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Five ways structural engineers can reduce embodied carbon in their designs

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As we edge closer to the 2050 Net Zero deadline and the world becomes more environmentally conscious, increasing attention is being paid to how the construction industry can build greener, with structural engineers having a key role to play. Read on, as we explore five ways to help you reduce embodied carbon in your structures.

While everyone has their own role to play in improving the ‘green’ nature of construction, engineers are in a prominent position to really make a difference, being responsible for changing the way in which our future structures and infrastructure are designed and built.

A more sustainable construction sector may be the overarching aim/objective, but there are many factors that feed into achieving this. Carbon modelling and a life-cycle analysis is one, with a significant portion of a building’s final embodied carbon value being specified as early on in the construction sequence as the initial design stage.

While not yet a legislative requirement on new construction projects, there is the potential for embodied carbon reports to become so in the future, or perhaps even the implementation of a carbon tax. Until this time, carbon modelling is set to become an increasingly common request from clients and developers. In fact, we are already seeing it, whether driven by a ‘moral’ change in mindset or a genuine interest in understanding the embodied carbon value of their building/structure and seeing how this can be reduced.

So, how can engineers work to reduce the level of embodied carbon in their structures?

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1. Calculate the embodied carbon present

It may sound simple, or even overly obvious, but it is essential that you first have a detailed understanding of the level of embodied carbon that the proposed structure contains.  Only then can you work to consider and evaluate how this figure can be reduced.

Here, an embodied carbon calculator tool can be invaluable, working alongside your 3D modelling software to intelligently measure and provide a live overview of the embodied carbon contained within a proposed structure, or even its individual components. Having access to this data early on in the construction sequence can be invaluable, providing you with the information and, perhaps most importantly, the time needed to assess and work to effectively reduce the structure’s carbon impact.

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2. Design optimisation

In many ways, design optimisation is already an expected and integral part of an engineer’s role on a project, tasked with engineering a structure to be constructible, profitable and efficient. However, it is also a crucial part of reducing embodied carbon levels.

Consider, for example, a standard steel beam or concrete floor slab within a building. By evaluating the component’s efficiency within the context of the wider structure, it could be possible to replace this with a thinner beam or slab instead, without impacting on the overall stability or performance. As well as saving time and money, this simple design change could also help to reduce the structure’s embodied carbon value.

By using embodied carbon calculator tools, such as that found within Tekla Structural Designer, engineers can view and evaluate the two metrics (the amount of carbon present AND the design / strength) side by side, ensuring that both are being considered and that the most efficient building design is being created.

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3. Compare materials and designs

A key part of design optimisation is the ability to compare. Only by evaluating the merits and disadvantages of different design iterations, materials, foundation types and column grids can the most efficient scheme be settled upon.

Similarly, when it comes to carbon, this same ability to visualise, assess and analyse different viable designs, different materials and their respective embodied carbon values can result in a more informed design-making process - and an overall, greener building.

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4. Reduce waste

Whether caused by errors at the design stage or the inefficient transfer of information to fabricators and contractors, material wastage can be a major potential problem on any construction project. This could take the form of structural components being fabricated and delivered to site, only for contractors to then discover that they cannot be used, due to clashing with other sections.

As well as the obvious delays this can cause to the project’s overall delivery schedule, these errors and the subsequent rework and refabrication required to rectify them can also result in excess carbon being generated – emissions that could be avoided entirely.

With a 3D model-based workflow and the enhanced visibility and level of detail that it offers, engineers can ensure that the proposed structural design is constructible, and any potential clashes or issues are detected and resolved prior to reaching site, ensuring a ‘right first time’ construction process.

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5. Collaborate and communicate

Effective collaboration and communication are a ‘must’ on any construction project, whether internal communication or external between stakeholders and contractors, and can often be integral to project’s successful delivery. Collaboration tools, such as the cloud-based Trimble Connect, have proved instrumental in facilitating and encouraging this coordinated way of working, and will continue to be so as we take on this sustainability challenge. 

It’s no secret that “building green” and tackling climate change will require a new way of thinking. It’s a new challenge for us all and we all have a part to play. Given this, communication on a far wider level will be key, as we change the way we approach projects and start making use of new tools, such as Tekla’s Embodied Carbon Calculator, sharing our knowledge and experience with colleagues and project stakeholders.

As engineers, you can often be a key and influential design maker on a project, working closely with the client and other stakeholders to help shape the way in which it is delivered. As such, it’s important to speak out about the importance of sustainable construction, with embodied carbon calculator tools being an important part of this ‘building green’ vision.

Find out more

To learn more about reducing embodied carbon with Tekla software, please visit our resources page. If you have any questions or would like to book a demo, get in touch.