Chris Magwood is once again our guest on the podcast.
Today we are discussing calculating materials carbon emissions, which might also be called up front carbon or embodied carbon. Chris and his team at buildersforclimateaction.org have created the BEAM calculator to do just that.
We discuss the calculator, what it can do and what its limitations are. Whether it's ok to offset biogenic carbon against higher carbon emitting materials? Some excellent reports into current house construction in Canada and how they can be improved, new and exciting materials coming onto the market and Chris' new book - Build Beyond Zero.
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Jeffrey Hart 0:00
Welcome to building sustainability podcast with me your host Jeffrey Hart, aka Jeffrey, the natural builder every fortnight. Join me as I talk to designers, builders, makers, dreamers and doers, exploring the wide world of sustainability in the built environment by talking to wonderful people who are doing excellent things. Hello, and welcome to episode 82 of the building sustainability podcast. This episode was recorded at the beginning of July and features Chris Magwood as our guest. In this episode, we are predominantly talking about the beam calculator. But I think the larger topic is calculating material carbon, or what you might call embodied carbon, or upfront carbon. So within that, we talk about how it's calculated how to use the beam calculated tool, there is a link to the beam calculator in the show notes. There is also talk about whether it's okay to offset stored carbon against high embodied carbon materials. And then we look into some real life cases where Chris and his team have looked at all the new houses built in particular areas, Nelson in British Columbia, and Toronto, and now Vancouver as well. And they've actually accounted all of the material carbon, and then made suggestions on how it can be be improved. And there are really, really interesting results from that, as you will hear. We also talk a little bit about Chris's new book, build beyond zero. That's with him and Bruce King. Again, link to that is in the show notes. Yeah, it's a great episode, I can't wait for you to hear it. So a couple of things to say, before we get going. There was a little bit of recording difficulty. Normally I get two lovely sides of the conversation. So if I have a little drink while Chris is talking, I can just remove that side of the conversation. Something went wrong beyond my control. And that didn't happen. So I had to edit it from a lesser quality recording. So apologies if you hear me gulping or stirring some tea.
What else to say you are quite possibly going to hear an advert in the middle of the recording. It is a new thing. I am trying to see if it's worth it if it's really detrimental to your listening pleasures. Yeah, we'll see. Let me know what else to say, oh, yeah, I do a stupid, and I thought I'd leave it in. So it's useful for everyone else is I've been using the beam calculator to look at my house. And there was something that I thought I thought there was a strange result. And and Chris, very kindly told me that I just wasn't doing it right. So listen, after that. I think I that happens just after I've said it's very easy to use classic foot in mouth behaviour from Jeffrey Hart. Just quickly before we get into the episode, I want to say a huge thank you to Rebecca Armstrong, and Martin Brown, who are new patrons. They have signed up to help support the podcast and keep it going. I can't really overemphasise how thankful I am for that. It really does help. If you also would like to become a patron, you can go to patreon.com forward slash building sustainability. There is a link in the show notes. Much appreciated if you can. Okay, that's it, I am back at the end. Enjoy the episode.
Chris Magwood 3:49
BEAM calculator started as the, the tool that I built for myself for the master's thesis I did a few years ago, where I was trying to, you know, get a sense of what the material related emissions were for residential scale buildings, which kind of hadn't. Most of the work that I'd seen at that point was really focused on large buildings. And I was interested in residential buildings and in particular, residential buildings with bio based materials in them. And so I had started that thesis by assuming that I would use a tool that already existed, but as I kind of experimented with all of them, they they all had some version of an issue with either being having all the right materials and assemblies for Residential scale, you know, low rise structures, or not being based the data not being all based on environmental product declarations, but kind of being a mix of, of data sources. And all of them had issues with how they kind of you figured out the carbon storage side of things and attributed that. And so,
yes, step one of that project ended up being building out a tool for myself to use for that project. And then once I did that, and started, you know, publishing some of the results,
I both got inquiries from people, like, what tool did you use to do that with? And can we use it and, and then sort of realised, oh, yeah, I've kind of made something that that doesn't exist, and other people are interested in that. So
it took a couple years to kind of build it from the the sort of unique version that I had made for myself into something that, that that was generally usable. So yeah, now that it's, we released the, the kind of public beta version, we call it in May, and we've got over 600 users signed up now and getting used to it. And so yeah, it's, it's an attempt to try to make doing, you know, understanding the the emissions that come from your building materials as simple as possible. And as comparative as possible, and that I think the comparative part, is what makes the tool really interesting, because, you know, it's kind of, well, I built the tool as a builder. So it very much follows the process of building, you know, you kind of build a model from the ground up, you build it Assembly by Assembly, and, you know, the all the materials that you might use for a certain piece of an assembly are, are all listed right beside each other. And so you can kind of immediately compare, you know, if you're on the roofing tab, you know, you've got how much square footage of roofing you have is already in the tool. And so you're seeing all your roofing options and their carbon footprint, all side by side, and then you sort of make your selections to make your model but you, you get to see, you know, the the climate impact of all the materials, you know, really great, comparative way. And I think that's the feedback we've been getting is that's what's really helpful people getting that aha moment of Whoa, look at the difference between this and that. I never thought of that before. Whereas you know, lots of the other tools, you kind of, you build a model, and you get an answer at the end, and you kind of you see the carbon footprint of them, Joe, you've just selected, but you don't know what the ones, the other ones you might have chosen are and so you kind of have to keep iterating by going back and forth. And I just I really wanted it all in front of people. So it Yeah, I think it's been helping, we've been getting, you know, lots of people sending us models back. And we've actually seen some people starting to send us models of buildings that are sort of, you know, at or close to net zero emissions from their materials. So yeah, it's really it's exciting.
