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The Environmental Sustainability of Existing Buildings: Refurbish or Replace?

There comes a time in the life of every building where extensive refurbishment is required. For many a building this seems to bring with it thoughts of starting again – essentially to demolish and ‘rebuild’. The normal practice in modern times seems to be the preference to demolish and replace. Whereas conservationists naturally prefer to retain existing structures so to repair them and bring them back to their former glory. This latter approach retains the existing character and heritage of a building, but proponents of the ‘remove and replace’ philosophy ague about their reduced energy performance. They argue that bringing an asset back to its former glory is no longer good enough, and that they can’t be brought up to modern energy efficiency standards without being entirely replaced. But what does the environmental analysis actually tell us, does it support refurbishment, or does it support replacement? This article takes a look at this intriguing question.

Environmental sustainability buildings

Embodied carbon

To answer this fairly, the concept of embodied carbon needs to be introduced. Embodied carbon is the amount of carbon released during the production and processing of materials. It mainly comes from the consumption of fossil fuel energy throughout the production supply chain. It therefore considers consumption at all stages, such as material extraction, refining, transport, processing, assembly and fabrication activities. Embodied carbon is the carbon footprint of a material.

Historically the arguments around repair or replace have neglected this all too easily forgotten embodied carbon. However, it clearly must be considered. Whilst it is true that many older buildings cannot be refurbished to the same energy standards as modern construction the additional impact of new materials must be considered. Through retaining the existing structure the refurbishment requires less materials and therefore less embodied carbon. But is this enough of a carbon swing to sway in favour of refurbishment? 

Whole life carbon – embodied and operational carbon

To answer this question correctly the embodied and operational carbon needs to be considered side by side, which is called the whole life carbon footprint. Let’s start by looking at embodied carbon. Embodied carbon is all too easily forgotten and is apparently concealed from our view. In fact, most people are unaware of the high environmental impact of making the products they consume.

The average new build house in the UK releases around 45 tonnes CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent) in its construction. This is enough carbon to:
Carbon footprint lightbulb

  • Power a UK light bulb continuously for over 450 years; or to
  • Power a TV for 2 hours a day for almost 1,440 years; or to
  • Drive around the earth almost 10 times; or to
  • Drive all the way to the moon.


[For more information on these see What is a tonne CO2e]


This is just the embodied carbon to construct a single UK house, which are also amongst the smallest houses in Europe and around a third of the size of North American homes. The amounts are naturally more significant for non-domestic buildings and for larger domestic estates.

Operational carbon footprints of buildings

To place these figures into further perspective we need to compare them with the operational carbon of houses. The operational carbon of each house varies widely. However, the average UK household emits in the region of 3,300 kg of carbon dioxide to heat their home. This value includes space heating and hot water, but not the energy for lighting or appliances – which have their own embodied versus operational carbon balance. In contrast, the heating carbon of a new build UK house is around 2,000 kg of carbon dioxide per year. This means that rebuilding an average house into a new house could save about 1,300 kg of operational carbon each and every year. However, it comes at the expense of the additional embodied carbon emissions of the new construction.

To rebuild the house 45,000 kg of carbon dioxide is required. It therefore takes 34 years before the savings in operational carbon have matched the extra embodied carbon that has been spent to rebuild the house. This is particularly significant, because if you include the time to build the new house it will be around 2050 before the carbon starts to payback. The UK has legally binding targets to reduce its carbon emissions by 80% by 2050, from a 1990 baseline. Rebuilding the UK housing stock therefore doesn’t help us to meet these targets. Instead we must look to refurbishment to help with this challenging target. 

Refurbishment of buildings

Unfortunately this is where our generic embodied carbon analysis must stop. Each refurbishment is entirely different and therefore each case needs to be assessed individually. The embodied carbon of the materials for a refurbishment needs to be compared with the additional operational carbon saving for the building under study, which would require a more detailed analysis than this mere blog. Each building also has a different energy use profile. This should be done on a case by case basis. However, the analysis above still shows how refurbishment is a promising option and that refurbished buildings do not necessarily need the same level of thermal performance to compete on a whole life carbon perspective.

There are of course many products that do not impact on the operational carbon of a building. The refurbishment of such materials and products typically brings with it a carbon benefit. By retaining existing materials there is an avoided need for new materials and products. 

Reducing embodied carbon

When it comes to refurbishments and repairs there are some simple measures to be taken to reduce the embodied carbon footprint. One of the top wins is actually to reuse the materials, this can either be in the same project, or for use in another project. Reuse of materials can save up to 95% of the embodied carbon emissions of buying a new product. This is significant.

