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Sustainability: "LCA analysis enables identification of best choices to reduce embedded carbon emissions"

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Andrea Botti, Head of Sustainability at Open Project, draws a cross-section of sustainability in design: from the weight of LCA in design choices, through the role of CAM, seen as a good starting point but not a design goal, to the role of certification protocols.

Andrea Botti | Andrea Dari

Every project must be an opportunity to develop sustainable design solutions

Andrea Dari:

What weight does sustainability have today in the choices of those who have to develop a project, beyond the elements of the tender specifications?

Andrea Botti:

Having dedicated my professional life to the cause of sustainability, I am biased: in fact, I believe that sustainability should inform many of the architectural, structural, and plant design choices at any design scale. Every project should, in my view, be an opportunity to identify and develop design solutions to reduce potentially negative environmental or social impacts and improve occupant comfort and well-being, ultimately going so far as to trigger regenerative effects.
I would go further and go so far as to say that if Marcus Vitruvius Pollonius were to find himself writing the treatise "De Architectura" today, along with the categories of firmitas, utilitas and venustas, perhaps he would place emphasis on the need for every good building to sustinere, that is, to protect, conserve (natural resources), foster (well-being), and take care (of its occupants).

Andrea Dari:

What kind of organization does Open Project have in order to be able to turn a sustainable choice into sustainable results?

Andrea Botti:

For many years, Open Project has been designing following the dictates posed by sustainable design protocols, standards and best practices. In 2022, Maurizio Piolanti and Francesco Conserva, president and vice-president of Open Project respectively, aware of the need to integrate sustainability to the fullest extent in the design approach - at any stage - and construction management, decided to devote dedicated resources to the purpose and establish Open Project Sustainability Hub.

Thanks to the joining of Annamaria Draghetti (Head of Design Strategy & ESG ) and the undersigned (Head of Sustainability), the operational collaboration of young resources such as Remo Fabrizi and Simone Marino (both BIM & Sustainability Specialists), and with the valuable collaboration of Federica Flor (Research & Project Lead) and Marco Capelli (Senior Façade Engineer, LEED AP and historical reference of the firm with respect to sustainability issues), the Applied Research Hub counts six highly qualified professionals. This allowed us to introduce into the study workflow on the one hand the definition of strategic sustainability goals in the preliminary design phases, and on the other hand the technical expertise to be able to inform in quantitative terms the design choices in terms of indoor thermal and visual comfort, microclimatic comfort levels, energy efficiency, and building lifecycle emissions.

For more information, I refer to the dedicated page within our website, recently redesigned.

Andrea Dari:

In the context of design processes what weight does LCA have in design choices? At what stages of the process is it implemented?

Andrea Botti:

This is a topic of fundamental importance to Open Project and myself, so I will not be able to be brief!

In recent decades, the focus of the industry has been on reducing climate-changing emissions related to energy consumption associated with the operational phase of buildings (so-called "operational carbon"). However, on the one hand, the strong improvement in energy efficiency enabled by technological progress and imposed by EU and national policies, and on the other hand, the progressive decarbonization of the national power grid, have made it possible to significantly reduce operational carbon emissions.

We are therefore at a historical moment when, within a roadmap toward the progressive and complete decarbonization of the construction industry by no later than 2050, the need has emerged to quantify and minimize emissions associated with the production, transportation, assembly/laying of construction materials (initial embodied carbon or "upfront embodied carbon") and those associated with maintenance cycles, replacement throughout the life cycle (life-cycle embodied carbon or "life-cycle embodied carbon").

Incorporating LCA analysis early in the design process helps to identify opportunities to reduce embodied carbon emissions by enabling designers to make informed decisions about construction techniques, choice of materials, and suppliers that adopt manufacturing and recycling processes under the banner of end-of-life circularity and carbon footprint minimization.

