BUILT ENVIRONMENT JOURNAL

Platform set to offer consistent carbon data

An RICS-led consortium is developing the Built Environment Carbon Database, an online repository of project and product assessments, to help standardise the measurement and reduction of emissions

Author:

  • Fabrizio Varriale

02 March 2023

Cranes on a London construction site

For years, the UK has been at the forefront of decarbonisation efforts in the built environment. But now it appears to have fallen behind more ambitious countries such as France and Finland, where whole-life carbon reductions are becoming integral to national building regulations.

As the recent RICS report Decarbonising UK real estate argues, there are significant gaps in the policy instruments meant to encourage emissions reductions from buildings, including the glaring absence of means for monitoring and controlling embodied carbon.

Lack of quality data stymies emission efforts

UK professionals and academics working in the field of carbon assessment are well aware that data issues are undermining efforts to reduce emissions from the built environment and preventing wider uptake of their measurement.

Good-quality data for construction products is difficult to access. Project data is even more scarce, and there is a lack of transparency about methodologies and data sources. There is no single repository for project-level assessments that allows data to be shared across the industry and inform the development of robust benchmarks for different building types.

A publicly available online platform for the industry to report the results of carbon assessments is significantly lacking; in fact, provision for such a facility is one of the measures presented in the draft Carbon Emissions (Buildings) Bill, which aims to regulate embodied carbon in the UK.

The Built Environment Carbon Database (BECD) is designed precisely to fill this gap, by creating a free-to-access website where data can be reported, stored and used to inform future carbon assessments and policy. It is not intended to replace any existing calculation tools or product databases, but rather to create a space where all building-related carbon information can be shared in a transparent way.

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Workshop identifies carbon assessment needs

The concept of BECD originated from a workshop held by RICS, Arup and the University of Cambridge in October 2020 to determine the industry's requirements when it came to emissions data, especially for embodied carbon. The workshop found that there was a need both for greater transparency on product-level data, and for a combined project-level data platform on operational and embodied carbon.

Rather than revamping its existing, outdated embodied carbon database, RICS chose to start from scratch by engaging with relevant organisations on a new system that would meet the industry's needs and could be widely adopted beyond the building surveying profession.

A BECD steering group was formed in early 2021, made up of representatives from Building Cost Information Service (BCIS), the Building Research Establishment (BRE), the Carbon Trust, the Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers, the Chartered Institute of Building, the Institution of Civil Engineers, the Institution of Structural Engineers, the Royal Institute of British Architects, RICS itself and the UK Green Building Council.

Software offers data at different scales

BECD will comprise two separate sections: one at a project level, hosting the results of whole-life carbon assessment for buildings and infrastructure assets; and one at product level, collating existing data on the carbon intensity of construction materials, products and works.

To develop these, two working groups were created later in 2021, with members from UK companies working at the forefront of carbon assessment. Software development started towards the end of that year, thanks to the support of BCIS.

After two rounds of public consultation in May and December 2022, the BECD team plans to launch a fully functional project-level section in April, although development to improve the system will be ongoing. The product-level section is also planned for an April release, and data will likewise continue to be added to it beyond that date.

More information about the members of the BECD team, the database details and its planned functionalities can be found at the BECD website.

Providing project and product insight

The project-level section is designed to report both embodied and operational emissions, with the aim of building up a large dataset that can support development of more accurate carbon benchmarks for specific typologies.

Such benchmarks will be available for whole projects, such as the typical carbon associated with terraced houses, but also at the lower level of building elements, for example the carbon related to individual structural components.

These figures will be useful not only to evaluate a new project against a large pool of similar, previous projects, but also to serve as reliable estimates of the emissions associated with new developments at the early stages of planning and design.

The product-level section meanwhile will work as a comprehensive catalogue of environmental product declarations and life-cycle assessments, which will allow assessors to understand quickly what type of information is available for particular products. It will also highlight any area where good-quality data is missing.

Together, the two sections of BECD will provide the industry with much-needed transparency on data sources and their quality, and a uniform way of reporting carbon emissions and other relevant information.

'BECD will provide the industry with transparency on data sources and a uniform way of reporting carbon emissions'

Three initiatives coordinate carbon reduction

Far from working in isolation, the BECD team is collaborating with another two initiatives enabling the UK built environment to reduce carbon in line with science-based national targets: the second edition of RICS' Whole-life carbon assessment for the built environment, currently in preparation, and the UK Net Zero Carbon Buildings Standard (NZCBS).

The former is expanding the scope and improving the accuracy of what has effectively become the UK's unofficial carbon assessment methodology. The reporting format of the BECD project section is aligned with both the first and second editions of the RICS standard, to support consistent reporting practices and encourage further adoption of the document.

Meanwhile, the NZCBS is developing a technical definition and a verification pathway for what constitutes net-zero carbon performance, in line with science-based targets. With this in mind, a preliminary version of the BECD project section collected data in December 2022 that the NZCBS will use to determine typical levels of embodied carbon across different building types. In future, the body of evidence provided by this section will be used to monitor progress against the targets set out by the NZCBS.

The database effectively complements the two standards: Whole-life carbon assessment for the built environment tells us how to calculate life-cycle emissions in a rigorous and comprehensive manner; the NZCBS tells us what levels of whole-life emissions are in line with science-based targets; and BECD provides the digital infrastructure to report, store and share this information.

Professions take action ahead of regulation

Each initiative is run by professional bodies and organisations, with strong support from construction and real-estate companies. In the absence of government action on embodied carbon, UK built environment professions are making progress on decarbonisation, collaborating on the necessary framework and instruments to tackle emissions across the building life cycle.

When the UK government finally comes around to regulating embodied carbon, BECD will be there to provide robust evidence, and a single place to report and store assessment results.

 

Fabrizio Varriale is a built environment analyst at RICS
Contact Fabrizio: Email

Related competencies include: Data management, Design and specification, Sustainability

RICS champions sustainability across professions

With the built environment estimated to be responsible for around 40% of global carbon emissions, RICS is championing sustainable practices across the built and natural environment. We are also empowering professionals to embed sustainability considerations into the way they work and better measure environmental impacts.

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