Beyond this there are savings to be made through material choices. One of the rules of thumb is timber first. Timber is a natural material that has a wide range of uses and has a relatively low environmental impact to produce. Therefore if timber materials and products are a realistic selection it’s usually a lower carbon option. Timber from sustainably managed sources also sequesters (stores) carbon, which is a carbon footprint benefit. Timber is composed of approximately 50% carbon by mass. Carbon is therefore part and parcel of the material. What’s more this carbon has been extracted from the atmosphere through photosynthesis. The carbon is stored in the timber and away from the atmosphere, until the end of the life of the product. In fact, the carbon storage element of timber means that it is storing more carbon than was released to produce the timber product itself. This often results in a large carbon footprint benefit and partly explains why the timber first principle works well.

Another good saving is the use of water based paints instead of solvent based. A water based paint is around a third lower carbon footprint to make than a solvent based one (Inventory of carbon and energy database). Paint has a high embodied carbon and often multiple layers are used. Therefore using less layers of paint, where possible, is another good way of reducing its impact. Finally, on the topic of paint, an obvious quick win, but one that is regularly overlooked, is that painting less often has a large benefit. Repainting a room, or an object too often makes a considerable difference to its whole life carbon footprint when we are talking about 50-100 year timescales.

Allowing deconstruction – facilitating a circular economy

When it comes to bricks and mortar, these are high carbon items, but ones that have a long lifetime. The embodied carbon of these products therefore need to be retained as long as possible, to ensure that as much value is taken from them. One way of doing this is to build with a lime based mortar instead of cement. A lime based mortar has a lower embodied carbon. Furthermore, at the end of life the lime based mortar the bricks can be more easily deconstructed for reuse than if a cement based mortar was used. This allows the bricks to be reused for a second lifetime, which offers significant embodied carbon savings and further enabling a circular economy. This wouldn’t be as possible with the use of cement based mortars which aren’t as easy to deconstruct.

There are naturally some instances where embodied carbon doesn’t need to be considered. For example, the embodied carbon of additional insulation almost always pays back through operational carbon savings. There are some insulations that have lower embodied carbon to produce. But if this comes at the expense of a considerably worse thermal performance then they are unlikely to be an attractive whole life carbon choice.

Is refurbishment best?

So far refurbishment is coming out pretty well, but is refurbishment always best? Unfortunately not. There are cases where it is better to replace than repair. In the case of single glazed windows then upgrading to a double glazed unit will be beneficial. The embodied carbon of the new windows will be paid back by the operational carbon savings and the occupants of the building will experience enhanced thermal comfort. For listed buildings this can be more difficult where single glazed sash timber windows are common place. However, double glazed sash timber windows are widely available and help to retain the look of the older building stock whilst reducing its operational energy and carbon footprint. These are compromises that we need to consider.

Essentially when it comes down to the choice of refurbish or replacement, to retain or rebuild embodied carbon often becomes a useful ally. The arguments of reduced thermal performance of refurbished buildings should be met with questions of the additional embodied carbon expense of the new build. Whilst there are cases where rebuilding is the best option, there are considerably more where refurbishment is a better choice. Furthermore, without the choice of refurbishment the UK would lose too much charm and too much character from its older and charming building stock. No doubt with the UK’s looming 2016 “zero carbon” homes new analysis will be required.

Finally, it should be appreciated that embodied carbon is only one of many environmental sustainability and circular economy criteria, from which full life cycle assessment (LCA) would add an interesting insight. 

A version of this article originally appeared in the 2015 edition of the Building Conservation Directory.

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Circular Ecology contributes to new book on Microgeneration

Taylor & Francis is due to publish a new book on Domestic Microgeneration on 16 June 2015, containing a chapter co-authored by Dr Stephen Allen of Circular Ecology.

Microgeneration – producing energy for the home, in the home – can provide a substantial improvement over the current centralised and detached energy model employed the world over.

