Whole-life carbon - building solutions

The term ‘whole-life assessment’ has traditionally referred to cost of building ownership, but has grown in recent years to also encompass environmental considerations, which chiefly centre on whole-life carbon performance. This describes the combined impacts of both operational and embodied emissions over a building’s entire life and its ultimate disposal.

An assessment of whole-life carbon can help optimise the relationship between structural design, energy demand, maintenance needs and building longevity. This is most easily achieved with concrete construction, which scores well in terms of overall ability to deliver long lasting buildings, requiring minimal upkeep, plus an ability to save significant operational energy by virtue of its inherent thermal mass.

Concrete buildings also offer a level of flexibility not found in many other structural options, frequently enabling them to be repurposed to meet changing needs, greatly extending their useful lifespan.These qualities align well with the principles of a circular economy which are succinctly defined by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation:

“A circular economy is one that is restorative and regenerative by design, and which aims to keep products, components and materials at their highest utility and value at all times, distinguishing between technical and biological cycles”.

In financial terms, the cost of building ownership and other whole-life considerations are by no means mutually exclusive, particularly when concrete is used. This has long been understood by construction clients in the public sector, but is now becoming more apparent in the commercial sector where durable, flexible, low-energy design is increasingly seen as the best way to future-proof property assets over the longer term.

It is also the case that the ownership costs of concrete buildings and their cradle-to-grave CO2 footprint are very much interrelated; operational savings resulting from their thermal mass, low maintenance and overall longevity, closely parallel the CO2 savings linked with these attributes. The use of whole-life carbon assessment is now recognised as the best means of getting a true picture of building’s overall carbon performance and is a technique supported by organisations including the UKGBC, RICS and RIBA, who all advocate its use.

Guidance can be found in the RICS publication ‘Whole-Life Carbon Assessment for the Built Environment’ and within Circular Economy guidance such as the UKGBC’s ‘Circular economy guidance for construction clients’.

To assist with whole-life assessment and design of concrete buildings, The Concrete Centre has published a guide entitled ‘Whole-Life Carbon and Buildings’, which sets out the specific qualities of concrete construction that can be used to help minimise carbon impacts, both directly and through broader indirect design opportunities that the use of concrete often affords.

These include:

  • Lean building design - Using concrete for multiple roles, enabling other materials to be designed out
  • Operational energy - Using the thermal mass provided by concrete to lower operational emissions.
  • Designing for long life - The longevity of concrete allows a building’s useful life to be extended; a key tenet of whole-life thinking and a circular economy.
  • Reuse and adaptability - Reducing whole-life CO2 through the ability to reuse concrete structures.
  • End-of-life - The absorption of CO2 into concrete through the natural process of carbonation.

The guide draws upon information from a broad range of sources and provides a largely qualitative overview of the whole-life CO2 savings that can be made.

Download Whole-Life Carbon and Buildings