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Design of low-carbon buildings supported with a transparent emissions database: “Emissions from construction can be reduced by a million tonnes annually”

The new emissions database of the Ministry of the Environment of Finland and the Finnish Environment Institute provides everyone with open data for calculating the carbon footprint and handprint of construction projects. One of the challenges was to have the database include sufficiently accurate information about the emissions from building service systems, which play a significant role in terms of material emissions in construction projects.

The Ministry of the Environment of Finland and the Finnish Environment Institute (SYKE) launched their CO2data.fi online service in March 2021. Open for all and provided free of charge, the emissions database contains information about the environmental impacts of construction products and processes used in Finland. The requirements of the Ministry of the Environment’s low-carbon construction assessment method will be updated in the coming years, whereby low carbon emissions will be a prerequisite for obtaining a building permit. Indeed, there is demand for the emissions database.

“One third of greenhouse gas emissions are generated by the built environment, so if these emissions are regulated, we will be able to reduce the emissions from construction as much as those from traffic and agriculture, approximately a million tonnes annually,” says Senior Advisor Matti Kuittinen from the Ministry of the Environment of Finland.

Until now, there had only been commercial emissions databases available in Finland, and the materials of those databases are not always open. Even the construction products included in them do not correspond exactly with those used in Finland. As such, Kuittinen considers transparency to be the greatest advantage of the new database. Another special characteristic is carbon handprint information. “It brings a positive tone to the assessment of environmental impacts. The climate benefits of materials are taken into consideration, such as carbon stored in the product or the recycling value of the metal parts of the building service system.”

Building service system information models completed late for carbon footprint calculation

Kuittinen says that construction operators have begun to realise that the building service system plays quite a major role in material emissions. “The biggest reason is that the system is overhauled several times during the service life of the building, and many products are made from emission-intensive materials.”

Last autumn, Sweco conducted a building service system emission value survey for the Ministry of the Environment. “We studied at which stages of a construction project the information models of different fields of design yield quantity information,” says sustainable construction specialist Tuomas Suur-Uski from Sweco.

The challenge is that in the building permit phase the architectural design has already come far, but the HVAC and electrical plans have not yet been modelled. Consequently, carbon emissions from the building service system have to be calculated based on tabulated quantity information. “That is why we investigated what kinds of values could be used for the building service system on different sites,” says energy expert Niina Laasonen from Sweco. The comparison featured sites such as apartment buildings, offices and business premises.

Business premises’ building service system emissions multifold compared to those of residential buildings

The survey indicated that the building service system emissions of residential buildings are clearly lower than those of offices and shopping centres. “The reason is that housing companies tend to carry out renovations only when the system is reaching the end of its service life. Conversely, the building service systems of business premises are always modified when the premises are changed and when the lessee changes,” Suur-Uski says. A long-lasting and adaptable building service system would reduce the need for overhauls and the emissions of business premises in particular.

Additionally, the overall picture must be taken into consideration when making emission calculations. Every choice has consequences, and few things are simply good or bad. “For example, the carbon footprint of manufacturing solar panels that produce renewable energy varies drastically between 70 and 200 kilograms per square metre,” Kuittinen says. Building service systems do not only produce emissions, either. “They also ensure the energy efficiency, safety and indoor conditions of the building.”

The new emissions database now also includes emissions from the manufacturing and installation phase of the building service system, as well as its use. Thus, the database makes management with information and decision-making easier in construction projects. “Next, the selection of low-emission materials, processes and technology will be up to designers and constructors,” Laasonen concludes.

 

Read more about the emissions database maintained by the Finnish Environment Institute (SYKE) and examine its graphical summaries of the research results!