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Consciously Calculate, Compare, Cut Construction Carbon

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Inspired by an interesting article in Fast Company Magazine, I ventured into the world of construction, about which I know very, very little, to discover something called an Embodied Carbon in Construction Calculator, EC3.

In this short journey, I discovered a means of graphic display called a Sankey Diagram, which I’ll share with you below, and I rediscovered the LCA (Life Cycle Assessment) which we had written about in our now 10-year-old book Green Project Management.

The key part of the article from Fast Company is here:

The Embodied Carbon in Construction Calculator, or EC3, is an online tool that collects the carbon emissions data of thousands of types of building materials, allowing building developers, designers, and contractors to see the potential impact of their projects, and to compare materials to find ways of reducing their embodied carbon.

The tool works by compiling a massive database of construction materials’ environmental product declarations, which quantify the carbon footprint of their production. The calculator enables users to plug in the construction material choices and quantities they plan to use in their building projects to get clear estimates of their embodied carbon emissions. With specific data on materials ranging from concrete and steel to carpet tiles and window panes, the calculator shows how material choices made from the very earliest stages of a building’s design can drastically reduce its embodied carbon.

Let’s start with the definition of Embodied Carbon. 

The best definition I could find was from the Carbon Cure website:

Embodied carbon is the carbon dioxide (CO₂) emissions associated with materials and construction processes throughout the whole lifecycle of a building or infrastructure. 

It includes any CO₂ created during the manufacturing of building materials (material extraction, transport to manufacturer, manufacturing), the transport of those materials to the job site, and the construction practices used. 

Put simply, embodied carbon is the carbon footprint of a building or infrastructure project before it becomes operational. It also refers to the CO₂ produced maintaining the building and eventually demolishing it, transporting the waste, and recycling it.

Again, from the Fast Company article:

The project got early support from industry partners including Microsoft, which has piloted the calculator on a major project at its headquarters in Redmond, Washington—a 17-building redevelopment that will see its first new structures completed in 2022. The goal was to build up the data set and for the calculator to be able to reduce the project’s embodied carbon as early in the design process as possible. In line with Microsoft’s 2020 pledge to become carbon negative by 2030, it’s targeting an embodied carbon reduction of 30% for this project.

“Zero carbon was something that was really important to us because we knew that we had to as a society get to zero carbon, but we really wanted to dig into how would that actually work on a project and particularly on a project of this scale,” says Katie Ross, senior sustainability program manager for Microsoft’s real estate and facilities team. “EC3 is a prime example for us of how we think about leveraging technology to create data-driven decisions and really support our mission to become carbon negative.”

Reducing building energy consumption is critical to critical climate change mitigation goals, as buildings consume 40% of energy globally and produce 36% of greenhouse gasses (GHGs). The Embodied Carbon in Construction Calculator (EC3) is a free online tool that enables building industry members to make more carbon-efficient material choices when designing and constructing buildings. EC3 uses data including building construction estimates, BIM models, and a database of Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) to calculate a project’s overall embodied carbon emissions, allowing comparison, specification and procurement of lower carbon options.

The EC3 platform is free and open, and is also designed to be accessible to all, including architects and contractors who may be new to green building. EPDs can be lengthy and technical for builders who may not be accustomed to this scientific language. Embodied carbon reports are also delivered in a simple PDF format, which can be easier to work with. The EC3 tool is also open source, which means that it is and will remain a completely transparent tool. The methodology is published and being developed with stakeholder input. Anyone can register for free access, and the tool's underlying EDP database is available through an open API.

Additionally, the EC3 tool encourages project managers to set a “carbon budget” enabling builders to keep their materials sourced at a low embodied carbon level. This baseline can become what later design decisions get measured against.

The EPD mentioned above is actually important to know about.  Again from the Carbon Cure website:

An Environmental Product Declaration (EPD) is an independently verified document, defined by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) 14025 as a declaration that "quantifies environmental information on the lifecycle of a product to enable comparisons between products fulfilling the same function." 

In the same way that nutritional labels report the measured nutrition facts for food products, EPDs report the measured lifecycle environmental impact of a product so designers and builders can make more informed decisions.

Companies implement EPDs to improve their sustainability goals and to demonstrate a commitment to the environment to customers. However, the green building market is starting to demand EPDs across a wide spectrum of building products—especially concrete products.

Throughout the 12 years I’ve been researching sustainability in project management, one recurring theme is the LCA (Life Cycle Assessment).  A tremendous description of LCAs can be found here, and an extract is below (from

Have you been hearing more and more of Life-Cycle Assessment or LCA? Have you tried reading about Life-Cycle Assessment and given up after being confronted with walls of technical data?

Fear not and read on for a simple, practical take on Life-Cycle Assessment that will clear up why it has become such an important concept for Green Building experts.

LCA answers the simple question: how sustainable is my product or process? We know products are not equal in terms of their environmental impact and putting a number on that can be hard. LCA is a standardized, science-based tool for quantifying the impact answering the simple question: How does my product or process affect the environment? 

Life-Cycle Assessment allows you to evaluate the effect on the environment of a product, service, or process over its entire life-cycle. This means that LCA takes into consideration all the steps that lead from raw material to manufactured product, including extraction of the materials, energy consumption, manufacture, transportation, use, recycling, and final disposal or end of life. It is a holistic methodology that quantifies how a product or process affects climate change, non-renewable resources, and the environment as a whole. Life-Cycle Assessment’s strength lies in the fact that it takes into account what happens before and after the final product is used by customers, and can effectively measure effects over a long time of period.

For example, if you want to know how your building will influence climate change during its entire existence, LCA can give you the answer.

Project managers who think in terms of LCAs and get smarter about the philosophy behind LCAs will be better-prepared for the future.  The 7th Edition PMBOK® Guide will likely include much deeper connections to the LCA philosophy, and will ask project managers to think more holistically about how their projects connect to an organization’s mission/vision/values and its daily operations.

One tool for visualizing this is the Sankey Diagram.  The Sankey Diagram has its roots in engineering, especially for energy use.  It is an illustration of energy with arrows proportional to the amount of energy flowing.  The first example (and thus the name) is from Irish engineer Captain Matthew Henry Phineas Riall Sankey in 1898. He compared the energy efficiency (energy balance) of steam engines. It does have an earlier history, with French engineer Charles Joseph Minard using such diagrams to visualize Napoleon's Russian Campaign of 1812.

Below is an example of energy flow in a passenger car (in German).

Today, Sankey diagrams are used worldwide for data visualization, e.g. in material flow analyzes and energy management systems, but also in wide ranging areas such as immigrant flow and economics.

As is my practice, wherever possible I provide resources for project managers here on this blog. 

You can download your own Sankey Diagram template, including instructions, here.  I tested it.  It works. Here's what it looks like - but if you download it you can edit it to your heart's content!


I mention the Sankey Diagram because I increasingly see this type of chart appearing in project reports with the increased use of Tableau and Power BI and other data analytics and visualization programs that have hefty capabilities to translate data into knowledge and wisdom.

And… it is featured in the EC3 tool.  Below is an example of a Sankey Diagram generated by the EC3 tool.

A great introduction to the EC3 tool and instructions on how to log in and use it can be found here in this video.

Posted by Richard Maltzman on: February 28, 2021 03:11 PM | Permalink

Comments (2)

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really like it, specially sharing the Sankey Diagram link, to be honest it is some thing new to me. thank you for sharing.

Thanks Sir,
Thanks for sharing this Richard

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