Quelling Climate Change with Net-Zero Carbon

By Rob Atkinson | Senior Project Manager

LEED Platinum Client in San Francisco

As the pursuit of net-zero carbon emissions gains momentum, LEED Platinum, achieved for this confidential client in San Francisco, remains a significant achievement. Photography © Jasper Sanidad.

In a recent post, we considered the environmentally-minded actions taken in London by Architects Declare (IA in London is a signatory) towards achieving the UK government’s target of a zero-carbon economy by 2050. In addition, we noted the work of the London Energy Transformation Initiative (LETI), and the LETI Climate Emergency Guide for Design Professionals, which creates a roadmap for the built environment, setting clear goals and achievable targets to help designers and developers deliver new constructions as net-zero–carbon buildings by 2030. Significantly, the guide’s targets are both scalable and reproducible in almost every city where IA operates. How can such dramatic goals be achieved? Here, from an abbreviated perspective, we consider some of the guide’s highlights and prescribed actions.

But first, it’s important to know that the majority of factors determining CO2 emission levels for new-builds or build-outs are directly under designer control; contractors only build what the architect/design team specifies. Design teams must understand the issues surrounding climate change; they must be adept in vetting and engaging with suppliers, manufacturers, and contractors to ensure that the materials and techniques used will radically reduce carbon emissions.

Recognize the Adversary: a two-headed snake

Carbon emissions related to construction fall into two categories: embodied carbon and operational carbon; together they constitute a building’s whole-life carbon emissions. How do they differ, you ask?

Embodied Carbon

These emissions are released during the build process. They encompass the manufacture of materials, transportation, assembly, construction, and end-of-life phases (i.e., demolition) and can represent 50-60 percent of a building’s entire carbon footprint. They are also called upfront carbon because most of the emissions are released before the building is in use. Architects and designers wield the greatest potential for impacting a building’s carbon foot print by mitigating/eliminating embodied carbon emissions. 

Embodied Carbon

These emissions are released during the build process. They encompass the manufacture of materials, transportation, assembly, construction, and end-of-life phases (i.e., demolition) and can represent 50-60 percent of a building’s entire carbon footprint. They are also called upfront carbon because most of the emissions are released before the building is in use. Architects and designers wield the greatest potential for impacting a building’s carbon foot print by mitigating/eliminating embodied carbon emissions. 


Operational Carbon

These emissions are released during the operational/in-use phase of a building’s life (i.e., energy consumption: heating, cooling, ventilation. and lighting). Operators can diminish their impacts by specifying renewable energy sources. However, by coordinating building information modeling (BIM) with mechanical, electrical, and plumbing engineers (MEP), designers and architects can create a more efficient plan for carbon emissions mitigation. Components that gather data will make integrated management of the building and its infrastructure easier to modify with elements that can be easily upgraded for better future performance.

The LETI Guide in Brief

As the roadmap’s first step, LETI advises clients to work with all project designers and stakeholders to define project goals and priorities, which will signal where the greatest carbon savings can be achieved throughout all phases of the project.

Project Definition

During this phase, by questioning project outcomes and reviewing strategic factors as well as considering the building’s long-term impact, architects/designers provide clients with insight and guidance focused on achieving net-zero carbon construction.  

Key considerations:

  • How will the design during the building’s life accommodate future change in response to technology, mobility, and society—today’s bank may be tomorrow’s restaurant, warehouse, or edgy technology hub.
  • What is the business case and lease period?
  • Is demolition necessary or can the existing structure be reused?
  • What materials will yield the lowest embedded carbon scores?
  • Can technology enable a more agile structure for reduced carbon emissions?
  • Can the design leverage detachable components for materials reuse to avoid waste during eventual demolition?

  • Designing to these and other questions benefits the client’s long term investment, contributes to a zero-carbon goal, drives sustainability strategies, and can protect the client financially against future changes in legislation regarding zero-carbon building strategies.


    This phase takes into account all strategic thinking done during the project definition stage and creates real, achievable targets that will drive the project through the remaining design phases.

