Decarbonization consultant William Beer shares his thoughts about efforts to reduce emissions from the manufacture of building materials

Thinking Through LCAs

Decarbonization consultant William Beer shares his thoughts about efforts to reduce emissions from the manufacture of building materials

(Courtesy PurOptima and Hydro)

Greenhouse gas emissions fuel global warming. How can we accurately reduce them? Measurements are a good place to start, and we currently track them across three distinct scopes: (1) direct emissions; (2) indirect, owned emissions; and (3) all other indirect emissions, upstream and downstream. It’s often not an expertise that companies possess internally, so a consultant can aid in this process. To learn more, AN’s executive editor, Jack Murphy, spoke with William Beer, CEO of Tunley Environmental. Trained as an engineer, Beer now leads a team of scientists who work with companies to provide assessments of carbon, biodiversity, toxicology, and resources. They have handled assessments of everything from Botox to the Port of Detroit.

PurOptima, a commercial glass wall partition system specialist for offices in the U.S., is a client of Tunley’s and appears in the following conversation as an illustrative case study. The company, known as Optima in the U.K., where it is headquartered, manufactures its systems using Hydro CIRCAL 75R recycled aluminum, which includes a minimum of 75 percent recycled, postconsumer aluminum scrap. To deal with the full life cycle of its products, Optima also repurposes build-outs as part of its Reuse and Take Back services, in which products are demounted, disassembled, and readied to be reintroduced into the supply chain for new building. (For now, this service is only available in the U.K.) Internal estimates indicate that there will be significant growth in the use of this service by the end of the decade.

William Beer, CEO of Tunley Environmental, leads a team of scientists working with companies to provide assessments of carbon, biodiversity, toxicology, and resources. (Courtesy Tunley Environmental)

When your company conducts a report and presents it to a client, what action do you see? What changes?

Probably 20 to 30 percent of the time, they don’t care. It’s box ticking, or they’re being forced to go through the motions. Cost is a factor, but for some companies, sustainability is actually becoming part of their business model.

I’ll give you an example. We had a pharmaceutical company as a client. We convinced them to stop overnight shipping their products, which are somewhere between drugs and cosmetics. These items aren’t affected by heat or cold, so they don’t need temperature-controlled transport, and they have an incredibly long life span. The company was worried that customers wouldn’t accept the longer lead time, but they told them that the benefit from this change was a reduction of millions of kilograms of carbon dioxide per year. All of their customers accepted the lead times and still paid their invoices, which were due upon dispatch, not receipt. This meant that there was no cash flow change for the company, and they saved money on shipping costs. This is amazing, because we helped them quantify and reduce emissions, and now they have cash to further invest in the business.

Another example: PurOptima has a furnace to dry solvents on their paint line. (They recommend powder coating instead of anodizing because it makes it easier to refinish components.) We made the (expensive) recommendation to capture the heat that was previously lost and to warm their offices with that heat. They soon signed off on it, and it is now in use.

How dependent are these assessments on local conditions, like electricity generation? For example, about 60 percent of the power in the U.S. comes from fossil fuels.
That’s a wonderful question. Let’s pick on South Africa for a moment: If you have an electric car in South Africa and you charge it from the grid, it’s worse than having a diesel engine, because their electricity largely comes from coal. And we see very similar examples to that in India and, to a lesser extent, China.

The challenge in the U.S. is that the grid varies from state to state. What that means from an assessment perspective is we actually have to understand that, and our recommendations need to be based on this reality. If you’re in a state with good renewables, we’re more likely to not recommend things like solar because there are probably initiatives that have the same cost that will get a better return on carbon investment. Compare this to states which are more reliant on coal, where we’d have to account for that when trying to achieve net-zero carbon.

Remember: You don’t want to get too caught up in the energy consumption of your organization, because most of your footprint is in scope 3, which is essentially your supply chain. Often the biggest footprint isn’t what happens in the company but the materials you purchase. You might invest in solar, but you’re still buying steel from India or Turkey, or you’re buying timber but it’s not FSC-certified that comes from Brazil or Indonesia. We try to home in on scope 3—this is where companies are focusing their attention if they’re ahead of the game.

(Courtesy PurOptima and Hydro)

What should architects be aware of when trying to make environmentally sound sourcing decisions?

There’s one main thing that buyers get wrong. They look at environmental product declarations (EPDs), and 90 percent of those aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on. If an EPD covers multiple categories of products, it’s absolute garbage, and I don’t think these should be allowed.

So, my first advice is that if a product-specific EPD isn’t available, don’t buy from the company. This requires no real knowledge to implement. This will tell you two things: One, if they don’t have it, they don’t care about the environment; and two, they’re not investing money into being more sustainable.

I’m also always wary of companies that talk about how many trees they plant and stuff like that, because while it is a lovely team-building exercise, it’s not going to make a difference unless you’ve planted millions of trees.

Architects need to understand what carbon is. Why is CO2 bad? They should know this scientifically and be able to deal with the numbers involved. You architects are a huge part of the problem, but you can be a part of the solution. Part of this means you need to understand, learn, and implement this before you talk publicly about it.

Another big piece of advice for architects is to stop buying low-quality products. If something breaks and needs to be replaced, it means this is going to keep happening over the course of a building’s life cycle. It’s important that architects consider maintenance and design with a maintenance strategy in mind. Where possible, it’s best to specify products that can be disassembled, repurposed, removed, and recycled easily, whatever the case may be. Unfortunately, sometimes you might have to take what’s perceived to be a higher carbon cost up front to have a lower life cycle cost overall.

