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Making Good Choices

There are a limited number of open-source carbon databases that can give general averages for the carbon associated with building materials, and these can be used to compare across material categories and establish some good guidelines about what materials have higher or lower carbon emissions. The Inventory of Carbon and Energy (ICE) Version 2.0 is available for free from Circular Ecology, and is a good reference. There is a global standard (ISO 14064 standard for GHG emissions) for manufacturers to use to calculate their specific carbon emissions, and wherever possible it is best to use these Decorating Gallerys, as emissions can vary widely depending on fuel source, carbon capture strategies, and manufacturing processes. Choosing low-carbon and carbon-sequestering materials is a way to make a measurable reduction in impact. The chart below shows the embodied carbon of just the foundation, walls, and ceiling assemblies of several residential Within the realm of conventional building, the same basic code-approved 1,000 square foot shell can produce either 22,154 lbs (10,049 kg) of CO2e or 763 lbs (346 kg) — a 950% reduction based on a small number of material choices. The difference at the high-performance end of the scale can be even more drastic: a super-efficient home built using foam and fiberglass insulation can have CO2e emissions of29,881 lbs (13,554 kg)while a home using more natural materials to achieve the same level

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The embodied carbon of a building material is the total of all greenhouse gas emissions resulting from the harvesting and manufacturing processes. All building materials and products have some amount of embodied carbon, and this Decorating Gallery is expressed as kgCO2e/kg – kilograms of carbon equivalent per kilogram of material. Factors for kgCO2e are found in all embodied carbon databases.

What is much less likely to be found in a database is the carbon sequestration of a material. Plant-based materials “digest” atmospheric carbon during photosynthesis, and make up between 35-60% of the dry weight of plant materials, depending on the plant type and growing conditions.

Left in the biosphere this carbon content is released again and Sequestration as the plant decomposes (or is burned), but if it is stored in a building it is removed from the atmosphere and is sequestered in the building. For building materials like wood, wood fiber, straw, hemp, bamboo, and cork, this can result in vastly more carbon being sequestered than being emitted during harvesting and manufacturing, as seen in the table below.

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