  • Targets for each build stage are incorporated into the plan.
  • The client appoints a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) specialist (as a sub-consultant or integrated member of the team) to pinpoint where investments and/or savings can be made in costs and carbon emissions.
  • Design and construction methodology and materials recommendations are made.
  • Design Concept

    Marrying their finely-honed creative expertise with acquired new skills in understanding low-carbon construction and specifying low-carbon materials (including the numerical analysis of carbon reduction in documentation) is required of designers for success at this phase:

  • The LCA specialist reviews all building elements for embodied carbon.
  • The design team and LCA specialist seek locally sourced/circular economy alternatives to imported materials.  
  • The costs of the build versus a conventional approach are monitored. The LCA specialist measures the comparable build costs against the projected value of the building’s decreased whole-life carbon emissions to determine the real cost of building for zero carbon. Quantification gives clients a factual accountable metric. Once zero-carbon building becomes the norm by law, the cost of adaptation may be far greater than building for net zero.
  • Clients are kept informed; their approval confirmed on both concept and approach. Client buy-in is critical to the success of the next step.

  • Photo © Jose F. Parreño
    Bacardi Barcelona Meeting Space

    Careful attention to planning, design, sustainability, and employee wellness earned a WELL Gold rating for Bacardi, in Barcelona. Photography © Jose F. Parreno.

    Design Development

    Again, the role of designer and architect is key to ensuring targets established at the definition stage are met and materials sourced during concept design are included in specifications and tender documents. At interviews with potential contractors or sub-contractors, designers will critically review candidates regarding whole-life carbon methodology, how carbon targets can be met at each stage of the build, and how waste will be dealt with. Multiple questions and agendas will be addressed, including: 

  • Can circular economy principles be used to recycle components?
  • How and where will the raw materials be sourced?
  • How will the build program accommodate either dismantling or demolition?
  • The LCA specialist will review the answers to these and other questions and ensure they are aligned with the project goals.
  • To optimize materials specifications a quantity surveyor (construction cost estimator in the US) using materials guides will be engaged.
  • Technical Design

    At the start of procurement, as the design team finalizes requirements and targets for zero whole-life carbon, project leads will keep clients apprised of targets and aspirational goals.

    • Increased costs may be a factor during this period and will need to be monitored.
    • To preempt clashes and avoid costly mitigation, when utilizing BIM modelling all participants from MEP engineers to specialist sub-contractors must work as an integrated team
    • To ensure compliance with targets, suppliers’ environmental credentials are scrutinized.
    • Prior to procurement Request for Information (RFI) documents are sent out to verify alignment with embodied-carbon reduction goals.
    • A database of low-carbon suppliers with proven credentials is created to recommend alternatives, if needed.

    LinkedIn, San Francisco, also earned LEED Platinum certification.


    At this stage it all comes together; design aspiration meets professional reality. Methodology shifts; weekly design notes monitor progress and create valuable lessons transferable to future projects.

    • Agreed strategies to address waste are monitored and reported by the contractor.
    • The design team reviews alternative products against performance and environmental standards, with additional recommendations at hand if standards are not met.
    • Site monitoring, progress reports, and data gathering keep the client informed and provide benchmarks for future projects.
    • Critical decisions that impact carbon targets may be required.
    • Client agreement on all decisions is confirmed; some decisions may have financial repercussions.
    • At handover, all data is part of the design team’s post-occupancy report; any gaps between embodied carbon targets and performance will be measured.
    • Key points of decision will be identified as well as mitigation strategies that can be used to increase future carbon compliance.
    • Contractor reports on financial and final carbon data will be verified by the LCA specialist as part of the completion documents.

    Once the client takes occupancy of the building, all design components and operational carbon targets will be monitored. Strategies focused on in-use carbon emissions are followed, along with the Operations and Maintenance (O&M) manual, created by the architect/designers and contractors. Based on best practices and manufacturers’ guidelines, it includes operational carbon goals and is part of the handover documents. Typically, a three-part manual (architectural, mechanical, and electrical), it provides for and tracks multiple aspects of the building’s operation and includes manufacturers’ information for all architectural components; accurate records of suppliers and technical specifications; easy access to maintenance schedules; detailed records of mechanical and electrical maintenance procedures; as well as where to obtain spare parts or cost-effective replacements   components to extend the building’s lifespan.

    As a structured roadmap, the LETI plan for minimizing embodied carbon provides means and accountability. But its success depends on the overall expertise and commitment of the architect/design team to see projects through in detail and achieve net-zero carbon emissions for new builds or build-outs—delivered with documentation for maintaining the net-zero status.

    Rob Atkinson

    Senior Project Manager

    With over 25 years of design experience, over 15 of which have been in leadership roles, Rob Atkinson simultaneously occupies the roles of Lead Designer, Senior Project Manager, and Sustainability Consultant across a broad range of industry sectors. These include a specific focus on workplace, financial, infrastructure, and life sciences projects. He collaborates with senior stakeholders and leads creative and technical teams globally across Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.

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