The New Embodied Carbon PathFinder Tool

The New Embodied Carbon Pathfinder Tool is Here!

The Embodied Carbon PathFinder is a new, free web app allows users to quickly see the embodied carbon implications of different design and material selections for three typical multifamily residential building types: stacked townhouse, mid-rise and high-rise.

The new app is an LCA-based tool, and a companion to the Operational Energy PathFinder tool, which has been helping users test building design scenarios for their operational energy and emissions for several years. The new tool is useful to create rough estimates in early design, when a custom LCA study may not yet be feasible. Using both tools, designers can now quickly understand and minimize the total carbon footprint of a building.

The Embodied Carbon Pathfinder tool can be used to:

  1. Quickly understand the range of embodied carbon available for different archetype buildings.

  2. Understand the embodied carbon of a specific design by selecting specific variables, and understanding the opportunities to reduce the embodied carbon by switching variables.

  3. Define a range of acceptable embodied carbon and determine which “pathways”, through material and design options, are available to achieve a particular embodied carbon result.

The Embodied Carbon Pathfinder was created by Morrison Hershfield and OPEN Technologies. Morrison Hershfield developed the data using the Athena Impact Estimator for Buildings, and OPEN Technologies programmed the visualization software and developed the user interface. Funding was provided by the Province of British Columbia and the City of Vancouver.

What is Embodied Carbon and Why Does it Matter?

Embodied carbon refers to the CO2e emitted during the manufacture, transport, construction, operation, and disposal of building assemblies and materials. This metric is widely understood to be one of the best measures of the sustainability of materials. With an industry focused on net zero, a building’s whole life cycle must be considered to achieve true carbon neutrality, including reducing embodied carbon. Embodied carbon emissions are mostly fixed once the infrastructure is built, so minimizing it through responsible material and assembly choices is key to reducing climate change impacts. Further, lower embodied carbon choices are often cost neutral or positive and can have minimal impact on aesthetics and function.

Benefits of Using the Embodied Carbon Pathfinder Tool

IIn the past, researching and calculating the embodied carbon implications of different designs and material selections was complicated and time consuming. The PathFinder tool provides almost instant answers regarding the embodied carbon impact of thousands of combinations of design and material choices for a construction project. This free tool can be used before the concept phase to quickly and effectively help designers minimize the carbon footprint with little or no impact on cost.

Give the Tool a Try!

The Embodied Carbon PathFinder app is free to use! Watch our live demonstration to learn how it works. 

carbon pathfinder

How does the Embodied Carbon Pathfinder Work?

Register here to join our live demonstration on October 25 to make informed decisions faster. We will show you how to quickly estimate the embodied carbon implications of different design and material combinations on your building design.

Want to know more?

If you are interested in using the Embodied Carbon PathFinder for your project or your region, or seeking more information about the tool, please contact Mark Lucuik

Common Questions About Embodied Carbon Pathfinder

Who can use the Embodied Carbon Pathfinder?

Anyone familiar with buildings. The tool introduces users to LCA and helps them gain a high-level understanding of the embodied carbon implications associated with various combinations of design decisions for the archetype buildings. Some may wish to use the tool for general guidance early in the design or pre-design phase when custom LCA studies are not yet feasible. PathFinder does not replace tools that perform live LCA on a specific project.


What’s the difference between this tool and Athena’s Impact Estimator?

Athena’s Impact Estimator is a whole-building LCA tool that can model a specific building design and deliver full LCA results. The Embodied Carbon PathFinder displays fixed data that was pre-calculated in the Impact Estimator for three specific archetype buildings and the results are limited to one LCA measure, embodied carbon. Results are roughly applicable to any building other than the ones modeled, and the accuracy of the results will be dependent on how different the actual design is from the archetype.


What’s the difference between Embodied Carbon PathFinder and other embodied carbon tools?

Other tools may not be as comprehensive in scope and boundary and may rely on less consistent or less regionally appropriate background data. The Embodied Carbon PathFinder is built on results from the Athena Impact Estimator for Buildings. It includes high-quality regionalized life cycle inventory data in the background, with the full building core and shell included in the model scope, and with the full life cycle modeled. It has the unique ability to quickly modify the design variables and visualize results across multiple options. One trade-off is that it is less project-specific than some other tools since it does not do a live calculation on user-specified material types and quantities.


