As part of our blog series on Neenan’s collaboration with the Powerhouse Energy Institute, we recently had the opportunity to speak with Brian Dunbar, a LEED Fellow and Executive Director for the Institute for the Built Environment at Colorado State University on the topic of embodied energy.
Professor Brian Dunbar (Image courtesy of CSU)
The Institute for the Built Environment was created in 1994 as an inter-disciplinary, research based, group of faculty, students, and off-campus professionals with a mission to foster stewardship and sustainability of the built and natural environments through inter-disciplinary research and education. The Institute often consults on sustainability and green building and has trained over 1000 professionals on green building and LEED through its outreach programs. Here is what Brian Dunbar shared with us on the topic of embodied energy.
Q: How would you describe the relevance of embodied energy to design and construction today versus 10 years ago?
“Some in the engineering and design profession caught on to the concept over 30 to 40 years ago during the energy crisis. I think it became a relevant topic then but it wasn’t until about 10 years ago that the conversation ramped up with increased interest in energy modeling and material selections in projects.”
Q: Who are leading thinkers and doers with regards to modeling and quantifying embodied energy in the built environment and construction industry as a whole?
“A government agency, NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology) created BEEs, which have been around for 20 years to try to quantify embodied energy in materials in production and manufacturing. Then there is a private group called the Athena Sustainable Materials institute based in Canada, looking at building systems for embodied energy. NREL (National Renewable Energy Lab) in Golden, CO has also furthered the concept of embodied energy. And, SOGES (School of Global and Environmental Sustainability) at Colorado State University has brought together like minded individuals such as Keith Paustian and his work with the Carbon Footprint Group Metric Group, who are recognized researchers in carbon emissions in natural environments and are now translating their work to the built environment.”
Q: What role do entities like the Institute for Built Environment, the newly formed National Academy of Environmental Design, and the USGBC have in furthering discussions of embodied energy as it relates to the built environment?
“What we need very quickly is a heightened awareness and education. We’re in need of hard data that comes in a readily usable form that built environment professionals can use to make informed decisions about embodied energy on projects. USGBC has helped to further the conversation yet there is a lot more to be done. There are few credits that address embodied energy in the USGBC’s LEED system, for example. But we also need tools and resources that are user friendly so project teams can decisively implement the concept of embodied energy in their project decisions.”
Q: How do you see industry rating systems like the LEED rating system and Cradle-to-Cradle assisting in informing the public and industry professionals about embodied energy in the built environment?
“LEED and related systems have done a remarkable job of bringing so many different sustainable building concepts to the minds of the project decision makers. Now we need to think about how and where embodied energy will be a more relevant and pertinent part of the decision making process once the rating systems more overtly define embodied energy as a central part of that process and put it in front of design teams.”
Q: Finally, what trends do you see emerging around the concept of embodied energy?
“What I have begun to see, thanks to the USGBC and many other partners, is an overall effort towards transparency. There is a growing nucleus of professional leaders pushing for radical transparency where design professionals and industry leaders open their books and show us what is in that product or material. Then embodied energy will be part of a transparent and open materials selection process. I think we will see a growth in materials transparency and selections for design systems and I am anxious to see this process grow to the point where industry leaders consistantly demand more informational transparency as well.”
As you can see, from our discussions with Professor Dunbar, a lot of good work has been done, but more needs to happen. We would like to thank Brian for his time and insights, not to mention his continued efforts to improve the built environment. So what do you think the future of the embodied energy topic in the built environment will be?