Jeffrey Hart 8:24
Nice. I definitely agree. I was playing with it last week. And just yeah, the ability to switch on and off, you know, maybe I'm using wood fibre, maybe I'm using cellulose flicking between the two and sort of seeing well, obviously, I want to use this one. Yeah. It really is a sort of a sort of shopping list. Really, you know, this is, this is what you could have. Yeah, I really liked that. We'd say Did you have anyone that it was sort of aimed at? Were you specifically making it for for designers or builders, or
Chris Magwood 9:02
I guess, both designers, builders. In Canada, there's sort of a third profession of energy advisors. So in a lot of cases, now you have to kind of send an energy model in to get your building permit in a lot of provinces. And so you already have people who are kind of making a model of the building, they kind of have all the inputs that you would put into beam already done in order to make this energy model. And so, you know, they they're sort of a third logical user, because quite often, that's who either the builder or the designer is turning to to say, what's the sort of energy use slash carbon footprint of this building on the operation side? And so you know, that's a, an audience that's kind of already thinking, climate and, you know, how does this building perform that way? And so, a lot of the users are our energy advisors,
Jeffrey Hart 9:59
and then And so you were talking about operational carbon there, this tool is, is just material carbon.
Chris Magwood 10:07
That's right. Yeah. Yeah. Okay. Yeah. But we very much see, you know, that you would want to put those two things together, like you kind of want to have both of those results. And, you know, stand them side by side. And that's why it's been, the tool has been really interesting for energy advisors, because they can kind of make a model in whatever software they're using, whether it's passive house or you know, hot 2000, or ResNet, or whatever it is. And then they make this beam model, and then you start to kind of see, what are the what are the maybe trade offs? Or like, where do you get Win Win scenarios where the things not actually paid back, like, you know, making a, an incremental performance difference on the energy side at the cost of a huge amount of material carbon? When you see those things beside each other, you're like, Oh, that's not the best way to, you know, to sort of manage the kind of carbon budget for this building. And so I think that's, so ideally, we will connect beam so that it can interface directly with some of those energy modelling software's I feel like that's kind of our next step. But now, it's kind of a parallel tool that that is quite often getting used alongside whatever the energy modelling tool is.
Jeffrey Hart 11:23
And then it's, I mean, it's really simple to use. I was, I was a little bit daunted when I first opened it, because, yeah, there's a lot to
Chris Magwood 11:31
there's a lot of stuff, but it's the it's pretty straightforward. Once you get the the logic of it.
Jeffrey Hart 11:38
Yes, yeah, absolutely. Oh, yeah. And it had to be
Chris Magwood 11:41
because, you know, like, I, I'm not a software person. And I very much wanted to the the early versions were designed for me, who knows nothing about spreadsheets or software to be able to use easily, I think that kind of made made its way through to the final version that, that it needed to be pretty simple to approach.
Jeffrey Hart 12:06
Yeah. And you've, you've gone an interesting route in terms of funding for this sort of payment, I guess.
Chris Magwood 12:15
Yeah. Yeah, we I mean, we, we just decided to make it you know, not put it behind a paywall. A lot of people to access it for free, and then kind of ask people to, you know, support us, and it's sort of ongoing development voluntarily, which has maybe not worked quite as well, as we thought there hasn't been quite their response. I mean, there have been some people have been really generous. And that's been great. But we'll sort of have to see if that if that model continues, because we, you know, we really do want to keep developing the tool, I think this is very much a an early version, and we have a big list of things that we we want to do to sort of grow it and improve it. So we'll have to see if that kind of voluntary support. If that doesn't pan out, then we may have to look at other ways of funding it.
Jeffrey Hart 13:12
Sure. Yeah. And what I mean, what are some of those future developments that you'd like to add in?
Chris Magwood 13:20
Well, I think first would be connecting, having it connect easily to other software programmes. So whether that's design related software or energy modelling software, you know, right now, you kind of have to a user beam has to input all the dimensions of the building, and then select all the materials. And quite often, you've already done that somewhere else. And so you know, that a great first step would be to, you know, have it that you could export from, from other software programmes and have a lot of that information populate right into being more materials, or even a more sort of user friendly interface. We kind of based it on Google Sheets, because it was a, you know, an affordable answer practical medium between like just having an Excel sheet on your desktop and, and like a full, you know, developed software. But there are definitely some limitations to, you know, like you said, when you open it up, you're sort of overwhelmed because the foundation's tab has, you know, like 500 materials listed and you have to do a lot of scrolling, even just simple things like having those menus be able to collapse so that you can kind of see all the top level stuff right away and only open the ones that make sense to you. And so just some really practical user friendly things like that.
Jeffrey Hart 14:51
Is a is the tool location specific. You're obviously based in Canada, are the the emissions going to be so similar for me, in the UK,
Chris Magwood 15:02
in general, not too far off. I mean, we did, we really did concentrate on on EPDs from North America. And in cases like we will use sort of UK or European products, either where that's what actually gets used in North America. So for example, wood fibre products, nobody's really making that in North America. So they are being imported. Lots of triple pane windows used in North America are coming from Europe, so or sometimes we sort of default to a European value if there is a similar product in North America, but nobody's made EPDs for the North American version. In general, it actually seems like the European values tend to be a little bit lower. I think maybe because grids are cleaner in North America, or sorry, in Europe, then, especially often in manufacturing heavy states in the US, where there's still a lot of coal. So there are various some, some variation there. But in general, they're not bad proxies for one another. Definitely, you know, if you if you think about it in terms of scale and comparison, right, so if there's, you know, I tried to tell people this in terms of looking at the numbers, that the numbers, what you get from an EPD, and therefore, what you get from beam, like, you shouldn't think of it as like this accurate number, like if it says, you know, 12 kilogrammes of co2 E, it's probably not exactly 12. But if this product is 12, and this one is 25, like, this one is better than this one. It may be by 13 kilogrammes. It may be by 10. But you know, but it's, it's not, you know, it's not, it's more accurate on a sort of comparison basis than it is like to the exact number. Yeah,
Jeffrey Hart 17:13
Okay, gotcha. And then with those, those materials that are transported, say, Yeah, triple pane window, is the transportation emissions accounted for?
