Press Release

SOM Launches Whole Life Carbon Accounting: A New Service to Accelerate Low-Carbon Building Design and Development

SOM Whole Life Carbon Accounting.

Whole Life Carbon Accounting is a system for evaluating and measuring operational and embodied carbon emissions for the entire life cycle of a building. When implemented during the design stage, it provides a precise picture of a proposed building’s carbon impact, allowing investors, property owners and developers to make informed decisions when it matters the most. By continuing to assess a building’s performance post-completion, SOM’s service enables building owners to monitor and meet their long-term sustainability targets.

“The greatest opportunity to work towards a more sustainable future is to invest in new climate action measures,” said Kent Jackson, SOM Design Partner. “We are proud to extend our long and proven history of working with public bodies, property owners and developers to help lead the way for a low-carbon built environment. We look forward to bringing our skills and expertise to bear on the critical issue of a reduced carbon future.”

Mina Hasman, SOM Sustainability Director, said, “The built environment urgently needs new approaches to performing carbon assessments. Innovation is driven by a diversity of ideas and voices. Evidence shows that as a project develops and design strategies evolve, the gaps between traditional assessments and a building’s true performance can lead to a performance gap of up to five times more energy use and/or carbon emissions between predicted and actual values. Our service puts an end to this. As regulators and investors evaluate new and existing assets more closely, we provide clients with practical strategies to help inform their investment, development and management activities.”

The built environment is responsible for nearly 40 percent of carbon emissions globally. While the industry has for decades focused on reducing operational energy and related carbon emissions, whole life carbon has now become a crucial consideration in the way buildings are designed, constructed and renovated. Unlike operational energy and associated carbon emissions (which can be improved to a certain extent once a building is in use), embodied carbon emissions — that is, the carbon impact associated with a building’s initial construction — cannot be rectified later.

Applying SOM’s interdisciplinary approach, the firm’s sustainability team — experts in operational energy, embodied carbon, circular economy, regenerative design, and structural efficiency — analyze and measure operational and embodied carbon emissions across every stage of a project. This holistic approach means that clients are afforded an understanding of a building’s true carbon impact and the ability to translate carbon targets into measurable performance outcomes. 

Typically, carbon assessments are performed at the end of design stages and often by different parties and to different standards, resulting in isolated calculations which are not comparable and cannot effectively illustrate a building’s accurate performance. As projects develop and designs evolve, the gaps between the projected performance of a design and actual building performance widen, meaning that those calculations can constitute as little as twenty percent of actual carbon emissions. In the long term, this can affect a building’s value and future viability.

SOM's Whole Life Carbon Accounting has resulted in the internationally acclaimed Billie Jean King Main Library.
SOM's Whole Life Carbon Accounting helped to realize the internationally acclaimed Billie Jean King Main Library in California.

SOM’s approach to whole life carbon has resulted in internationally-acclaimed projects like the LEED Platinum Billie Jean King Main Library, completed in California in 2019. Winner of the Metropolis Magazine Planet Positive award and named the 2021 Project of the Year by the U.S. Green Building Council, the building is one of the few in the region which utilizes a lightweight timber structural system to build the library atop an existing underground concrete parking garage. 

By saving most of the existing concrete structure, SOM was able to reduce embodied carbon by 61 percent relative to a conventional concrete building in addition to reducing operational energy use and associated carbon emissions through sustainable design decisions. 

SOM’s Whole Life Carbon Accounting is now available as a service to evaluate any project, even those designed by other firms. It can be applied to different typologies and scales of projects, from a single building to an entire portfolio of assets. The service complements the range of expertise that SOM offers its clients, including sustainable engineering, adaptive reuse, and structural and civil engineering, among others.