Embodied Energy and Design
Friday, April 22, 2016
Buildings are ideas made physical. They carry silent histories. They manifest culture, values, and technologies. And they also embody environmental impact.
In terms of numbers, buildings account for about one-third of the world’s solid waste, energy consumption, and carbon emissions. They are serious and un-ignorable. The physical presence of buildings has always been imposing, and now the making of buildings has become imposing in a new way.
The energy story involves a striking twist: in the past fifty years, operational energy—defined as the energy for things like heating, cooling, and lighting—has actually declined as a percentage of total energy consumption in buildings. At the same time, embodied energy—defined as the sum of all energy required to produce, transport, and assemble the materials of a building—has rapidly increased.
This makes embodied energy an increasingly urgent topic for architecture.
But where exactly is the embodied energy? How is it calculated? What are the forces involved? Where does time fit in? How is embodied energy actionable? And how might architects design with it?
Embodied energy is complex, and no single formula or framework is sufficient to encapsulate it. As architecture, engineering, and construction navigate the latest materials, technologies, politics, and environmental outlooks—as well as the increasingly important intersection of quantitative and qualitative factors in design—there has never been a better time to discard default thinking and experiment anew.