Back in November, we made the daunting commitment to carry out whole lifecycle carbon (WLC) assessments on the scopes that make up our buildings work, as of the fiscal year starting in April 2022.

When we announced this ambition to the world, we did not have all the answers as to how this commitment would be put into practice. We’re almost at the halfway point between COP26 and the launch of the inaugural data collection campaign.  It’s been a huge undertaking so far – involving everyone from digital specialists to energy modelers to experienced design leaders from around the world. While we still don’t have every detail wrapped up, the direction of travel is clear and we are united by the conviction that the world needs unprecedented ambition and drive to reach the goals set out in the Paris Agreement. 

Carrying out WLC assessments across our global portfolio is an undertaking that will require substantial effort across the organisation. This first year – and particularly the first months – will be about refining our process and making sure we collect enough data and metadata to deliver valuable insights to our colleagues, clients, and the industry. 

This is a journey that the industry needs to make together, and we’ll get there faster if we are transparent about each other’s progress. That is why we see a huge value in sharing our learnings and challenges as we go – through industry forums and other channels available to us, one of which will be a series of articles on this page. 

Since our commitment was first announced, we have been working hard to get a system in place that will allow us to gather data at appropriate scale and useful levels of granularity and draw conclusions from the assessments in a standardised way. We hope these insights will become an invaluable resource in helping clients to lower the carbon impact of our buildings work, as well as furthering the industry’s understanding of the carbon impact of particular design decisions.

We are building a new data platform called Zero, which will allow teams, at any stage of the design process, to perform high-level WLC assessments. 

The accuracy of estimated carbon emissions is dependent on the level of information available and outputs are tagged against 3 levels of input quality.

  • Level 0: Benchmark mapping – area-based estimate of carbon emissions when no design information is available, using benchmark information collected from published materials or past projects 
  • Level 1: Notional Targets – estimate of carbon emissions derived from key decisions made at early design phases of system and material types selected, based on scaled quantities and calculations from similar projects   
  • Level 2: Detailed Upload – data upload for all pre-existing projects having WLC assessments, which would have been based on detailed construction documents and models

We are building a new data platform called Zero, which will allow teams, at any stage of the design process, to perform high-level WLC assessments. 

Erin McConahey

Fellow, Arup

We know that the industry’s benchmarking data suffers from a small sample size of available published WLC assessments from owners of existing buildings. For only a fraction are we able to identify the carbon emissions associated with design recommendations for specific elements of buildings.

Another challenge lies in the typical approach of reporting at a whole-building level instead of at the design decision level.  A structural engineer will want to know whether concrete or steel in a given market might use the lowest amount of carbon. A mechanical engineer might want to know how façade decisions change the operational carbon of a cooling system.  An electrical engineer may care to investigate the difference in embodied carbon between cable tray and conduit. Our plan for data analytics in the fall should help to answer some of these questions for design teams and owners weighing a number of different priorities by linking a design decision to its whole life carbon emissions.  We will use our detailed data to validate and improve our benchmark databases in subsequent years to set out for clients from the start what incremental improvements in “good” looks like. 

In addition to creating the platform, Arup University and our global Skills Network Leaders are creating a large-scale training programme. It will make sure everyone involved in our Buildings practice understands the key design principles that support the achievement of Net Zero Carbon Buildings, our new WLC assessment commitment, the way they can contribute to the data collection exercise, and most importantly, how they can start to change their own design practices to support net zero carbon solutions.

Defining our scope more clearly

We have also made progress on more clearly defining the type of work we’ll consider to be eligible for assessment. Arup works on thousands of projects each year, from the design of bridges to whole buildings to consulting and advisory services, feasibility studies or very early design concepts. Right now, we’re laser focused on gathering data from the buildings projects where we have influence over the designed outcomes. These are the projects that will provide us with the detailed insights needed to accelerate decarbonisation. Thus, the WLC data collection and assessment exercise includes current live projects where we have significant design and consulting scope under contract. 

How we'll use the insights gathered

We have set off on this journey to gather insights that will improve our design recommendations for clients who are committed to low carbon outcomes.  The value of the exercise is not in the results of any single project but in the aggregation and analysis of decision-specific information from across Arup’s buildings portfolio.  With collected evidence that links design decisions to an estimated range of their carbon emissions, our members will more confidently advise owners and design partners on best practice design options to support low carbon solutions.  

This is an ambitious project which has the potential to significantly contribute to industry knowledge on WLC emissions. This first year will be about discovery, and we will be constantly improving, implementing, and sharing learnings as we go. 

We look forward to keeping you updated on our progress and to putting some of the insights we gather into good use on perhaps even one of your projects very soon.