A key benefit of microgeneration is lower carbon dioxide emissions during operation, compared with conventional energy technologies. This benefit must however be weighed up against the environmental ‘costs’ of microgeneration technologies, including the ‘embodied’ carbon dioxide emissions associated with their manufacture…

Picture

For this reason, the book includes a chapter describing the life cycle assessment of a range of micro-generation technologies including a wind turbine, a solar photovoltaic panel, a solar hot water system, and a fuel cell “micro-CHP” system. The chapter is written by Stephen Allen (Circular Ecology) in collaboration with Dr Marcelle McManus (University of Bath) and Dr Iain Staffell (Imperial College London). It draws on real-world data collected from microgeneration manufacturers, and builds on previous research including a paper with Prof. Geoff Hammond (University of Bath) that was awarded the George Stephenson Prize by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. The chapter finds that all four technologies payback their embodied carbon well within their lifetimes through the operational carbon savings they provide.
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The book as a whole is the first in-depth reference work for the exciting and emerging field of microgeneration. It provides detailed reviews of ten state-of-the-art technologies and considers them within the wider context of the home in which they are installed and the way that they are operated. It describes successes and pitfalls of applying the technologies, and offers best practice guidance on their adoption.  The interdisciplinary book draws together the social, economic, political and environmental aspects into a single must-have reference for academics, students, industry professionals, policy makers and the growing number of energy-literate householders who are looking for ways to minimise their environmental footprint and their energy bills with microgeneration.

The book is available for pre-order now from the Taylor & Francis website.

Book reviews

“Is the widespread belief that microgeneration is “a good thing” well founded, or is it wishful thinking? How well does each microgeneration technology perform in practice? How cost effective is each technology, taking into account its embodied materials? This book does a great job of assembling the evidence and sorting the wheat from the chaff.” – David J.C. MacKay FRS, Regius Professor of Engineering, University of Cambridge, Former Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change

“Microgeneration could play a significant role in the mosaic of solutions to the problem of low-carbon heat. Its role in empowering energy consumers can also be overlooked. This book separates fact from prejudice and provides an evidence base that policymakers and anyone with an interest in the area can rely on.” – Jim Skea CBE, RCUK Energy Strategy Fellow and Professor of Sustainable Energy, Imperial College London


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Circular Ecology Panellist at Hewlett Packard Living Exchange Conference

Circular Ecology were invited to be one of the expert panellists at Hewlett Packard and Globescan’s second Living Exchange conference. Dr Craig Jones, of Circular Ecology, was a panel member in the session “Driving Progress on Sustainable Technology”. 

The panel session was conducted online with the chair asking a series of questions for the panellists to ponder, followed by engagement with the audience.

Craig was joined by fellow panellists:

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  • Sven Herrmann, Ellen MacArthur Foundation
  • Kirstie McIntyre, Hewlett Packard
  • Solitaire Townsend, Futerra
  • Markus Laubscher, Philips
  • Roy Vercoulen, Cradle to Cradle
  • Shailendra Mudgal, BIO Intelligence Service
  • And with Chris Coulter as the session chair, GlobeScan.


The first question was ‘What are the most material impacts from the production, distribution and use of technology products?’ It was discussed how the production and distribution of materials is a considerable impact, that can often dwarf the environmental impact of the in-use phase. For example, the cradle to grave impact of an Apple iPhone 6 shows that 80% of the carbon footprint is attributable to the production of materials and only 11% the operational electricity for the smart phone.

It was further discussed that consumers typically don’t appreciate the high impacts of making products, where they instead assume that the operational in-use impacts are more important. This was naturally balanced out with the caveat that it’s a product by product basis and for some products the in-use phase is most important.

Importance of repair for lower environmental impacts

In response to ‘what can be done to bring consumers on-board’ Craig highlighted a project that Circular Ecology are working on with the UK based charity, Restart Project. Restart organise events for the community to take their broken electrical devices to a Restart Party where volunteers will help them fix the broken electronics. The project, which is funded by WRAP’s Innovation in Waste Prevention Fund, will result in a free online calculator that will estimate the amount of carbon that is saved by repairing broken electrical devices.

Environmental impacts of electronics

Craig also highlighted that a key environmental issue for the electronics sector is the use of rare and precious metals. These are used in small quantities in electrical devices that can make it difficult to extract at the end of life. This was also an important topic at Craig’s session at Resource Event. However, the extraction  of some of these metals is important and the example of the amount of gold in a mobile phone was raised, as shown in our fact card below.

Environmental impact mobile phones

The discussion also included energy labelling, engaging consumers, are manufactures doing enough, barriers to implementation and the circular economy. The session was engaging and the archives can be read on the website.   

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The Carbon Footprint of Thatch

On Saturday 21 March Dr Stephen Allen of Circular Ecology is giving a talk on the embodied carbon of building materials to the annual conference of the National Society of Master Thatchers.

Steve will give an overview of carbon footprinting and what it can be used for, and illustrate this through the results of an embodied carbon assessment of a novel eco-home design from Woodford Architecture and Interiors, which was very low carbon and included a thatched roof.