One only has to look at what is happening in Northern Europe to identify what importance is being accorded to quantifying and minimizing embodied carbon: for example, in Denmark where from 2023 it is mandatory to carry out an LCA analysis on all new buildings, in France where RE2020 requires (from 2021) the calculation of embodied carbon and whole-of-life emissions for all new buildings, demonstrating the achievement of certain targets that will be reduced every two years, or again the case of London, where all large projects (housing developments of 150 or more residential units or buildings taller than 30 m) must present an assessment of whole-of-life emissions and indicate mitigation measures.

At Open Project we have set ourselves the goal of performing LCA analyses on all our projects starting in 2022, and this has allowed us to develop skills that are strategic and, dare I say it, still quite rare in the Italian professional landscape. One of the activities we are currently doing at this is the construction of a database of materials and technical solutions devoted to circularity, which will therefore allow us to minimize CO2 impact.

Andrea Dari:

In Italy, the issue of sustainability in public procurement is regulated through the Minimum Environmental Criteria. The decree aims to make sustainability a design element through some mandatory elements and some rewards. Is this a useful tool for designers?

Andrea Botti:

CAM is a useful tool when there are no additional regulatory requirements related to environmental sustainability. However, in our professional experience, whenever we have achieved good results in terms of environmental sustainability in our projects, we have done so by adhering to environmental certification protocols such as LEED or WELL, responding to challenging design briefs posed by our clients, and proposing building regeneration strategies.
In other words, CAM is a good starting point, but precisely because they are Minimum Criteria, they cannot and should not be considered as a design goal.

Andrea Dari:

The change in the Contract Code will lead to an inevitable update of the decree. What elements should be considered to make it more useful?

Andrea Botti:

I think some new elements introduced in CAM 2022, borrowed from environmental standards or protocols such as Casaclima or LEED, for example, go in a positive direction. I am referring to the LCA approach - for now limited to the "Awarding Criteria for the awarding of design services," but which we hope will be part of the "Technical Design Specifications for Buildings."

Another very important issue, which has made its appearance in CAM 2022, is that of airtightness of buildings: air permeability is an aspect that has a significant impact on energy consumption (and on the quality/durability of buildings on which, however, I will not dwell), and which energy analyses carried out at the design stage (exL10 and compliance with Minimum Requirements Decree of 26/06/2015) often do not consider.

Discrepancies between design assumptions and estimates and actual building performance, known in the Anglo-Saxon world as "performance gaps," are problematic in terms of both energy (and therefore also cost) and emissions: intercepting them requires, on the one hand, having designers who are competent and trained in this regard, and, on the other hand, principals who place attention on the impact of energy consumption and operating expenses within the economic evaluations that under- stand their investments. It is no coincidence that this aspect has been incorporated by the EU Taxonomy as a technical screening criterion within the climate change mitigation principle.

Andrea Dari:

The sector in recent years has been equipped with many tools aimed at being able to support, measure, certify the sustainability of processes and works, from buildings to infrastructure: EPDs, ESGs, standards, protocols, certification schemes. What is really useful and would need to be strengthened and enhanced for those designing in our country today?

Andrea Botti:

The certification protocols that exist are certainly useful and have diversified and articulated over the years to cover a wide range of environmental sustainability issues, from efficient use of resources (energy, water etc.), reduction of waste, maximization of thermal, visual and psychological well-being, and more. I believe these should not be superseded but rather enhanced.
I have had the good fortune to be able to practice in the UK, where awareness of the responsibility of the construction sector in the context of the energy and ecological transition is decidedly more mature. Such a context has allowed, the proliferation of virtuous initiatives such as the formation of the London Energy Transition Initiative (LETI): a collaborative network of professionals and organizations in the built environment sector, which was voluntarily born 5 years ago from the bottom up with the aim of promoting and supporting the transition to a climate-neutral future, and which today represents perhaps the most important reference for 'low carbon' design in the UK context.
I'd like to think that similar initiatives could establish themselves in Italy as well, indeed I take advantage of this interview to make an appeal to colleagues: let's join together to promote this transition!

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