Chris Magwood 17:26
No, we're not doing that in beam and and that's something we really struggled with in terms of, should we or shouldn't we, and, you know, quite often there is that an assumption about that transportation emissions is built into the EPD. But when we really started to try to unpack that, and see whether that was a value that we, you know, should maybe be using that three case studies that we dug into, in depth to sort of explore that we all came back, that, that that that sort of assumption was actually very, very wrong. And we started thinking, Well, if you start giving people these numbers based on potentially very wrong assumptions, that can often be worse than just not giving the data. You know, like, I think, in general, people have a sense of, if I'm importing something from further away, there are more emissions, and they would sort of bake that maybe into their decisions. And I also think that there's a cost that have like a financial costs that happens that also limits, you know, people's ability and willingness to sort of like splurge on those emissions. But yeah, when we, when we sort of looked at the case studies, yeah, they were, they were remarkably off, like, by degrees of magnitude. Because, you know, the EPDs and any lifecycle assessments, what they do is say, Well, you know, here's a factory. So, if I've located, you know, said, my location is here, they kind of find the closest factory, they, they look at the distance between there, and they go, okay, so it's probably going to go by truck, and it's going this many kilometres. But when we actually traced how those materials moved, they don't go from the factory to my building site, they go from the factory, to some sort of warehouse clearing site, to then some retailers warehouse clearing site, then to the retailer, and then to me, and it's like, oh, that was five times further than then that assumption or the other way that those calculations get done is, you know, the, on the EPD the factory will say, Well, we we send it out. We send out this many trucks and they go this far, and that so the average distance is this, which is not really a helpful number. If you know you're either really close To the factory are really far from the factory and their trucks aren't the only trucks that carry that stuff like, there, they might be shipping it to, you know, a central warehouse for Home Depot or a place like that, that's then sending it to a something, then to another thing, and then to a store. So a very long winded way of saying, I think the transportation emissions are important, but I think the ability to reflect them in a in an easy number in a software was misleading, more often than it was accurate. And so, you know, we thought better to stick to the numbers that we have confidence in and that give people like a strong sense of this. And, you know, either later or somebody else or, you know, people in house using beam will will kind of figure that that other part out. The other interesting thing about the transportation emissions is they ended up in all of our case studies being relatively small compared to the to the product emissions, typically, five to 10% of the upfront emissions were transportation, which, again, like I don't want to ignore that, and say, it's not important, but but it's not as important. Or it doesn't appear to be at this point. So you know, yeah, like, I would I do and want to pay attention to that. And I think people should, but I feel like it, it's not maybe the top priority. And if you want to do it, you're gonna have to figure it out yourself. So that, you know, you're figuring it out properly to your to your site and conditions.
Jeffrey Hart 21:44
Yes, you have said that the the estimation that comes out of beam is going to be an under representation, because there's certain things you can't include in transportation. And so I guess I'm sort of asking you about the limitations of beam. Are they are there other kind of ones that people should be aware of?
Chris Magwood 22:09
Yeah, I think, I mean, there's, it's funny that because I developed beam, to be part of, you know, our sort of in house toolkit for, for looking at materials as broadly as possible, you know, and so to do that, had to do this deep dive into this particular thing, you know, embodied carbon and material emissions. But, but I think it's really important that, that we don't just focus on that one lens, like, it's, this gives us a really good piece of information. And then we want to put it alongside energy efficiency, we want to put it alongside material health and sort of, you know, indoor air quality and those sorts of things, we want to put it alongside what happens to this stuff at the end of its life, like, you know, the embodied carbon number is a really valuable number. But it's kind of not the only consideration. So it's not so much a limitation of beam, because beam is only saying one thing, and it says that one thing really well, but it is just one thing. And so, you know, one of the things that that beam does not do that I think people need to really be aware of is think about the lifespan of the materials in it. So, you know, here in North America, asphalt shingles are the most common roofing for small buildings, they also look really great and beam that the carbon footprint of them actually isn't that high. But what beams not telling you is Oh, you're gonna have to change those in 15 years or 20 years max, whereas maybe the metal roof, which if you just look at the beam numbers, like Oh, metal was way higher than these asphalt shingles, you know, the shingles must be better, you know, you have to know that, oh, over the lifespan of the building, I might never change the metal roofing, but I'm going to change the shingles three, four or five times. So actually, that number should be you know, three or four or five times higher. And, you know, so there are a few things like that by and large beam only models, long lasting materials in the building, like we don't, that's why we sort of didn't get into paints, and you know, surface finishes, and, you know, kitchen counters and things like that, that that do tend to get swapped out more frequently we do we sort of concentrated on on the materials that aren't going to change. But even within that there are things you know, roofing being one of them where the lifespan of the material matters, but it's not something that that beam is sort of telling you.
