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What is “the conventional wisdom about environmentally friendly construction”?

It's a moving target and, like TreeHugger hero Chris Magwood, we are all learning on the job.

The Walrus, a Canadian general interest magazine, titles its article The False Promise of Green Housing. Given the kind of articles the magazine has published, I worried that this was going to be a long attack on the industry. It's not. It never mentions a false promise; it is mostly about TreeHugger hero Chris Magwood and his research into the embodied carbon of building materials, and has the subhead, “One designer is challenging the conventional wisdom about environmentally friendly construction.” It starts with Chris at the Green Building Show in Toronto (where I photographed him), complaining about the building (which I always do too).

I often go on about how important Chris's research is, and I am not alone. Author Viviane Fairbank quotes a builder in Boston: “It was like a light turning on,” says Paul Eldrenkamp, a remodeller who attended the keynote lecture in Boston. “We’ve been doing everything wrong.” She writes:

Magwood didn’t invent the term embodied carbon; it has circulated in the architecture world for the last decade or so. Until recently, most architects and engineers insisted that the environmental impact of embodied carbon was near-trivial compared to operational emissions. But Magwood’s calculations show how far off those assumptions could be: in some cases, if architects accounted for embodied emissions in their buildings, they would be admitting responsibility for at least twice the carbon footprint.

Here on TreeHugger, I don't use the term embodied carbon because it is almost exactly wrong. The carbon isn't embodied; it's out there in the atmosphere, the carbon dioxide released when the building materials are made. That's why I call them upfront carbon emissions (UCE). If you spread them over the 50-year life of a building, in many cases they can amount to less than the operating emissions. However, a) we don't have 50 years, and b) as buildings get more energy efficient and operating emissions go down, they become a far higher proportion of the total carbon.

Fairbank spends a couple of paragraphs setting up the Passive House movement as a fall guy here, because they need lots of insulation and were often insulated with plastic foams.

Yes, passive houses cut down on energy usage after they’ve been constructed, but some of the materials used to build them come with exceptionally high carbon costs. (And, because net-zero houses, by definition, have no operational emissions, embodied carbon could represent 100 percent of their pollution.)

But that's old news. “You think you’re doing the right thing,” says Magwood. “But if you choose the wrong materials, you could be having the opposite effect.” People in the Passive House world have known this for a couple of years now, and more and more of them are choosing the right materials.

Fairbank's article is an example of how hard it is to write about environmental issues, because so much changes so fast, and so much is gray rather than black and white. There is so much both-sideism and whataboutism here that is superfluous to the article, muddying the picture. But she talks to some people who make it very clear, like this woman who builds those supposedly foam-filled passive houses, without any foam at all:

Melinda Zytaruk at the Green Building Show/ Lloyd AlterMelinda Zytaruk at the Green Building Show/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

“We can’t afford to have emissions today in the name of reducing emissions fifty years from now,” says Melinda Zytaruk, the general manager of Fourth Pig Worker Co-op, a relatively new sustainable-construction company in Ontario….It’s not yet mandatory, in any green-building code in North America, to calculate embodied carbon. The Canada Green Building Council “hasn’t figured out how to talk about it yet,” Zytaruk says. If more institutions, governments, and even individuals took embodied carbon into account when planning construction projects, Magwood says, they could easily halve their emissions overnight.

Fairbank makes it all sound very complicated, but really, it isn't. It also affects a lot more than just buildings. As I noted in What happens when you plan or design with Upfront Carbon Emissions in mind? it's pretty straightforward.

  • You would replace concrete and steel with materials with far lower Upfront Carbon Emissions wherever possible.
  • You would just stop using plastics and petrochemicals in buildings.
  • You stop demolishing and replacing perfectly good buildings.
  • Maybe you don't build things that we don't actually need.
  • You would stop building so many cars, whether fossil fuel, electric or hydrogen, and promote alternatives with lower UCE, like bikes and mass transit.
Chris HomeChris in front of “canada's greenest home”/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Fairbank concludes by noting that how you get to your low carbon house matters too, which is why Chris moved to a house in Peterborough, where biking and walking are much more feasible, although he is becoming such a star that he should probably move to an airport hotel. It's wonderful that he is getting this exposure.

upfront carbon cover© World Green Building Council

But he is no longer a voice in the wilderness, and he is certainly not being ignored. The World Green Building Council is calling for radical reductions. Everybody has long been talking about the other problems raised in Fairbank's article, the issues of plastic bags, of carbon offsets. Reading it, you would think that everything we ever did was wrong. That's not true; we are all learning as we go. It's a new world, and that's how things work.

It's a moving target and, like TreeHugger hero Chris Magwood, we are all learning on the job.