streaming services, and we will look forward to talking to you again in the near future.