Jeffrey Hart 24:49
Yeah, it must have been incredibly difficult to decide what should go in and what shouldn't. Yeah, yeah, we weren't the most accurate best thing we can. Yeah. Yeah,
Chris Magwood 25:02
yeah. And, you know, it's it was one of my beefs with a lot of lifecycle assessment software. And to be honest, the lifecycle assessment process in general is that, you know, when, when you try to do this full lifecycle assessment, so, you know, our asphalt shingle example is a good one. And LCA would say, well, let's say the building's gonna last 60 years, you're gonna have to change those shingles three times. So the kind of like, final number for that building includes three shingle changes, but it also assumes that you're going to change that to shingles. And that shingles are going to have the same carbon footprint in 15 or 20 years, and then again, in 40, or 50 years. And so, you know, I think it's important that we think about how long materials last and what happens to them. But I also think it's wrongheaded to, to sort of like bake in this number that, like, what if the first person who changes their shingles puts a metal roof on, like, if you've given them this number that assumes X number of shingle changes, that's not accurate, either. What happens if in the next 10 years, somebody comes up with a great, cheap bio based roofing system that's carbon storing, and everybody switches to that light, you know, so they're, you know, in trying to address the climate, like today's emissions are critical. Lowering what comes out of factories and goes into the sky today is like number one priority, and even something as short lived as asphalt shingles, a lot can change in 15 years. And, you know, in the end, we decided we don't want to lock this. We don't want to sort of force people to be making decisions right now that based on our assumptions, you know, even even end of life scenarios and lifecycle assessment, you're predicting the emissions that are going to come from taking this building apart in 60 or 80 years. But 60 or 80 years ago, from today, there weren't even recycling programmes, you know. And so really, every assumption we're making about those emissions is probably wrong. And it's a funny thing of you don't want people to not think about those long term consequences. But as soon as you start saying, and here's the number that goes with that consequence. Like, it just feels like, wow, that's going to be completely inaccurate and indefensible. So yeah, I think so, you know, in in my work, and as we talked to people about being like, we want to make it clear that that tension exists. Like we're only telling you this thing, we think it's really important, because this is a lot of emissions that may happen now. All kinds of other things, you no matter, but but we're not going to try to give you a number for it, because we don't think we can, but we don't also want to downplay the importance. So it says yeah, yeah.
Jeffrey Hart 28:15
Yeah, I'm impressed with the, well, just how complex it is to, to do do the right thing, I guess, is the goal, isn't it? So So I, when I was modelling my house, my house is a little tiny house that sits on a 600 kilogramme trailer, metal trailer. So I was kind of thinking, I wonder if I've, yeah, everything else except that the metal roof and the membrane is is bio based. And so I was thinking, Yeah, I wonder if I've, I've done enough to offset the horrible metal. And I was quite surprised that things like wood, fibre insulation, and the cork, were scoring as zero in terms of emissions. And it seemed like they should either have a positive aura, or a storage number. I mean, maybe I just didn't get the the calculator,
Chris Magwood 29:11
right. Yes, I think you didn't, there shouldn't be a zero, jump anywhere. That the number one thing that that happens with people is, especially around insulation materials is you have to specify an R value and being before you'll get results, right. And so if you see zeros, it's because there's an additional factor. Sometimes it's like the thickness of the material. Or if it's for framing, like you have to specify framing spacing, or if it's insulation, you have to specify an R value, and then it'll populate because that's sort of the third piece of the equation that it needs to do that.
Jeffrey Hart 29:48
Okay, good. All right, more time needed. I suppose that leads nicely on to talking that that there is training available for these.
Chris Magwood 29:57
Yeah, yeah. Yeah. So we've been Doing a three part live online training session. So people can find the next dates on our website. And we're sort of working towards a sort of strictly online version of that, as well. So,
Jeffrey Hart 30:15
yes, well, it seems like I should, I should probably.
Chris Magwood 30:21
We also did the thing of making, you know, a 90 page user's guide that I think, as with all users guides, nobody ever uses, but it's, it is pretty extensive to
Jeffrey Hart 30:33
read the first few pages. Yeah. Well, that's good. I mean, that's exciting that I've got more more to play with. Yeah, as previous guests have been hesitant in allowing stored carbon to be used to offset having a big concrete block, and then filling it with with biogenic material could be used by less scrupulous developers to to essentially sort of fiddle the numbers. How do you feel about that?
Chris Magwood 31:06
I don't feel like it's fiddling the numbers. And I actually feel like it's a it's actually a reasonable strategy today, like, you know, the climate, the climate responds to the amount of greenhouse gases in it. And if you, you know, at the same time, as you emit a bunch to make the concrete for your building, if you have drawn the same amount, say out in your bio based materials, you you have, in effect, you know, made a Climate Neutral building. And so as a strategy, I think that's a very reasonable strategy, especially right now, when, you know, for smaller buildings, there are lots of options to get away from concrete in larger buildings, there really aren't. And, you know, lots of people are working on that, and hopefully, you know, better, more climate friendly versions of that material will will start to appear. But until then, you know, I think I think that strategy of using the high emitting materials where you absolutely need to, and using as many biobased materials as you can otherwise, is entirely reasonable. I mean, the unscrupulous person just wouldn't care and would just use all high emitting materials. So, you know, I don't I don't see it as unscrupulous I see it as a, you know, as a as an important strategy for for sort of managing our climate impacts right now.
