Integrating Embodied Carbon Within Traditional Construction

March 29th marked the 1-year anniversary of Webcor’s partnership with the Carbon Leadership Forum.

May 26, 2020


Construction practices have historically omitted carbon from the conversation. With its deep roots centered in ‘the way things have always been done,’ Webcor found itself seeking to bring a major discussion point to the table about a practice historically resistant to change. But Innovation stands as one of Webcor’s core values and the Sustainability department saw an opportunity to drive the construction conversation toward tackling these changes head-on.

March 29th marked the 1-year anniversary of Webcor’s partnership with the Carbon Leadership Forum in support of the development and inclusion of the Embodied Carbon in Construction Calculator (“EC3”) into our core business operations. Over the past 12 months, we have learned a tremendous amount about the theories, realities, and potential of embodied carbon impact in our industry.

After laying the groundwork and working with the EC3 software developers at C Change Labs for nearly eight months, we felt confident in sharing our insights and perspectives when the product went live to the public at USGBC’s Greenbuild International Conference last November. We developed an internal team of embodied carbon specialists composed of members of our self-perform Concrete and Drywall teams, Estimating Department, executive sponsors, Innovation Vice President, and the Sustainability Department. Our team started reflecting on how we could integrate EC3 into our business practices. What new norms could we directly influence as a general contractor? What were local jurisdictions doing that we could build upon? We identified the gaps in carbon accounting within the subcontractor community and the potential of the embodied carbon reduction impact, then aimed to align those two deliverables.

These reflections led us to develop our Corporate Carbon Commitment (see image below).

Making Commitments a Reality

Since November, Webcor had made significant strides in enhancing our construction and procurements processes to be more “carbon-conscious.” Through an initial review of our construction workflow, we pinpointed key stages where it made sense to integrate carbon into the conversation and leverage our procurement approach accordingly. These points of inflection included specification design, solicitation of bids, buyout of subcontractors and procurement of materials.

We identified that our most influential opportunity within the current workflow to reduce embodied carbon was the bid buyout process, so we investigated how to make a monumental and never-before-seen change.

We had three goals:

1.    Teach our trade subcontractors about the significance of embodied carbon and prioritize it in our bid evaluation process. This would give more transparency to those who didn’t know what the three-letter acronym EPD (Environmental Product Declaration) meant.

2.    Collect accurate data that could be easily transcribed into EC3 for final evaluation.

3.    Push the manufacturing industry toward more disclosure in their product portfolios.

Through collaboration with subcontractors and manufacturers within their respective industries, our team developed EPD request forms for embodied carbon’s biggest hitters: carpet, ceiling tile, concrete, rebar, drywall/framing, insulation, enclosure/glazing, structural steel/metal stairs, and timber.

We leveraged the relationships we had developed through our self-perform teams to hold direct conversations with our material suppliers, gauging the state of the industry for their material types and discussing opportunities to collaborate with material disclosure and carbon reduction strategies. We also worked with our self-perform teams to bring them up to speed with our goals, educating them on key considerations they should be making during their bid reviews, and highlighting key talking points for them to share with their respective vendors to encourage EPDs within their respective product portfolios.

Measurable Impacts

We have already seen measurable impacts from this integration effort. For example, we prioritized early coordination between the ready-mix supplier (National), the structural engineering (MKA), and our self-perform concrete division (Webcor Concrete) for our Los Angeles project 960 West 7th Street to look at embodied carbon reduction opportunities within the structure. Two aggregates were assessed at time of material procurement: a local, weaker performing aggregate, which required more cement in the concrete mix and therefore carried a higher embodied carbon value, or the Orca aggregate with superior performance, which needed to be shipped from British Columbia but resulted in higher concrete strengths and a lower cement requirement. By taking the opportunity and time to evaluate these design considerations within EC3, the team was able to see the full picture and use embodied carbon as a metric for decision making. Although the Canadian aggregate was travelling farther, the overall concrete mix carried lower overall embodied carbon because it used less cement. The team ultimately selected the Orca aggregate from British Columbia, saving the project a total of 11.8 million total kgCO2e: equivalent to 15,410 acres of annual forest carbon sequestration or GHG emissions avoided by 573 garbage trucks of waste recycled instead of landfilled.

It has been illuminating to see what we have been able to accomplish thus far in our embodied carbon conversations. Truthfully, however, we are most excited about what lies ahead for the projects with which we are actively integrating our new bid and buyout evaluation process. This process will ultimately become our new norm, but we are also seeing validation from developers and end-use owners who see the value in prioritizing embodied carbon evaluations in conjunction with our typical pricing and scheduling exercises. In addition, we’re already seeing the impact EC3 is having on our conversations with material suppliers, who are more receptive than ever to developing new EPDs and engaging with us on the goal of reducing embodied carbon in material production. The construction industry has the opportunity to move the needle and drive significant change to our global footprint. Webcor is excited to be at the forefront of this new trajectory.

About Webcor

Webcor is a premier provider of commercial construction services, known for its innovative and efficient approach, wide range of experience, cost-effective design-build methodology, skill in concrete construction, and expertise in building landmark projects. Webcor’s mission is to build structures of superior quality with integrity, continuously improve its processes by employing the best talent in the industry, and add social and economic value to its communities. Founded in 1971 and repeatedly honored as one of the Greenest Builders in California, Healthiest Employers, Top Corporate Philanthropists, Best Places to Work and Largest California Construction Firms, Webcor has offices in San Francisco, Alameda, San Jose, and Los Angeles. More information is available on the Webcor website and on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.