ETP – Carbon Life Cycle Analysis for the Built Environment

Today I attended a seminar put on by the Scottish Energy, Technology, Partnership on the topic of recent developments in carbon lifecycle analysis in the context of the built environment. Various speakers from different backgrounds gave their thoughts and opinions on the state of the Scottish and UK built environment in the context of life cycle carbon. It was great to hear from current industry practitioners (both building scientists/engineers and architects) about how they were using life cycle assessment to evaluate the sustainability of the projects they were involved in.

One thought that stuck with me was that life cycle assessment and sustainability in general need to take a “place-based” approach. The current dialogue around sustainability from a policy and academic perspective currently revolve around reducing emissions globally. I must admit that this is the perspective that I typically take which is heavily influenced by my Twitter feed, the work I do, and the manuscripts that I read. Yet when agents of change take action, they need to take action in the context of their local community, which is rooted in a particular place. A solution for a sustainable building here in Edinburgh will be different than one in Inverness, or in Denver. I have typically expressed a sentiment that what is most “sustainable” depends, and there is not one right answer to general questions. But in lieu of saying that “it depends” as my response, I think taking the lens of “place-based” approach is more appropriate and action oriented. It is impossible for myself or anybody to really know a large number of communities. As academics we try to make overarching claims from our results, and try to design experiments or build models to answer questions that affect many people. Yet specific solutions require this place-based approach.

In the past couple of years, I have been assuming the paradigm of a researcher, or an academic looking at regional and global-scale problems and have not been thinking in the ways of architects, engineers, and builders. When working on a design project, place-based approaches to sustainability are an integral part of the design process. In seeing the Falkirk Wheel, I was able to reconnect a bit with my design mindset and am wrestling with the role that place-based approaches have a role in my work as a researcher. This is something that I don’t fully know the answer to, but hope to find a space for in my work.

A neat company that was highlighted that I think utilizes a place-based approach to sustainability was IndiNature. They build hemp and biopolymer based insulation systems that are produced entirely in the UK, and have reduced life cycle emissions as compared to petroleum-based alternatives. While I am thinking about carbon storage from a building stock scale of perspective, it was great to see a local product that has carbon storing capabilities. Furthermore, the company is thinking about the full life cycle of the product, and how it can contribute to a circular economy – a paradigm that the built environment must shift towards.

A crooked photo of a small house cabin that was using these IndiNature insulation materials on a rare blue sky day in February.

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