Jeffrey Hart 32:41
And even sort of over specifying the buyer base materials, maybe when they're not necessary. With that, we do still count that as a as a positive. Yeah, I
Chris Magwood 32:51
mean, I think I think, you know, people have sort of given me those scenarios before, well, no, you could just make three foot thick, you know, straw walls, and it's like, well, that will cost you enough that you probably won't just arbitrarily, you know, over use those materials. I think, like, cost is a defining factor of any building. And I think there are real limitations to how much somebody would gain the numbers. But quite frankly, you know, if you had somebody building a carbon withdrawal machine out of the air, you wouldn't say, Oh, if you run that at twice the speed, you're cheating, like, Well, no, if we, if we need to get a whole bunch of carbon out of the atmosphere, and and stored somewhere, if it suits you to spend enough money to make three foot thick straw walls, great to let, you know, you can also stop driving your car around and you know, do lots of other things. But, but that's a strategy and it will work and that, that, you know, three foot thick wall will keep that amount of carbon out of the atmosphere for as long as those walls exist, and that that's a that's a valid value to the climate. So, you know, I think I think that that, given, given the sort of the bounds that those strategies have in terms of practicality and cost, I think any any legit strategy that somebody can afford, and will actually do is is a legit strategy.
Jeffrey Hart 34:27
Right. You've also noted that virgin forest products do not score that sort of sequestration number. What's What's the reasoning behind that?
Chris Magwood 34:46
That again, was just like a, you know, we tried to do a deep dive into into, like, what is carbon storage? And is it even valuable? You know, that was a question that needed to be answered first on all the biobased Some materials and what became really clear was that, you know, short cycle things that grow on really short cycles. And in particular, things that grow on short cycles where what you're using in the building is that is this sort of residue or byproduct or, you know, a sort of secondary result of that. So, you know, straw is a great example, you know, we grow two plus billion tonnes of grain straw globally, every year, we cut the little tiny seed head off the top of that to you know, to eat, and then the whole stock is leftover. So annually, all that grain straw draws down the emissions of India, that's there's 4 billion tonnes of co2 pulled out of the atmosphere every year, no land use change, like this is like it's already happening. Farmers are already planting it, they're fertilising it, they're harvesting it. And then they're either burning it off or letting it rot off the vast majority of it. And so we, we intentionally pull down India's emissions every year. And then just as intentionally let them go back to the atmosphere. And so when you're doing that, then that that carbon storage is meaningful that if we could keep half of that straw and put it in buildings, then we're offsetting half of India's emissions every year, that's, that's meaningful. What do you think about forests, it gets way more complicated, because the trees that were cutting down, if we didn't cut them down, would keep living keep getting bigger and keep drawing down carbon, you know that, if we didn't do anything with the straw, it dies at the end of the season, like it's, that's not going to draw any more co2 in the atmosphere, it's done. Whereas a tree is, you know, we're typically harvesting them mid lifespan, and they have a lot more co2, they could draw down. So there's that factor, when we cut down a tree, less than half of it typically makes it into a building material. You've got the, the, you know, the branches, the slash, like all the stuff that gets left in the forest, you've got the root mass that stays in the ground, and then you've got all the stuff that gets sawed off to turn it into square lumber. A lot of that gets burned to in the kilns to dry the wood. So, you know, say it's a 5050 balance half the tree makes it into your building and half the tree, the carbon went back to the atmosphere, there's no net carbon storage there, and you've lost an ongoing carbon sink. And we haven't calculated how much carbon came out of the soil when you did that logging operation and exposed all the ground to you know, the atmosphere again. So I think there's probably a way that that timber products can be harvested that is would be a value to the climate. There's nobody is looking broadly enough at it, like the lifecycle assessment for for forestry doesn't account for a lot of that stuff that I've just described. And, until it does, it, it doesn't seem like we should be saying that, you know, it does have carbon in it. Like that part's easy. I can say this two by four has this many carbon atoms in it like this, you know, this weight of carbon, but, but whether putting it in the building helped the climate, there's just not enough evidence to sort of prove that and, and I think, you know, seeing the way forestry is done, at least in North America, I'm pretty sure it's not, you know, it's it's not really it for for timber products to be carbon storing the forests, as as sort of carbon sinks themselves, have to continue to get bigger, like, you can't shrink the carbon sink of a forest and move some of that carbon into buildings and say we help the climate like all you did was move carbon atoms, if we can have forests continue to either maintain or ideally grow their carbon stocks while taking trees out. That's, you know, that could be meaningful carbon storage, but there's no lifecycle data to show that that's that is what's happening. So for now, we just leave it out of being
Jeffrey Hart 39:38
that's yeah, that makes total sense. Yes, I did notice that my calculations for my hardwood flooring where I was I thought is got to be a good thing. Really?
Chris Magwood 39:54
Yeah. And then so there's another kind of category materials that sort of fall somewhere in between those two right? Things like that. bamboo and cork where the, the cycle, it's not an annual crop, but it's shorter than the, you know, 30 to 50 years of timber. And the harvesting doesn't cause the same kind of carbon releases. Like, when you harvest bamboo, there really aren't any branches that you, you know, you kind of use the whole thing, the root stays in the ground, the root is what grows the next sheet of bamboo. And the cycle is shorter, sort of like eight to 10 years. So, you know, if you look at beam, the bamboo flooring, has carbon storage and the hardwood flooring doesn't. Yeah, yeah, you know, if you made your hardwood flooring by like, you know, a tree fell, you know, down behind your house and you milled it up and and turned it into hardwood flooring or you know, or you got it from a woodlot where somebody is managing and maintaining that woodlot and is continuing to kind of grow the forest while extracting some wood. I think you could attribute carbon storage to that. But that's those are very specific cases. Yeah, it's, yeah, it's not. Yeah.
Jeffrey Hart 41:14
All right. Well, mine might not be so bad. We've got ash ash die back over here. So all our ashtrays are yeah, I've got a fungus infection. And it all came from from trees that were were infected and going to be, you know, we're gonna come down. Because yeah, so maybe it's not so bad. Yeah.
