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Four in ten architects are using digital tools to measure embodied carbon

The latest NBS research reveals the profession’s use of digital tools to measure the embodied carbon of projects and their associated components

Four in ten architects now use digital tools to measure the embodied carbon of projects and their associated components, the latest research by NBS has revealed.

The Digital Construction Report (formerly the NBS BIM Report) surveyed 723 construction professionals, including consultants, contractors, clients and suppliers, to explore the evolving relationship between digital technology, safety and sustainability.

It found that around two-thirds of architects (64 per cent) are now using digital methods to calculate at least one form of environmental-related metric, slightly below the 67 per cent reported across the sector as a whole. Comparative figures for preceding years were not available as previous NBS reports had less detailed questions around sustainability

Turning to the CO2 emitted during construction, some 39 per cent of architects said they now use digital tools to understand the embodied carbon of projects, compared with 40 per cent reported across the entire sector. In addition, 38 per cent of architects said they use software to quantify emissions associated with building structures and components.

It’s tough for architects to perform lifecycle analyses with respect to sustainability. Frequently, the information isn’t presented in a way that’s easy to understand and compare

The report found evidence of efforts to choose products suitable for reuse or recycling. Over a quarter of architects (26 per cent) said they analyse the life cycle of building products before including them in specifications, compared to 32 per cent reported across all survey respondents.

Manufacturers need to up their game to make the process easier, says NBS innovation director Stephen Hamil. ‘It’s tough for architects to perform lifecycle analyses with respect to sustainability. Frequently, the information isn’t presented in a way that’s easy to understand and compare.’

Hamil also highlights the need for more Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) from manufacturers. He says architects can have issues with interpreting data from existing EPDs due to the use of different units of measurement that make it hard to ‘compare apples with apples’.

For example, a lack of standardisation around the units manufacturers use to report carbon metrics can result in variation ‘in the measurement unit between carbon cost per kilo, per metre squared or per item,’ says Hamil. ‘This can make it difficult for architects to compare products and carry out lifecycle cost analyses for their projects.’

NBS is planning to expand the scope of its sustainability data through the use of more well-structured data related to products. This will be backed up by third-party certifications, such as EPDs. Additional data will include estimations of the expected life of products and manufacturing locations to support carbon calculations, such as ‘transport to site’.

The NBS survey also considered how professionals used digital methods to calculate operational emissions. Some 41 per cent of architects said they assess the energy demands of projects before construction begins, slightly above the 38 per cent reported by the sector as a whole.

The survey also found evidence that environmental concerns around the use of water are becoming important for architects, with almost a fifth (18 per cent) using digital tech to predict project water demands.

Off-site is often associated with more sustainable construction since it allows better control over materials and waste, and 57 per cent of architects said they had been part of a project that either used or required off-site construction within the last year. In 2021, the equivalent figure was 50 per cent.

Report authors said the increase could reflect an industry drive towards net zero and the government’s recent push for greater standardisation in modern methods of construction.

Turning to the use of BIM, the report found that 77 per cent of all professionals now follow naming conventions, up from 2021 figures. This can improve the organisation and management of data, when sharing information. Furthermore, over half of respondents reported using interoperable formats like IFC, designed to make construction data more shareable.

However, the report highlighted shortcomings with the use of digital technologies to support compliance. Just a third of all respondents (34 per cent) were involved in the use of detailed responsibility matrices that set out responsibility for each element of design to enhance accountability. The figure was higher for architects, at around half. This is despite new legislation attached to the Building Safety Act, including the introduction of planning ‘gateways’ requiring a detailed breakdown of responsibilities on an individual level.

In addition, less than a third of suppliers (28 per cent) currently use a product information management (PIM) system, pointing to information gaps in the construction supply chain.

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