Is this tool applicable to other geographic regions?

The archetype buildings and the LCA results in the Embodied Carbon Pathfinder are specific to Vancouver, Canada and generally applicable to other areas of British Columbia. Results may be significantly different for other regions due to different transportation grids, building code requirements and electricity grid carbon intensity. More regions and building archetypes will be added as funding allows.


How were the archetypes determined?

Building archetype designs were developed after review of multiple building permit applications for similar buildings and based on Morrison Hershfield’s knowledge of the building industry in the region. The archetypes are fictional buildings intended to represent the actual building market.


How were the design variables determined?

The types of variables and the available iterations within each category were determined based on construction industry practice, feasibility and significance for embodied carbon.


Is every possible combination of variables possible in the tool?

No. To limit the size of the database and make the tool faster, some combinations of variables were disallowed. Disallowed combinations were limited to unlikely or impractical combinations in real world applications. For example, it is very unlikely that a design would call for a concrete floor supported on wood columns, so selecting this combination is not possible in the tool.


How were the results generated?

The Athena Impact Estimator for Buildings whole-building life cycle assessment software tool was used to generate results. For each archetype, most combinations of variables were modeled in the software, generating hundreds of thousands of building designs and results. Impact Estimator results were slightly adjusted where workarounds were needed due to gaps in the background data.


What building components are included and excluded in the results?

The LCA model for each archetype includes the complete building structure above and below grade, the building envelope above and below grade, and all glazing systems. The gypsum board on the inside of exterior walls is included. Parking garages are included. Excluded are ceiling or floor coverings, finish materials, paint, interior walls, mechanical and electrical systems, and site components.


What life cycle stages are included?

The system boundary for the LCA models is based on the full cradle to grave impacts, including material extraction, manufacture, transportation, construction, use and end of life stages. It excludes operational energy and water (in other words, the A1-A5, B1 to B4, and C1 to C4 life cycle stages).


How accurate are these results?

The data used was developed with Athena’s Impact Estimator tool, so the results are as accurate as the Impact Estimator allows and only as applied to the building archetype. The difference between an actual design and the building archetype would normally represent the largest error. However, it is important to note that there is uncertainty in all whole-building LCA results due to data gaps, methodology issues, and the inherent uncertainty because of the multiple assumptions that must be made for cradle-to-grave LCA. All whole-building LCA results should be viewed as an approximation.


What are the limitations of this tool?

This tool does not provide live LCA – it uses pre-calculated results. These results are specific to the archetypes and geographic region that were modeled and therefore would represent only an approximation for a different building or different location. More accurate results for a particular design project require the use of whole-building LCA software like the Impact Estimator.


What is LCA and how is it different from Embodied Carbon?

Life cycle assessment looks at the upstream and downstream burdens throughout the entire building life cycle, with a focus on embodied environmental impacts. LCA provides a quantitative basis for environmentally improved designs, removing the guesswork, unintentional greenwashing and burden shifting (when improvement in one life phase merely creates more burden in another phase). LCA for buildings measures all of the flows between a building and nature over its lifetime and then estimates the resulting impacts on air, land and water. LCA results are delivered across a spectrum of possible environmental impacts, including:

  • Fossil fuel depletion
  • Other non-renewable resource use
  • Water use
  • Global warming potential
  • Stratospheric ozone depletion
  • Ground level ozone (smog) creation
  • Neutrification/eutrophication of water bodies
  • Acidification and acid deposition (dry and wet)
  • Toxic releases to air, water and land

“Embodied carbon” is a shorthand way to refer to the lifetime greenhouse gas emissions of a building except for those resulting from building operation. Most embodied emissions are upstream of building occupancy – they are primarily related to the manufacturing of materials. Embodied carbon is simply the global warming potential (GWP) result from a whole-building LCA study.

Watch for our live demonstration with Mark Lucuik on our on-demand webinar library.

Watch the webinar

Morrison Hershfield is a market leading, employee-owned engineering firm that has been making a difference for more than 75 years. Our exceptional technical experts, thought leaders and high-performing employees deliver innovative, cost effective and technically sophisticated infrastructure solutions across the globe. Our highly focused approach to the clients and markets we serve ensures that we deliver the value our clients demand.

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