Chris Magwood 41:33
So one of the things that we you can do in beam is we have our cert, that little percentage column. And we sort of when people ask about, you know, recycled materials, or in the case of the flooring you're describing, you can sort of you select the material, but if you call it 0%, you'll kind of like, make it carbon neutral. But it will still show up as a selection when you're kind of like, you know, reviewing the model at the end. It's not like leaving it out, like, well, what flooring did they use, there's no floor. But you know, so it'll show hardwood flooring, but it'll show like a zero impact. And, and I think for cases where where there are no real like, meaningful exemptions like that, or where where the sourcing is not conventional. And you could really say that that's a carbon neutral option, and then that you can sort of manipulate beam to do that.
Jeffrey Hart 42:37
I'm excited to have a major major geek out. So So you've used beam in in two big studies into Canadian housing, that I was always reading. John, tell us about about sort of what those studies were and how they came about?
Chris Magwood 42:59
Sure, yeah, yeah, we actually the first spin of beam was we did a study for the federal government here in Canada that they gave us sort of some model houses. And we, you know, we ran those through beam. And then the Toronto study, and the one for Nelson, British Columbia that you mentioned. And we actually just finished one for Vancouver as well. In those cases, we were we got sort of actual plan sets from from builders and developers in those regions and kind of ran those plan sets through beam. And, yeah, it's, you know, it's been really interesting to get real results from real homes. And
Jeffrey Hart 43:41
sort of, you know, these are just regular,
Chris Magwood 43:45
these are just Yeah, yeah, you know, that Toronto study, in particular, it was it was almost all sort of track developer kind of homes. And, yeah, I mean, what one of the interesting things is that the sort of the, the average emissions from the materials from those homes across all of those studies actually fell into a pretty narrow range. You know, Toronto and Vancouver, were only, like, a couple of kilogrammes of emissions off on their average. So, and that's, you know, very different climate zones, and, you know, styles of building and stuff like that. So, one of the outputs is just, oh look like they're actually kind of is an average here that we could use. Ideally, you know, what we're trying to do is get regulators to look at that and go, let's start, you know, first voluntarily incentivizing people to come in under that average, but eventually sort of regulate this, these emissions using this kind of data. But we also found, you know, houses that had as much as like, over 500 kilogrammes of emissions per square metre. We had one in the Nelson study that was 72 You know, which was a great result. And sort of like 190 C was, was the average for both Toronto and Vancouver. So I think that starts to give us a sense of, you know, especially for people who are now using being like, you get this number, but is this a good number? A good not good number? You know, am I better than average worse than average? So those studies start to help, you know, give us some perspective on that, like, where, where does business as usual kind of practice land right now? And? And then what? What kinds of things can we do to change that? And, you know, for each of those studies, we kind of took, as built models and did some materials swaps to see what what we could achieve. And, you know, in the Toronto study, a handful of material changes, sort of like five changes, could drop the carbon footprint by like, 50 to 75%. And so, you know, that, that gives us a sense that, you know, there's a bunch of low hanging fruit here. And again, for the people on the sort of policy and regulation side, the the sense that, you know, you could you could push this in a really great direction, and it's not onerous on the builders or developers to be able to do that. Yeah, I think that one of the really interesting things from the Toronto study was that there was one development company whose whose houses came in at 40%, less than the average. Just like, that's their business, as usual, they weren't trying to make a lower carbon house, they, they're competing in the same market as the other developers, they're, you know, their buildings are the same price. But just by sort of, in their case, the luck of, you know, the materials they've chosen, they come in that much lower. But, you know, to me, it's like, well, if, if Toronto's, you know, climate targets are 40% reductions by 2030. And there's already a development company that's 40%, less than the average is like, everybody then shouldn't be able to get to that 40% target by 2030. Like that's, you know, it doesn't it doesn't make it appear like this should be any kind of hurdle at all. And, and then the models that we made that shows it Yeah, the models that we, you know, we made that show like 50 to 75% reductions in you want to hit that by 2040, or 2050. Like, oh, like all of this seems it makes it seem very achievable, at least in terms of kind of, like moving the mainstream of the industry to levels like that. So yeah, I think those studies were to me, I mean, in some ways depressing, because, you know, in Toronto, it showed that just low rise, homebuilding is about a million metric tonnes of emissions a year, the the materials, so it's like, oh, this is a really big problem. But then at the same time, it's like, oh, and we can really start to mitigate that, you'll quickly and relatively easily. So that was kind of like bad news, good news study.
Jeffrey Hart 48:07
You talked a little bit about the materials you could swap out, and you have them listed in the reports as the best available and the best possible, what's the sort of distinction between those two?
Chris Magwood 48:19
Yeah, so we made the best available model to, to show substitutions to materials that, you know, a builder could reasonably have access to through existing channels. So the supply chain is there, that those materials are code compliant, and, you know, cost competitive, in some cases, they are a bit more in some cases, they're less, but like, you know, they're, they're kind of within the the range of a reasonable cost. So we wanted to make a model, like, if you wanted to switch your practice tomorrow, you could go to the store, and, you know, these aren't materials that would require your crews to learn anything new, or your supply chains to really change. It's sort of more like product switches. And then the best possible materials, it's kind of that sort of next generation where the materials maybe aren't there. And so, you know, for example, straw insulation was was one of the key ones. And, you know, I've been doing that here for 25 years. So lots of other people's not like it's not doable. So that was sort of our our rule with making that model was we had to be suggesting materials that already have been used in code approved buildings here, but like, you can't go to the Home Depot and get your straw bales or your chopped straw installation right now or your compressed straw board, wall panel, you know, material for interior walls. We know those materials exist, and people are using them and making them so they're possible, but they they're they're not accessible today. So we kind of made both of those And then there's kind of a progression, you know that the best available model is what got us those 50 to 75% reductions. And the best possible is what gets us into, you know, net zero emission material buildings or net carbon storing buildings. And so, you know, we wanted to kind of point to those as this is where we need to get to, but we can't jump right there tomorrow.
