How to reduce the carbon footprint of your build

Whether you are building a house from scratch or undertaking a major renovation of your home, follow this expert advice to assess and reduce the carbon footprint.

By Karen Stylianides | 1 September 2020

Whether you are building a house from scratch or undertaking a major renovation of your home, follow this expert advice to assess and reduce the carbon footprint.

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Image: Cork House was built by Matthew Barnett Howland with Dido Milne and Oliver Wilton to explore the possibilities of cork as a structural and insulating material. Photo: David Grandorge

Sustainability and design expert Gary Clark chairs the RIBA Sustainable Futures Group and is the regional leader of science and technology at the London studio of global architecture and planning company HOK. Gary explains what you need to know to reduce the carbon footprint of your project.

What contributes to a self-build project’s carbon footprint?

A building’s whole-life carbon, or carbon footprint, is made up of two different types of energy based on the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere. Firstly, the energy, or equivalent carbon, that’s gone into every aspect of producing the building through to what happens to its physical components at the end of its lifetime. This is known as the embodied energy. Plus, the energy, or equivalent carbon, that will be needed to run it such as the heating and lighting. This is the operational energy. The whole picture needs to be considered, rather than focusing just on the project’s heating requirements or construction materials.

Each component of a building has its own embodied carbon. This is the amount of carbon dioxide that’s emitted during each individual element’s manufacturing process, transportation, maintenance, and eventual deconstruction and disposal. Every detail of the way a product is manufactured will affect its embodied carbon. For instance, a material processed in a factory powered by coal will have a far greater embodied carbon than the same material produced in a factory running on hydroelectric power. Take all of this into account and then you can take decisions to reduce the carbon footprint.

How can I get a carbon footprint estimate?

Product manufacturers may be able to give you an estimate of embodied carbon. You will have to get the information for each element and add them together. Try calculators such as One Click LCA, which can add up all of the energy and convert it to a carbon equivalent. Or you can ask your architect to do this for you. The finished calculation is worked out as CO2 per square metre of floor area. To get an estimate of your operational energy, speak to your architect as this should be factored in at the design stage.’

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Image: This converted underground reservoir home harnessing the thermal properties of the earth and concrete to reduce energy use. Credit: Andy Haslam