Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Carbon Group Post 8: Contribution of Buildings to Climate Change

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If you’ve been following these blog posts, you know that structural materials have inherent, or embodied, environmental impacts. The magnitude and range of environmental impacts differ among structural materials, and many of those differences have been discussed in previous blog posts related to the SEI Sustainability Committee’s technical report, Structural Materials and Global Climate. The contribution of structural materials to climate change, relative to a building’s overall environmental impact considering its entire service life, is low. This may leave structural engineers wondering why they should minimize the climate-change contribution of structural materials. The short answer is that materials’ relative contribution may not be relatively small for much longer.

Current situation
When evaluating the full environmental impact of a building over its entire service life, the scope of the assessment is considered in four stages: manufacturing (including material acquisition), construction, operation, and end-of-life (demolition, reuse, or recycling). For a building that is built in the United States, and which likely uses energy from nonrenewable sources, it is common that the energy used to heat, cool, or otherwise operate the building during the operation phase dominates its environmental profile. This means that 85 to 95% of the climate-change impact from buildings is due to the energy used during the operation life-cycle stage.

Ratcheting down
This relatively large contribution by energy use to a building’s environmental impact was identified by several organizations as a place to focus reductions. Groups such as  Architecture 2030 sprung up to try to tackle this challenge, and the LEED rating system more-heavily-weighted its credits toward energy use reduction targets.  On the enforcement side, code requirements within the International Energy Conservation Code are becoming more stringent with every code cycle.

These factors are all believed to be contributing to a steady decline in the energy use, and thus the contribution to climate change, of buildings during their operation. And while the overall contribution of a building to climate change is reducing, with all other things being equal, the relative contribution to climate change from structural materials will increase.

For more information on why reduction of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions is important in general, see chapters 1 or 2 of Structural Materials and Global Climate or check out these blog posts.


Figure 1: Operational and embodied carbon leading up to the year 2050.

A new opportunity
This greater impact of structural materials puts more control in the structural engineer’s hands related to reducing the overall environmental impact of buildings. With that opportunity for greater influence has emerged a new movement, called the Structural Engineers 2050 (SE 2050) Commitment Initiative. Modeled after the Architecture 2030 challenge, the SE 2050 initiative aims to reduce the embodied carbon (CO2e or climate change) impact of structural materials both initially and over time.

With the successful publishing of the Structural Materials and Global Climate report, the SEI Sustainability Committee is now working to launch the SE 2050 Commitment Initiative. Please reach out to any of the committee members if you are interested in getting involved.

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Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Carbon Group Post 7: Fiber Reinforced Polymers (FRP)

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Fiber reinforced polymers (FRPs) are often used for retrofit and specialized applications even though they are not common for primary structural systems. For those unfamiliar with FRPs, carbon fiber and glass fiber sporting equipment such as surfboards, bicycles, and golf clubs may provide the best example of the material. FRPs are applied by impregnating a fiber such as carbon or glass with a polymer such as epoxy. Once the polymer hardens, the fibers provide the bulk of the structural strength and stiffness while the polymer maintains the shape and protects the fibers. FRPs are convenient in that their properties are customizable by varying the size and orientation of the fibers.

Application of near surface mounted FRP strips for supplemental strengthening (courtesy of  Simpson Gumpertz & Heger Inc.)

This blog post is concerned with the climate impact of FRPs. How high are their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions? What place do FRPs have in minimizing climate impact of structures?
The greenhouse gas (GHG) impact of FRPs has been summarized in a chapter of a recent ASCE publication, Structural Materials and GlobalClimate: A Primer on Carbon Emissions for Structural Engineers.  This post presents the main conclusions of the FRP portion of that publication.
By weight, the GHG emissions from FRPs are relatively high when compared to materials such as steel or concrete. However, FRPs can be competitive with other materials on a GHG-basis due to their high strength-to-weight ratios and their potential for use in retrofit applications that greatly extend the life of structures.
The high strength-to-weight ratios of FRPs makes them competitive with other materials despite their high emissions per unit weight. Sufficient strength can be achieved with a relatively low amount of material. For example, the strength of a carbon-epoxy FRP is around 220 ksi, while most steel is well below 100 ksi. A comparison of GHG emissions based on the amount of material required to resist the same force at ultimate stress suggests that FRPs emit between 18% and 29% of the GHGs emitted by steel. Details of this comparison can be reviewed in Structural Materials and GlobalClimate: A Primer on Carbon Emissions for Structural Engineers.
A second reason that FRPs are competitive with other materials is their utility in retrofit applications that can greatly increase the service life of a structure. If the judicious use of FRPs can avoid the need to demolish and reconstruct, then all of the GHG emissions associated with those operations can be saved. The net impact, even if GHG emissions from FRPs are relatively high, can be much lower in the retrofit case.
Each situation is different and it is impossible to make general conclusions about the overall GHG emissions from any given project and no material is hands down better than any other. Rather, the GHG impacts of each material are one of the many factors for their selection in a structural system. There are many other aspects of the behavior of FRPs that influence its use as a structural material (e.g, cost, environmental resistance, and brittle behavior of FRPs requiring higher safety factors) but there is no doubt that FRPs have a place in environmentally-responsible construction.