Jeffrey Hart 50:26
Yes. I guess following on from that, is there, is there a product that that's soon to be bridging that gap, or something you're excited about? You've seen sort of in development,
Chris Magwood 50:39
that I'm excited about so many things. Good. You know, the things that people are doing with mycelium composite materials is amazing. There's a company that's making a mostly the mycelium materials, I've seen it been sort of insulation, which is great. It's kind of like lightweight, soft material, that's got all kinds of great properties. But there's company that's, that's growing and mycelium composite that that is, you know, almost as strong as lumber that gets exciting to me that they're growing the equivalent of a two by four, using waste biomass, and like a three day growing period versus having to go to forests and you know, mow down the forest to make that to buy for that. So, to me, that is really exciting. A lot of the things that are going on with bio biologically based cements and concretes. So you've got bio Mason making micro grown bricks, you've got the living materials laboratory doing sort of algae based concrete, and also using algae to grow calcium carbonate to go, you know, to make concrete out of that kind of stuff is really exciting. And then I feel like, you know, there are some unsung heroes like straw where there are some great companies making prefab straw based, you know, extra walls, interior walls. And to me, it's like that, that's such a scalable idea, it's been so well proven, it would make such a huge difference. Not just to the carbon footprint, but to income for farmers, it would you know, lower the waste burden on houses, it really eliminates a whole whack of toxic materials that often get built it like there are so many advantages and it seems so easy and straightforward. And I I still kind of like shake my head that there isn't a straw panel factory in you know, every town then state like, it really seems like it's something that that it's so easy to do. And it makes such a big difference. And the technology is ripe and the costs are competitive. And it's it's just needs whatever the kick in the pants, it needs to kind of get over that line of mainstream acceptance. I think there's a lot of materials kind of in that in that realm of you know, things like hempcrete and the hemp wool insulation, and you know, lots of lots of products like that where they are products right now. They're just being made by really small companies in really limited quantities and, and could be so much more than that.
Jeffrey Hart 53:39
Yeah. Oh, that's that's a very pleasing answer. So I wanted to chat about your book, I'm conscious that we're we're running out of time. But yes, so you've, you've got a new book, just come out, yourself and Bruce King, what's that all about?
Chris Magwood 53:57
Yeah, so it's called Build beyond zero. And it's, it's basically the kind of positive enthusiasm I just gave you on what's possible in the world of building this is Bruce and I, you know, really just riffing on that, from the material point of view, from codes to you know, kind of looking at the sort of building industry and, and its regulation, like the whole package and going we have this potential here to take the industry that is contributing most to climate change, or among the most heavy contributors and turn it into like a climate healer in terms of, you know, really consciously putting atmospheric carbon away in buildings. And so yeah, it's kind of our roadmap to a this is doable and be like this is you know, some of them Other ways and materials and kind of structures that we would need to get there.
Jeffrey Hart 55:04
Brilliant. And I've, I've was reading that you've got a huge amount of external contributors on the book.
Chris Magwood 55:13
Yeah, yeah, we had, we had a lot of, you know, there are so many smart people working in this space. We're like, well, we don't know all of this. So, yeah, we had, we had really great contributors sort of talking about, you know, specifically the kinds of things they're doing and the ideas that, that they're kind of working with
Jeffrey Hart 55:33
them. Nice. And then Who's Who do you think the book is for?
Chris Magwood 55:37
I think it's for, you know, anybody in the building industry, I think it'll get read a lot by, you know, architects and engineers, I'm hoping it gets read by builders and hoping it gets read by, you know, climate activists in general, because, you know, if you're, if you're a climate activist, this is a space where, you know, that, that the difference we could make is real, you know, if you think about other industries of this scale of construction, their emissions are really, really, really, really hard to mitigate. And yet, the construction industry is staring down this possibility of being able to, like, get its emissions down to nothing, and potentially become the sixth big carbon bank of the planet. You know, so so if you're, even if you're not a builder, if you're a climate activist, this is the place to be active, because if we can, if we can sort of get the industry moving quickly in that direction. Now, I think that's, that's our biggest that will be our biggest and quickest win. And so we just hope that anybody that has an interest in, in finding those kinds of climate wins will pick up the book.
Jeffrey Hart 56:55
Nice. Great. So I've got just a couple of very quick questions just on sort of, actually, because I'm, I think I said on my intro to your, the last time you're on podcast, is that you seem to be, I think, the hardest working person in the sort of sustainable construction world, you seem to be doing so much. What what is it that drives you to do this?
Chris Magwood 57:21
Um, I think I think just, like a genuine excitement at what's possible, you know, that'd be that's, that's how I started building I, you know, read the thing about straw bale houses and thought that seems really possible, I'm going to do that, and sort of every step along the way. It's been like, you know, one thing leads to the next day, like, oh, it would be possible to do this. Oh, the possible to do that. And I think right now, and with beam and, and the book and these reports, it's like, seeing that it really is possible to transform the kind of the emissions profile and status of buildings is it's exciting. And, you know, just, if it's possible, it seems like Well, then let's do it.
Jeffrey Hart 58:12
Brilliant. And then what's, what's next? What's, what's the sort of big exciting things if there's anything you can talk about?
