Growth in floor area: the blind spot in cutting carbon-Review?

I just was pointed to this opinion piece focusing on how building less should be one of the most important carbon reduction strategies.

I read the headings and it looks right on target and want to tag it to read later.

If you have a chance to read this can you share your thoughts below? How could we help lead industry action on this important topic?

Kate, I’d love to read it, but the link doesn’t work. Can you please re-post the link?

I fixed it. Thanks!

Thank you Kate for posting my article on Forum.

Most emphasis on reducing embodied carbon seems at the materials level.
Whilst this is important too, greatest reductions in embodied carbon can be made at inception and planning stage of projects. The lowest carbon building is one that doesn’t need to be built.

So we need to question the fundamental need for buildings in the first place, especially massive office towers such as at Hudson Yards NY and Barangaroo in Sydney, Australia.
COVID-19 response has shown that we can make do with much less floor space, such as via digitisation.
Same with Universities such as my own, where learning is now completely online. What happens to all the lecture rooms and the like?

Happy to discuss further.

Adjunct Professor David Ness, UniSA, Australia

The requirement for endless economic growth and therefore growth in floor areas is a feature of capitalist economic systems. While we should clearly be looking to re-use existing buildings where possible, is an alternative economic model to that of capitalism really the only long term solution to preventing ongoing environmental destruction and climate change?

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Thought provoking question, Magnus.
Economic growth, with private profit and community services delivered, may not necessarily depend upon extravagant growth in material consumption - including growth in floor area. Doing more with less, being ‘smaller and smarter’, as mentioned in article. If business can be conducted effectively via digital means, as virus response has shown, this may still enable profit, with less cost of office space, less embodied and operational carbon, less resource extraction and less waste.

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This article (though I’m only about a third of the way through so far) is great! Really really on-point, and hopefully widens some already open eyes. It certainly resonates with me, and introduces some bigger-picture ideas that relate to a theme that’s always troubled me:

That the set of metrics we generally use to measure green building efficiency/performance are so often about energy or resource use per unit floor area. EUI, and more recently MUI (material use intensity), tend to focus on use-per-floor-area, as opposed to absolute use, or use-per-person, or use-per-service/function.
And while it may be obvious that the real goal is limiting total emissions and resource use (as opposed to emissions and resource use per ft2/m2), it seems that that part of the equation is generally ignored.

*What examples are there of green building metrics, rating systems, etc that don’t measure performance with ft2/m2 in the denominator of a fraction? Of metrics that appropriately evaluate performance in ways that incorporate the thinking that this article proposes?

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Thank you Brook, you are right on the mark.

That’s a hugely imporant point you make, which I didn’t really deal with in article.

Am very interested to pursue this more with you.

Some comments of similar nature were made on LinkedIn and I shall try to find and share with you.

You may know about the work of Ernst von Weizsacher and Fredrich Scmidt-Bleek re ‘MIPS’ ie material input per unit of service.

Resource efficiency = Material input/unit of service

Resource productivity is the converse.

But resource efficiency/productivity is only part of the journey. As you say, we need to achieve
absolute reductions.

I will have another look at the work of Julian Allwood and his Use less Group at Uni Cambridge UK.

And will delve more in response to your question.

Thanks again, I was so pleased to receive your insightful comment that I got up early!


Thanks David for the great article. When it comes to cutting embodied carbon the simplest technical answer of course is to build less - the City of Vancouver has committed to a 40% reducting in embodied carbon by 2030, but nowhere can I find how this will be measured, and whether absolute increase in floor area is considered - if anyone has the answer to this I’d be keen to hear it. Anecdotally, it is very hard to convince politicians to build less, I remember when our recommendations to renew municipal infrastructure were overlooked to build a stadium, which subsequently bankrupted the local government, and they still needed to fix the pipes!

I like the LBC approach that requires projects to be on brownfield sites, and must incorproate some material reuse, although this could be taken further. Ultimately with widespread renewables it may be possible to sequester carbon in our built environment, but we are nowhere near to balancing anthropogenic emissions, and the volumes required are enormous. Hopefully a silver lining from the pandemic will be more telecommuting, less commercial real estate demand, :crossed_fingers: a rejection of neoliberal economics and unending consumption.

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Thank you Will. It is really heartening to read such insightful comments from you, Magnus and Brook Waldman.
I think Figure 3 in article (from UK Treasury and Green Construction Board) sums it up.
It also appears in WGBC report on ‘Bringing embodied carbon upfront’.

You are surely right about politicians and difficulty of convincing them and others to build less! In my city (Adelaide), despite being in midst of Pandemic when most are working from home, huge new office towers are still proposed and supported by government. Yes, due to less commercial real estate demand, they are likely to become stranded assets in future. I am pleased you mention infrastructure, because at moment I am responding to an Australian report on ‘Reshaping Infrastructure for a zero-carbon future’, and presenting some future scenarios where transport and other needs can be met with no new construction e.g. by tele-commuting as you say or running self-guided trams etc on underutilised roads.
I wrote a book mentioned in article (The impact of overbuilding on people and the planet, 2019) where I canvassed some of the above in more depth.
Thanks again to you, Magnus and Brook.
Actually, there is a facility for making comments on the article webpage. Please feel free to also comment there, it will help promote our message.


Unfortunately ‘cloud’ computing has a larger carbon footprint than aviation… :grimacing:

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Spot on Magnus! That tallies with what a colleague pointed out to me today - that the carbon footprint of large data centres, which may be located elsewhere, are not included in carbon footprint of a particular city. They should be included under Scope 3 emissions, similar to the carbon from the production of construction materials that are often produced offshore. A C40 Cities report 92018) about Consumption-based GHG emissions of cities, referenced in my article, has argued that attention needs to switch to such emissions, including embodied.

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Cloud computing at least can be sited near to renewable energy, and can be converted to renewables, whereas aviation is a tougher problem to tackle. Maybe sailing will become the norm, or dirigibles - in either getting there slower but in comfort is OK with me.

[after a long pause] David. I had not known about the MIPS model you mention. But I looked it up and am excited to read more. In concept, it certainly makes sense. I’m interested to see applications, particularly in terms of measuring ‘unit of service’ for buildings in ways other than / in addition to floor area.

This is excellent. I’ve actually been working on a way to illustrate the ‘less is more’ concept for quite a while and this will give me some great data. Thanks for sharing!

Thanks again all for interest and comments.
A different metric for green buildings seems worth pursuing, based and MIPS and more recent research, along lines that Brook and others suggested. .
Based upon Resources used per unit of service, leading to absolute reductions in resource use.
The Factor 10 Manifesto (2000) by Friedrich Schmidt-Bleek and other forward-looking thinkers may be good starting point:[Factor 10 Manifesto 2000.

I will put forward a proposal over next few days that I intend to follow up with CEO of Green Building Council of Australia, and will try to share with you too.

Lockdown (luckily easing here Down Under) is good time for reflection!


Thanks again Brook, I will delve into this more (as posted below) and look forward discuss more.