FRP column test specimen with longitudinal strips and wraps in the transverse direction


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Saturday, February 24, 2018

Carbon Group Post 6: Concrete Masonry Units (CMU)

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The Carbon Working Group continues our series of blog posts on topics from SEI Sustainability Committee’s newly-released technical report, Building Structure and Global Climate.

As we write this post about the carbon footprint of masonry materials, we see more Environmental Product Declarations use in construction.  Environmental Product Declarations, or EPDs, are documents that quantify a product's embodied carbon footprint and other environmental impacts, and are used to achieve LEEDv4 Materials and Resource credits.  We referenced EPDs throughout Building Structure and Global Climate. Last fall, California's governor signed into law the Buy Clean California Act, which will require some building materials manufacturers for publicly-funded infrastructure projects to report carbon footprints through EPDs.  House Bill 2412 in Washington State, aims to enact something similar.

Concrete masonry is one of the four major structural material systems covered in the committee's technical report, along with wood, concrete and steel.  Concrete masonry unit walls are combined with wood, steel, or concrete floor systems to create many low-rise building types, such as warehouses, shopping centers, offices, and single- and multi-family residences.  While four times as much ready-mix concrete is used in the U.S., concrete masonry units are produced by the billions each year by over 1,000 plants in North America.

Concrete masonry units (CMU) are simply a form of precast concrete with very little water to create zero-slump blocks.  Like ready-mix concrete, the manufacturing of portland cement accounts for more than 90% of the carbon dioxide emitted to produce CMU.  Therefore, as with ready-mix concrete, higher-strength CMU block results in higher global warming potential.

In addition to portland cement, fine aggregate, and water, CMU can be made with a variety of ingredients, including granulated coal ash, expanded blast furnace slag, pumice, shale, slate, clay, and crushed glass. In terms of global warming potential, ingredient variations that use heat to expand aggregates for lightweight block show an increase in global warming potential.  Substituting recycled materials or industrial byproducts for virgin aggregate have a relatively insignificant effect on global warming potential (however beneficial in reducing depletion of finite resources).

Concrete masonry doesn't get built with just CMU, it requires mortar, grout and steel reinforcing.  Like the concrete, mortar and grout is typically made of cement, aggregate, water, and an additional ingredient, hydrated lime.  It turns out that the biggest contribution that engineers can make in reducing the global warming potential of concrete masonry lies in the grout.  This is because grout needs lots water to make it flow into CMU cells, and so as not to dilute its strength, grout needs lots of cement. By adding grout to every cell of CMU, for the same volume of wall assembly, the embodied carbon dioxide can be triple that of an ungrouted CMU wall since the cells are about half the volume.

As environmental product declarations become more common, manufacturers of masonry products will have incentives to reduce global warming potential and other environmental impacts.  We expect to see more manufacturers replacing portland cement with supplementary cementitious materials, such as fly ash and slag cement.  These industrial byproducts have lesser global warming potential because the energy used to create them are attributed to coal-fired power production and iron smelting, respectively.

Structural engineers have at their discretion many aspects of building design that can make a significant difference in global warming potential.  These include right-sizing CMU compressive strength, using the ASTM C476 strength method for proportioning grout, minimizing the extent of grouted cells, considering when lightweight CMU is necessary, and weighing the environmental impacts and thermal envelope performance of CMU walls compared to other wall assemblies.


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