Chris Magwood 58:20
Yeah, I mean, I guess, for me, it's that I have joined the Rocky Mountain Institute. And so I'm going to be sort of continuing to do all of this really great sort of buildings and climate work with them, which, you know, is a, they're an amazing organisation with a huge rechannel and a lot of internal strengths and supports. And so it's exciting to start, you know, yeah, continuing to do this work, but with with a, you know, a really strong organisation. Supporting it is, it's really looking forward to what's possible, when it's, you know, not just coming out of a two person organisation, but a really strong, you know, hundreds of people organisation,
Jeffrey Hart 59:10
and what is the Rocky Mountain industry in stitute.
Chris Magwood 59:15
Rmi is a, it's a not for profit, sort of, they call themselves a think and do tank. So, you know, you're thinking a lot about energy and the energy transformation and policy work but with a strong connection to putting examples on the ground and, you know, actually, you know, accomplishing real world things as well as policy things.
Jeffrey Hart 59:44
Nice. That's perfect. Yeah. My final question that I don't think I even really to ask but I wrote it down. So are you hopeful?
Chris Magwood 59:57
Ah, depends On the day or minutes that you you ask that question. I mean, you know, no, a lot of the time.
And then yes, some of the time,
But, you know, the on the hopeful days, it's thinking, Well, you know, when I started looking at, say, the carbon footprint of building materials was 2016. Nobody had really thought of it heard about it, it was a very tiny community of people who'd spent any time studying it. And now, I'm working with cities to help regulate it like that, you know, all of that happened quickly. Are they regulating it strictly enough, or quickly enough? No, but but it's on their radar, and they're doing it, you know, federal governments are looking at it like it. You know, it's, it's encouraging how quickly all of the climate related stuff has, like moved high up on the agenda. But I also don't think it's enough for or, or fast enough. So yeah, it's kind of
it, we will, we will make some huge changes in the next decades, and they probably won't be enough to avert the worst of it. And I guess, just like at any other point in human history, we'll deal with the fallout from all of our unintended consequences.
Jeffrey Hart 1:02:07
Oh, thank you, Chris. I feels a bit funny to end on a bit of a maybe a realistic note. I personally felt quite comforted by the fact that I'm not alone in the feelings of feeling just a little bit like we're, we're not doing enough. And even though our industry is our particular, you, natural building industry is doing really well and sort of has the solutions and has all this sort of positivity. Things at large, don't seem to be happening. And it's, yeah, it's a bit hard not to be kind of swamped by that. I think. I thought Chris articulated that very well. And free, honestly. And I appreciate that. Also, just yeah, get on the beam calculator, if you've got any kind of building project, as he says, the ability to see Yeah, if I just switch out this, this material for that one, I will be saving this as much carbon is is really, really powerful. Really helps you to quite quickly. zone in on what's the best for your project. And yeah, I'm very pleased that it exists now. I wish it had been around when I had been designing my house, but you can't have everything any, I have a lovely house. Okay, so there are links in the show notes to beam, the beam calculator, the builders for climate action, which is Chris's company, which created the calculator, links also to the Rocky Mountain Institute, Chris's new book, I'll stick a few links to other books as well. If I can find some there'll be links to bio Mason, which were their bio bricks and the living materials laboratory. Looking at how the concrete I think that's about it for me. I just want to end on saying that. I think regular listeners will have noticed in the last couple of months that I have been a little bit slack on regular episodes. If I'm honest, I'm I'm really struggling to find the drive needed to do the podcast. I think it's partly finishing my house. And that's raising my my my sort of eyes to the horizon and thinking about what I'm doing next. And there's some sort of concern within that, I guess. Bs what I've got is I've got three more episodes. They're all in the bank. I get to try and get goes out pretty quickly. And then I'm going to have a bit of a break and head off and do some different things, and then come back stronger. So, yes, thank you all. Especially thank you to all the people that have been saying lovely things to me via email and LinkedIn and all the other places you can contact me really is very appreciated. Yes. So, ended a good note. I'm living in my house and I just had the electrician round today, who's finally wired in all my blog sockets, so I can boil a kettle, actually on my kitchen work surface, rather than in a cupboard where the extension cable is plugged into. It feels pretty good. I'm not gonna lie. I'm smiling. All right, until next time, which hopefully should be soon. See ya.
Builder, Researcher & Author
Chris Magwood is obsessed with making the best, most energy efficient, beautiful and inspiring buildings possible – without wrecking the whole darn planet in the process. Chris is a founder of The Endeavour Centre and teaches in the Sustainable Building & Design program, Natural Building Intensive and many workshops where he enjoys sharing what he’s learned over his 25-year building career and inspiring others to take this stuff seriously and do it well.
Chris has authored seven books on sustainable building, including: Essential Sustainable Home Design (2017), Essential Hempcrete Construction (2016) and Making Better Buildings (2014) and contributed a chapter to the book The New Carbon Architecture. He is co-editor of the Sustainable Building Essentials series from New Society Publishers. He is currently at work on a new book, Building Beyond Zero: New Ideas for Carbon Smart Architecture (Island Press).
Chris began his building career as an owner/builder, constructing the first permitted straw bale house in Ontario in 1996. In 1998 he co-founded Camel’s Back Construction, and over eight years helped to design and/or build more than 30 homes and commercial buildings, mostly with straw bales and often with renewable energy systems. Chris recently completed his MA at Trent University, studying carbon storage potential of the built environment. His thesis, Opportunities for Carbon Capture and Storage in Building Materials was published in April, 2019. Chris is an active speaker and workshop instructor in Canada and internationally.
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