An example: The bulk of a smartphone’s environmental footprint comes from its manufacture, not its use. The takeaway for anyone reading this should be: Keep them longer, and when possible, buy secondhand ones. But then if you look at something like a washing machine, you want to buy a better product with a lower operational footprint, because most of its consumption occurs through use, not manufacturing. This means knowing the difference between embodied carbon and a life cycle carbon assessment (LCA), which is sometimes referred to as whole-life carbon assessment (WLC). Always understand that there are different stages of emissions across a product’s life span.

Updating the relationship between architects and project management could make a difference in the carbon footprint of a build, like with the mobilization of cranes and other pieces of equipment. When your goal is to reduce the footprint of a build, then a WLC is valuable because it allows you to target the points of greatest carbon return. Maybe you need to switch to electric vehicles or run them on an alternative biofuel. It’s best to start this early, like before the preparation of construction documents, so there can be meaningful improvement and a chance to correct bad decisions.

(Courtesy PurOptima and Hydro)

What about building materials?

A lot of architects will immediately jump to the conclusion that everything’s got to be made of timber. In many cases, it’s a great material. Wood is good for things that will stay in place for a long time, but if something is being replaced every decade, that changes the equation, as wood is hard to recycle and often winds up being incinerated. Other materials, like polyethylene terephthalate (PET), can be recycled essentially endlessly. A plastic bottle can become another bottle over and over again, but once it becomes a garment, for example, it is hard and expensive to recycle it, so clothing is often burned.

How do you account for the carbon impacts of shipping building products around the world?

We should always be talking about LCAs, not just embodied carbon. The latter is often referred to as “cradle to gate”—essentially from the ground until when the item is about to leave the manufacturing facility. For an LCA, you go through transport, implementation, maintenance, decommissioning, and disposal. You must account for logistics.

One of my annoyances is when companies hide behind where the “gate” is. For example, let’s pick on raspberries: You could argue the gate is at the farm, or you could argue the gate is at the ferry crossing or the supermarket checkout. I believe there’s some hiding behind where the gate is, so if I see an important food and it has a low carbon footprint, I always ask where the gate is.
We can also pick on timber. It’s a pain to transport because it’s huge: It has a low density compared to its structural strength, so it takes up a lot of space during transit but isn’t very strong. Steel, on the other hand, has the opposite problem. You can’t fill a container solely with steel because you can’t move it as it would exceed the maximum weight. Another reason why aluminum is nice is because it has great packing density per unit strength.

Tell me about your experience working with PurOptima.
PurOptima has designed their business model around sustainability rather than trying to shoehorn it in. Beyond their own operations, we’ve helped them develop their suppliers’ knowledge about sustainability. For example, they’ve invested a lot of resources to be able to utilize Hydro CIRCAL 75R recycled aluminum to manufacture their systems. This product has a carbon footprint below 2.3 kilograms of CO2 per kilogram of aluminum produced. This is the lowest carbon footprint of any commercially available aluminum.

Let’s put that in perspective. Oatly’s Original Oatmilk Ambient has a carbon footprint of 1 kilogram of CO2 per kilogram of oat milk. So this Hydro aluminum is only about 2.3 times more carbon intensive than oat milk, which we consume readily without consequence. PurOptima previously used Hydro Restore, which uses 6.12 kilograms of CO2 per kilogram of aluminum. Even sustainable aluminum in the U.K. is required to be about 11 kilograms CO2, and some “unsustainable” offerings land at 26 kilograms of CO2 and maybe even higher.

This change wasn’t easy; it took two years of ongoing conversations, and now PurOptima is the only supplier realizing it in the U.K. and the U.S.

Other industries that utilize aluminum are taking similar steps. Mercedes Benz recently announced it is working with Hydro to use recycled aluminum in their vehicles, but even that change will use a minimum 25 percent recycled content and is planned to be in place by 2030.

There’s greenwashing out there about what recycled aluminum means. When melting down a billet of aluminum, the metal swarf and off-cooks are added back into the production line. These are inefficiencies in manufacturing that shouldn’t be called “recycled,” as it’s an unavoidable part of the process. This Hydro CIRCAL 75R product is a minimum 75 percent postconsumer waste—think aluminum cans and engine blocks. And this minimum is based on the worst batch, as opposed to the average, which will be even higher.

(Courtesy PurOptima and Hydro)

The aluminum part makes sense. What about glass production?

We’re supporting PurOptima’s glass manufacturers as well, and they’re pushing hard on that. One of the challenges is that the equipment to manufacture glass is super expensive. But we are doing a lot of work on heat recovery from the production process. Glass is difficult to recycle once it has been toughened, so what PurOptima is doing now to reduce its carbon footprint is it takes back the glass from prior system installations and then designs new systems around this repurposed, existing glass. But it’s tougher than aluminum, and currently there isn’t an easy alternative.

The repurpose offering is also important. The company keeps track of its installs and is able to reconfigure them into new spaces or clients. Glass walls can be demounted and reinstalled or returned to the factory to be refinished. It’s not an easy process, as things need to be taken down carefully, labeled, and inspected. And then it needs to be transported, stored, and transported again. It’s not easy, but it works for clients who are committed to a lower carbon footprint.

Another thing the company is doing is that they are about to begin quoting the carbon footprint of each build-out in addition to the financial cost. This means the company has invested in the systems to be able to calculate this instantly versus somebody sitting there with a calculator at the end of the process. All the systems must talk to one another. We know that this carbon number is being asked for in bids by architects, contractors, and anyone who is serious about lowering the carbon content of their work.

What else should we be aware of?

If you want to know how an organization is treating sustainability, you have to ask yourself two simple questions: Is it in the board meetings? Is it led from the top? If the answers are no, then it isn’t genuine.