Since the 1800’s, scientists have predicted that a rise in Carbon Dioxide (CO2) concentrations in the atmosphere could result in unprecedented global climate change due to an increase in global temperatures. In 1956, Dr. Gilbert Plass, a pioneering researcher on the relationship between CO2 and climate change, stated that “humanity was conducting a large-scale experiment on the atmosphere, the results of which would not be available for several generations” (Fleming, 1998). In 2009, there remains little doubt that the precarious state of the global climate can be blamed on an unprecedented increase in CO2 emissions due to human activity over the last 100 years.
One of the single largest contributors to CO2 emissions worldwide is the building industry. The construction and operation of buildings consume over a third of the world’s energy and 40% of all mined recourses (Straube, 2006). Adding to the problem, the vast majority of buildings constructed in the developed world in the last 30-50 years have shorter service lives than older buildings (Straube, 2006). This means that “modern” building practices have resulted in inferior buildings from the standpoint of performance and durability; a trend that often requires most modern buildings to go through many resource-extensive rebuilds or renovations. Therefore, the building industry will clearly have to be a leader in significantly reducing current CO2 emissions should the damaging effects of climate change be stopped and ultimately reversed.
"...it’s important to become familiar with some of the fundamental parameters by which energy use and environmental performance can be quantified for a building project."
Over the years, more attention has been paid to the environmental impacts of the building industry in North America. Green protocols such as LEED® have been aimed at initiating leadership in energy conservation and building performance in the industry. Many research studies have been conducted with the goal of quantifying such things as the embodied energy, operational energy, carbon emissions, and life-cycle energy use of buildings. However, trying to quantify these and other environmental parameters for the case of a complex system, like a building, remains a vast and complicated undertaking today. Initiatives such as LEED® have helped spawn innovation in the building industry regarding energy use. However, to achieve a truly sustainable building industry, a more holistic view beyond LEED® must be taken. This view must consider the operational energy of the building itself, but also the environmental impacts of the building project from cradle-to-grave, including carbon emissions.
To fully understand the environmental issues facing the building industry, it’s important to become familiar with some of the fundamental parameters by which energy use and environmental performance can be quantified for a building project. Three principle measures of sustainability for a building are: the embodied energy, the operating energy, and the carbon emissions.