Can Architecture Firms Become Truly Carbon Neutral?
Earlier this month, Seattle’s Miller Hull Partnership announced the launch of EMissions Zero, an initiative, according to the firm’s press release, “aimed at eliminating emissions in the built environment and reducing Miller Hull’s environmental impact.” Part of that effort involves purchasing carbon offsets—essentially, emission reductions made in one area to compensate for emissions made elsewhere. Miller Hull has pledged to offset their portion of the construction of all of their projects. This is an admirable and ambitious goal, given the amount of embodied carbon involved in construction, but one fraught with a lot of questions, the main one being: How do you set a price for carbon emissions in a world economy operating without an internationally, agreed-upon carbon cap? To answer that question and a few more, I called Ron Rochon, managing partner at Miller Hull, and we had an honest and insightful discussion about the EMissions Zero initiative, the current shortcomings of carbon offsets, and the way forward.
MCP: Martin C. Pedersen
RR: Ron Rochon
Tell us about EMissions Zero and how it took shape.
We’ve been focused on reducing emissions for years and have been doing all we can internally, through education of ourselves and our clients, our design work, using carbon footprinting tools like Tally, and advocating for electric buildings, stricter energy codes—all of those things. But it just started to feel at a certain point that people kept making commitments to do something out into the future, to do something by a date that was very far away.
That’s called kicking the can down the road.
You could call it that. We felt very strongly that we wanted to act now. As architects, we live and work in an industry that’s part of the carbon and greenhouse gas emissions problem. Buildings are responsible for almost half of the greenhouse gas emissions in the world. And so how do we handle our responsibility? We handle it through design, education, and advocacy. We’re using our resources to do that. But for a long time now, we felt like we needed to own up. We are complicit in this process: we enable the construction of buildings. And so we want to own our part of the problem.
These carbon-offset programs are complicated and vary widely, both in scope and sometimes in impact. What was the research process of figuring out which offsets to pursue, which ones to avoid?
We’ve been doing research for years, because as a business we’ve been carbon-neutral since 2006. We started working with the Bonneville Environmental Foundation to buy carbon offsets, to offset the energy use of our business, our travel, supplies, catering. And we early on latched onto the idea that every offset we buy needed to be vetted and certified by a third party, so that we know that the program is solid, that we can depend on the money going into the project that we think we’re funding. There must be a results benefit.
We get reports from Bonneville about what our offsets are funding. One of the fundamental pieces of EMissions Zero is that all of the offsets will be Green-e Certified ™. We also work with a company called 3 Degrees. They collaborated with us on one of our two Living Buildings, the Bullitt Center in Seattle, along with our own office remodels. 3 Degrees finds, coordinates, and compiles the offsets that we purchase.
We have three areas that we want impacted. One is carbon sequestration. Another bucket is renewable energy. Some of our offsets go directly into renewable-energy projects. And then we’re interested in agriculture. Agriculture, as an industry, isn’t quite up to speed yet, with how it produces greenhouse gases and what it can do to offset them. We’re trying to draw a line between the dot of agriculture and methane capture. That’s the third big bucket that we’re focused on.
You’ve been purchasing offsets for the business for a while. Now you’ll do it for the buildings you construct. How much bigger in scale is that? Does it cost three times as much, four times?
I would say that the scale is roughly 36 times more.
Really? How much do you pay out for offsets now?
We’ve been offsetting, historically—and there’s nothing like a pandemic or a good recession to lower your carbon footprint—about 500-plus tons a year for our business.
And what does that cost?
That’s about $3,000, plus or minus.
For the entire business?
Yes. People think it’s a huge lift, but it’s not.
That’s not much.
Any business could do it. I mean, Microsoft and Amazon, they have massive carbon footprints and for them it’s a higher hurdle, but for a midsized architecture firm, it’s not that big of a deal.
But this will be 36 times more?
Yes. Our business is responsible for about 500 tons of emitted CO2 a year. The buildings that we designed, and which will come on line in 2021, are responsible for about 55,000 tons. Therefore, if we’re offsetting a minimum of one-third of each project’s emissions, that total for us in 2021 will be 36 times our total for our business, or about 18,300 tons.
And how do you measure that?
