Sustainability is a word often used as the token expression of “green building.” But what does it actually mean and what are the consequences of paying attention to the sustainability movement? Written by mafi America’s Head of Sustainability Walter Lourie, LEED AP BD+C, this article will take a closer look at carbon, breaking down some of the processes and expressing in layman’s terms the values of engaging.
Carbon is the basis of life. Everything is made up of carbon—grass, trees, furniture, food. The basic ingredient of everything on earth is the material that has become the hot point of conversations about how to save the climate.
The materials that we use to build, support, and design our spaces have a carbon footprint. The larger the footprint, the higher our global emissions of carbon it is. Since this has been shown to be a problem with our climates warming to dangerous levels, there is a need to figure out a way to reduce the use of carbon in as many places as possible. So, how are “carbon costs” determined?
The easiest way to understand the cost of a carbon footprint would be to try and imagine where the product ingredients originate. Like with food. Doctors everywhere recommend whole foods and that the best food is right out of the garden, or at least minimally processed. The food that is the freshest has the best nutritional value. Building materials are similar. Minimally processed materials take less energy (carbon) to produce the final product. Carbon expenditures will only increase the farther away from the earth they eventually become. Wood is a great example of a good carbon source. Simply take the tree, which is full of carbon, shape it into a useful item and then use it. Carbon is actually stored in that wooden piece of furniture or flooring until you burn it or make it decompose. Plastic is the opposite—in order to make a useful product with plastic, you must expend tremendous energy to mine or drill for the hundreds of individual ingredients to make an artificial product that cannot decompose.
The desire of all of us in the design and architectural industry is to leave the world in a better place through our work, and one way could be to try and find materials that are less carbon expensive.