Academic and practice partnership to accelerate the development of low carbon architecture

  • YEAR
    Newmarch, Emily
    Donn, Michael
    Twose, Simon
    Dowdell, David
    2021 Symposium Abstracts
    Conference Papers


The climate emergency demands urgent action and leadership from architects/designers as well as the wider construction industry. Decisions that relate to the highest contributing materials to the lifetime carbon load of a building happen during the early design stage, for example structure and façade systems. With the rise of low energy technology and national grids, the focus has shifted away from a building’s operational carbon emissions and towards the embodied carbon emissions from building materials. The common building physics approach is to develop tools to assist impact quantification. However, little information exists on how these tools affect design in practice. This paper proposes an ethnographic methodology that explores the integration of embodied carbon analysis in a practitioner’s design process.

The methodology was developed to answer the overall research question: how do we measure, design and value architecture for a low carbon future? The core components of the question, measure, design and value, form the foundation of a learning loop to generate data and reflect on the findings. Methods that could be used to generate quantitative and qualitative data under each core component were identified mostly from outside the general architectural corpus. The methodology had to respond to the creative and intangible nature of design practice whilst also providing a level of scientific rigour as a foundation for exploring low carbon options.

The collaborative action research method, from the education discipline, was used as a framework to organise methods to form intersecting feedback loops. As a foundation, action research has a lot of similarities with typical cyclic models of design thinking as it reapplies the design act within a cyclic research process of enquiring, questioning and critiquing. In this research, the act of design responds to a first step of utilising a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) to calculate the embodied carbon of an existing building. The researcher uses design to respond to the new parameter of embodied carbon whilst enquiring into new possibilities. The enquiry, questioning, and critiquing cycle of action research places these LCA based design experiments in dialogue with a practitioner’s design culture in a series of workshops. These use ethnographic methods to document the design culture of the architectural practice. They serve as simulations of design discussions focused on a range of carbon reduction design options. Their purpose is to identify practitioners’ views as to barriers and opportunities that arise when incorporating LCA of embodied carbon during the design process.

In the design and construction industry there is an urgent need to reduce both operational and embodied carbon in buildings. While there is already a large body of knowledge supporting the calculation of operational emissions, there is a need for more data on embodied emissions in buildings. Equally, there is a need for that data to be useful to practitioners. This paper addresses this latter need as it presents a methodology to connect the academic and practice ‘worlds’ of architecture.


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