We model all of our buildings in Revit, which is essentially a database, and there’s a program that hooks onto it, called Tally.
Developed by Kiernan Timberlake.
Right. At every phase of the design, in conceptual, schematic, design development, and construction documents, we run Tally on every project, using our own resources to do that. That helps us make smart decisions about how we can reduce the carbon in our design. That’s the first leg of it. The soft set piece is innovation, but it’s co-equal to the way we design, and the way we educate our clients. Tally is not perfect. There are some things that are missing from the model.
There aren’t enough environmental impact statements for the materials used in building construction. That’s an industry-wide problem.
Correct. Tally is heavily focused on building structure and building envelope. We have good numbers on that, but it lags behind in things like mechanical, plumbing, and electrical systems.
Even wood. There’s only one environmental statement for wood, for the entire industry, a material that’s milled and shipped in a number of different ways.
Right. As part of our education piece, we’re trying to figure out how to model these resources in the most practical ways. And, yes, I’ll admit it’s a blunt instrument, but it’s the instrument that we have to use today. And the instrument is getting sharpened as we go.
And how do you set a carbon price for your buildings? You’re in a little bit of uncharted waters here.
We are. We’re not in the carbon-cap-and-trade economy here. We can buy carbon offsets for methane capture for $2 a ton, or we can buy carbon offsets for reforestation, for $10 a ton, depending on the types of projects that we want to help finance. That’s not a huge price. But in the carbon-cap-and-trade market, carbon is priced considerably higher, like 30 bucks a ton, but we’re not talking about that kind of thing. We’re talking about ongoing offsets that are selling at a reasonable price. Who knows what reasonable is? But it can be done.
What’s the response from clients to this initiative?
Some of our clients are interested in talking about how they might partner with us. We consider ourselves a partner with clients and our contractors. And we’re saying: Miller Hull’s commitment in a three-way partnership would be one-third of the offset, at the minimum. So now we will engage our owners and contractor partners to help and encourage them, to ask them if they want to join us and offset their portions. But we’re doing it first. We’re not talking from a place of setting some future date. We’re doing it right now. We’ve been keeping this fairly close for now, as we figure out what exactly it is we’re doing. But as we open up with our EMission Zero project, we will have a platform to discuss that fourth leg, the offset with our clients.
Many people question the effectiveness of voluntary carbon offsets. What’s your take? Without a hard cap, are offsets largely symbolic or a concrete step?
They’re another wedge that can be driven into carbon reduction. If we’re paying the freight for something that we design, we’re using it as an incentive for us to be smarter about how we reduce carbon in the design process. We know that buildings contain concrete, so are there ways to reduce the carbon in concrete? Of course there are. If we start specifying those ways, things like carbon dioxide injection into concrete, we can move the market, because we’ve specified that to incentivize ourselves, to bring down the cost. And so in our mind, it’s more of a virtuous cycle than a payoff from some kind of guilt.
I hope that we’re headed towards some eventual carbon cap that all countries agree on. Then the cost of offsets would reflect the actual harm carbon does to the planet, and the economics would shift dramatically.
Yes. We’ve been aware of the externalities for years and years. Whether they like it or not, the public is paying for this emitted carbon. Certainly, the simplest thing to do would be to tax carbon where it enters the U.S. economy, in those six or eight or 12 big places, and let the costs flow down from there. But we’re not there yet politically. And so this is what we can do right now.
Where would you like to see this lead?
The perfect world outcome is that we see more architects that we consider our peers start doing this. And that we’d have more conversations about offsetting greenhouse gas emissions from the construction industry. When the LEED rating system first came out, the idea that you would specify a material with high recycled content was considered insurmountable: What are you talking about? How can we possibly do this? Today nobody even thinks about it anymore. What we’re trying to do is send a signal to our peers and to the market that this is a good thing to do. It has benefits for everybody, and it’s not insurmountable.
Featured image: The Kendeda Building for Innovative Design is located on the campus of Georgia Institute of Technology, in Atlanta. The building generates 225% of its energy needs from solar; captures rainwater for drinking; and screens out common hazardous materials. It earned a Living Buiding Challenge certificate in April. Photo: Jonathan Hillyer.