Biden administration offers $250 million in grants to study embodied energy in construction materials; applications are due January 16

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Biden administration offers $250 million in grants to study embodied energy in construction materials; applications are due January 16

(Brett Jordan/Unsplash)

As recently as five years ago, embodied energy was a relatively esoteric subject. Making a building more energy efficient tended to mean reducing operational energy, with upgrades like LEDs, heat pumps, and insulated windows.

But what about the energy that went into making those things? In the case of the windows, that would include the energy expended mining raw materials, transporting the materials to factories, heating them sufficiently to turn them into glass, transporting the glass to the construction site, and then installing it. How would you begin to measure all that embodied energy (assuming you could even wrap your mind around the concept)? For too long the difficulty of coming up with reliable numbers meant embodied energy wasn’t taken seriously, even by some environmentalists. “If you can’t measure, it you can’t manage it” was the thinking. And yet buildings account for about 40 percent of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, and roughly a third of that is from embodied, rather than operational, energy.

For some time, reducing embodied energy wasn’t a high priority—or even a low priority—for many architects. But some design professionals, scientists, and educators have been ​working to change that. With little to gain personally, they have persuaded manufacturers to report the embodied energy of building products; they have created online tools to help architects track the embodied energy impacts of their design decisions; they have transformed architecture school curricula; they have conducted groundbreaking ​engineering and materials research; and they have lobbied governments. One recent coup was persuading California to limit the total embodied energy of certain types of buildings starting in July.

The many heroes of this nascent movement include Kate Simonen, founder of the all-important Carbon Leadership Forum, and LTL Architects partners David Lewis, Marc Tsurmaki, and Paul Lewis, whose research has resulted in an essential guide to low-embodied carbon building materials (the mundanely titled Manual of Biogenic House Sections), as well as significant pedagogical advances. They have all done so with limited resources and in the face of institutional inertia.

Now the “embodied energy crowd” is getting the support it needs.

In a section of the Inflation Reduction Act, passed last year but only now taking effect, the Biden administration allocated funds to programs designed to standardize methods of computing and reporting embodied energy, thus making it easier for architects to factor embodied energy into their decision-making. The legislation, section 60112 of the Act, instructs the “EPA to develop a program to support reporting and measurement of embodied carbon of construction materials/products.” The resulting funding opportunity has a prosaic title: Reducing Embodied Greenhouse Gas Emissions for Construction Materials and Products.

But the total amount of the grants—$250 million—is hardly prosaic. It is orders of magnitude greater than anything anyone has spent on the problem so far. Architects, landscape architects, and engineers can’t apply for grants independently, but they can form (or join) nonprofit associations, corporations, or cooperatives that ​can. Public and nonprofit institutions of higher learning are also eligible. (Every architecture school dean who hasn’t gotten a jump on this should cancel holiday travel plans.) Grants are expected to be announced next spring. Said Simenon of the unprecedented opportunity: “Elections matter.”

Applications can be submitted to the EPA until 11:59 p.m. on January 16, 2024.

 Fred A. Bernstein is the winner of the 2023 award given by the American Academy of Arts and Letters to an American who explores ideas in architecture through any medium.