The Carbon Reduction Opportunity of Adaptive Reuse is Too Large to Ignore

We’ve discussed building embodied carbon a lot at Glumac, stating its overall necessity as part of a global carbon drawdown, strategies for reducing it in new buildings, and even the impact material choices have on a building’s life-long carbon footprint.

And that materials challenge looms large. Though many manufacturers still do not disclose the embodied carbon of their products, the most progressive manufacturers that supply the major materials buildings use – concrete, steel, and wood – is where the lion’s share of good data lies, and where the focus of our work is with our clients. But even so, it is difficult to make building specifications meaningful because with the lack of data, you run the risk of being too aggressive, or too lax, because materials are regionally and market sector sensitive.

Senior Sustainability Strategist Ante Vulin provides context into the global impacts of a building’s embodied carbon.

So where can we work and have the most impact under these conditions? The answer may be large-scale adaptive reuse. There is a big opportunity in front of building designers to avoid carbon emissions by making our existing building stock a larger part of the climate solution.
We recently had the pleasure of working with the State of California’s Department of General Services on its Resources Building Renovation in Sacramento. As part of the of this renovation of this 652,000-square-foot building, the steel structure, and steel deck and concrete floors will be retained. The structural reuse alone reduces its embodied carbon intensity by 65% over typical new construction. This demonstrates the power of reusing existing buildings in avoiding carbon emissions on a large scale, as there is so much embodied carbon tied up in the production and delivery of concrete and steel.

Chief Sustainability Strategist Nicole Isle diagrams carbon savings through adaptive reuse.

What about new construction?

Inroads to carbon reduction through smart material choices can still be made for new construction projects. The structural strategies available to reduce embodied carbon are simple, can be cost neutral, and the amount of good data available for market ready alternatives is most robust for these materials. For example, the all-new Clifford L. Allenby building achieved a 15% reduction in embodied carbon of the entire structure and envelope through the concrete mix alone.

This Sankey flow diagram is a model output of a new construction office building we are currently working on. On the left side, it shows the materials with the highest potential to reduce embodied carbon. Again, concrete and steel are the biggest culprits by volume. And looking all the way to the right, market ready low carbon alternatives can potentially reduce the embodied carbon of this building by 35%.

The potential is growing for carbon reduction across building market sectors. Let’s chat about your next building, campus, or real estate carbon reduction project!