Thatched cottage

Embodied carbon assessments are becoming increasingly prevalent in the building and construction sectors. Circular Ecology recently worked with Woodford Architecture during a planning application for an eco-home design.  Gavin Woodford, Managing Director of Woodford Architecture, said:

Our team at Woodford Architecture and Interiors have been developing a highly innovative architectural project with Steve and Craig of Circular Ecology; we have found their knowledge of carbon footprinting and positive approach to team working has assisted us immensely in producing an environmental design of the highest standards.

Circular Ecology also hosts the Inventory of Carbon and Energy, a free database on the embodied energy and carbon of building materials, which was developed by Circular Ecology’s Dr Craig Jones. 

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Circular Ecology Chairing Seminars at Ecobuild and Resource Event

We are delighted to say that Craig Jones is actively involved in both Ecobuild, the world’s largest green building event, and Resource Event, which is the world’s first annual event dedicated to the circular economy. 

Craig is chairing and speaking in a seminar on water on Tuesday 3rd March and will be chairing a full day of talks for Resource Event on Thursday 5th March.

The session for Ecobuild on water is called “Water: The New Carbon: How Should Industry Respond” where Craig will chair and speak. The talks in this session are shown below:

Circular Economy


ISO 14046: Water Footprinting – What does it mean for construction? Dr Craig Jones, Director, Circular Ecology

Challenges in implementing a water footprinting strategy David Riley, Carbon Manager, Anglian Water

Water footprinting in practice Joanna Goodwin, Senior Environmental Engineer, Parsons Brinckerhoff

Identifying business value in water footprinting Hugh Jones, Managing Director, Advisory, The Carbon Trust

Resource Event

We are also delighted to be chairing a full day of talks for Resource Event on Thursday 5th March. Craig will be chairing the #LivingCircular theatre.

This is particularly prominent because Circular Ecology was inspired by the fields of ‘circular economy’ and ‘industrial ecology’, both of which are about keeping resources flowing within society and away from landfill.

In essence, the end can also be a new beginning and this inspired our logo (picture top right), which is a Möbius Strip. Follow it around – it has no start and no end – it’s purely circular by design – Circular Ecology.

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The Kyoto Protocol: Climate Change Success or Global Warming Failure?

Blog by Dr Craig Jones

In 1997 the Kyoto Protocol was born. It was the first international agreement of its kind, a revelation that would stabilise greenhouse gas concentrations to “prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system”. Flash floods, record droughts and extreme weather would all to be resigned to the books of history.

So with such an ambitious aim how did the Kyoto Protocol fare and did it go anywhere near far enough?

Let’s take a look… 
Climate change

The headline results tell us that between 1990 and 2012 the original Kyoto Protocol parties reduced their CO2 emissions by 12.5%, which is well beyond the 2012 target of 4.7% (CO2 only and including Canada*). The Kyoto Protocol was therefore a huge success. Well, at least that’s what the politicians will boldly tell us. But does digging deeper reveal the same story?

Let’s start at the beginning.

The Kyoto Protocol was opened for signature in 1998, but it wouldn’t come into force until at least 55 parties ratified the treaty. They also needed to account for at least 55% of the total carbon dioxide emissions of the Annex I countries. This political process took 7 years and it was the ratification of Russia that finally brought the treaty into force in 2005. This was a key landmark in the history of the Kyoto Protocol and the final signature required to bring it into full force. However, only coming to light now is that this was also a political masterstroke that would ensure the success of the Kyoto Protocol before it had even begun. Why so?

The Kyoto Protocol Headline Results

Well, let’s dissect. The carbon emissions from all Kyoto Protocol members are shown in the chart below. 

Kyoto Protocol Carbon Emissions

This includes the sum of the regions North America, Europe, Asia Oceania and the ‘Economies in Transition’. The Economies in Transition were mainly composed of central and eastern European countries and include Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Russian Federation, Slovak Republic, Slovenia and Ukraine.

You may note from the chart just how quickly emissions came down after 1990. In fact by 1994, which was 4 years before the Kyoto Protocol was even open for signatures, members had already reduced emissions by 11.2%. This was already well ahead of the Kyoto Protocol target of 4.7% CO2 reduction by 2012. 

A rapid collapse in energy consumption

So why did emissions come down so quickly after 1990? 

Well here lies a different and interesting tale. First we need to ask what happened in the early 1990’s that could cause such a rapid decline in carbon emissions. What historical event unfolded?

