Better buildings
May 22, 2021

Why should architects understand and care about carbon and LCA?

Yes, we know. We have been talking a lot about carbon. Not only here, but everywhere people seem to be discussing the greenhouse effect, carbon dioxide, fossil fuels, carbon sequestration, and several other seemingly esoteric terms that have increasingly permeated our daily lives. But why is carbon so important and why do we, as architects, architecture students, or architecture enthusiasts, have to care about something that seems so intangible?

Interior daytime view of low rise mass timber constructed UBC Bioenergy Research and Demo Facility showing a group of engineers sitting at a desk surrounded by wood paneling walls and ceilings supported by large Glue-laminated timber (Glulam) beams and columns

Bioenergy Research & Demonstration Facility, UBC | McFarland Marceau Architects Ltd. Image © Don Erhardt Photography.

We’re going to have to go back to chemistry classes and the periodic table, and I apologize for that. Carbon is a chemical element that has the capacity to combine with others to form molecules. When a carbon atom bonds with two oxygen, it forms carbon dioxide (CO2). Carbon dioxide is a colorless and odorless gas, which in itself is not bad. It becomes harmful when the balance of chemicals in the air is lost and CO2 is released in large quantities. Through photosynthesis, plants absorb this CO2, retaining the carbon and releasing the oxygen (O2). Animals, in contrast, inhale oxygen and release carbon dioxide. About 18% of our body and 50% of plants are composed of carbon, the fourth most abundant chemical element.

Chemistry class

The making of fossil fuels

For thousands of years, plants and animals were born and died, and their remains were naturally buried in the ground. Underground, they received pressure and heat, transforming them into so-called fossil fuels; eventually, they became valuable energy sources, supplying the ever-expanding needs of human beings. Oil, natural gas, and coal are examples of such fossil fuels. They are highly rich in carbon, and burning them returns the originally stored carbon into the air.

Carbon is also naturally present in the atmosphere. It is especially common in the form of the aforementioned carbon dioxide, but also as carbon monoxide, Methane (CH4), and Chlorofluorocarbons (CFC). These gases are vital for our survival, since they absorb some of the heat from the sun that is radiated by the earth’s surfaces. This “greenhouse effect” is what preserves an adequate temperature for the maintenance of life on planet Earth.

Photo: Maxim Tolchinskiy, Unsplash

The Built Environment

What does the accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere have to do with architects?

With the accelerated industrialization of the last few hundreds of years, humanity has been exploring and massively using fossil fuels, releasing into the atmosphere large quantities of carbon that were previously stored underground or in plants. Currently, there is a great imbalance between what is released into the atmosphere and what is absorbed again. The main consequence of this is the accumulation of carbon, causing more heat to be absorbed in the atmosphere, contributing to an increase in the temperature of the earth and the consequent and so-feared climate change.

But, for those who wonder what this has to do with us, we architects work in one of the sectors that contributes most to the emission of greenhouse gases. Buildings generate almost 40% of annual global emissions of greenhouse gases, 11% in construction and 28% in construction operations.

Photo: Don Erhardt