In December 1991 the Soviet Union (USSR) formally collapsed. In the process it acknowledged the independence of the Republics of the Soviet Union. These newly declared independent states included Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Belarus, Armenia, Azerbaijan, amongst others. At the time little did we know that this would be significant for the Kyoto Protocol.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union there was a rapid decline in heavy manufacturing industries across Russia and the newly independent states. This collapse was particularly significant in Russia and Ukraine, the two largest energy consumers in this group.

The deeper analysis of the Kyoto Protocol shows that this collapse was the key reason for the decline in energy consumption of the Kyoto Protocol parties. This is shown in the chart below. 

Kyoto Protocol Actual Carbon Emissions

The results are striking – Without Russia and Ukraine (and without Canada pulling out *) the Kyoto Protocol Parties would only have reduced their emissions by a mere 2.7%. This is well below their target. It is only the fact that carbon emissions reduced in Russia + Ukraine by a combined 32.4% that brings the headline Kyoto Protocol figures down to a 12.5% reduction.

So how does this 12.5% reduction look now?

Not so impressive by far. It is also fitting that the treaty was only ratified into force after the final signature of Russia. 

But this still leaves the question ‘was the Kyoto Protocol a climate change success or a global warming failure?’ 

The Kyoto Protocol: A treaty of limitations

The headline figures make the Kyoto Protocol seem like a huge climate change success, but the deeper analysis makes it look like a global warming failure.

The reality is that it may well be somewhere in between the two. Sadly, we will never know for sure. We can never know what the emissions of the Kyoto Parties would have been without the treaty. One suspects that most countries didn’t go far enough and this is masked only by the success of a minority. However, it’s acknowledged that without the treaty the emissions of these countries could have risen more rapidly – we will simply never know for sure.

It therefore appears that for most countries the Kyoto Protocol wasn’t really a treaty of reduction, but instead a treaty of limitation (or perhaps a rather limited treaty?). It was a treaty merely to limit our growth of GHG emissions and a treaty to curb our increasing addiction to fossil fuels. 

Escalating worldwide CO2 emissions

However, what can be stated with certainty is that since 1990 the world’s CO2 emissions have increased by a shocking 51%. Furthermore, a worrying 42% of the world’s CO2 emissions arise from just the USA and China – two countries that didn’t sign up to the Kyoto Protocol.

Increasing worldwide CO2 emissions

So this new insight now brings with it a new question – Was the Kyoto Protocol’s biggest failure the inability to sign up the USA and China?

What do you think? We look forward to hearing your thoughts…

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Article Footnotes:

* On the basis of carbon dioxide only (rather than all GHGs) an estimated 4.7% reduction in CO2 emissions is required for the targets to be met. This covers the original Kyoto Protocol parties and therefore includes Canada, who pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol in 2011 when it became clear their target wouldn’t be met. 

The full CO2e target was a 5.2% reduction in GHG emissions, which includes a basket of 6 greenhouse gases, below:

1.       Carbon dioxide (CO2)
2.       Methane (CH4)
3.       Nitrous oxide (N2O)
4.       Hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs)
5.       Perfluorocarbons (PFCs)
6.       Sulphur hexafluoride (SF6) 

Source: Circular Ecology News RSS

New Scope 2 Guidance Launched for Organisational Carbon Footprinting

The Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Protocol has launched new guidance for organisations to measure emissions from purchased electricity, which typically forms the majority of a company’s Scope 2 emissions.

This is the first major update to the GHG Protocol’s Corporate Standard, one of the world’s most widely used standards for organisational carbon footprinting. The new Scope 2 Guidance provides a consistent, transparent way for companies to show how different types of electricity purchases count toward their emissions targets, and will inform corporate decisions on what kind of energy should power their business…

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“Currently, companies consume half of all electricity produced so any solution for reducing global emissions has to address the electricity sector,” said Mary Sotos, Associate at the World Resources Institute and lead author. “This guidance will let companies know exactly how their energy choices count toward their emissions goals. By providing rigorous reporting methods, the Guidance gives a clear incentive for companies to demand low-carbon electricity.” To watch Mary explain the key points of the new guidance, click here.

Four years in the making, the Scope 2 Guidance was developed in consultation with over 200 representatives from companies, electric utilities, government agencies, academics, industry associations and civil society groups in 23 countries.  

Dr Stephen Allen, Director of Circular Ecology, said: “The GHG Protocol is known for providing clear, well-presented guidance based on extensive and global consultation, making it one of the most reputable standards for organisational carbon footprinting. We look forward to applying the new GHG Protocol Scope 2 Guidance as we help organisations measure and reduce their GHG emissions.”

If you would like to hear more about our work in this area, please contact us or subscribe to our newsletter. 

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Source: Circular Ecology News RSS