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How structural engineers can reduce carbon emissions

June 13, 2023

By Amanda Farley

Structural engineers can help reduce emissions in how they select building materials and reuse existing materials and structures. This building is made with wood, a renewable and sustainable material. (© istock.com/IGphotography)IGphotography

Will Arnold, Head of Climate Action at IStructE, discusses how structural engineers can help lay the foundation for lower emissions and net zero.

Founded in 1908 as the Concrete Institute, The Institution of Structural Engineers (IStructE)(opens in new tab/window) is the world’s largest membership organization dedicated to structural engineering. To this day, concrete remains one of the key materials that many of these engineers work with, and it is also a major culprit in global emissions. It’s just one example of where structural engineers can have an impact on reaching net zero goals through material selection.

IStructE is guiding its membership on the role they can play in sustainability efforts through books, tools, events and more. Read this interview with IStructE’s Head of Climate Action, Will Arnold, to find out more.

Will Arnold, CEng, FIStructE, FRSA

Will Arnold, CEng, FIStructE, FRSA

Societies & Sustainability

This article is part of our ongoing series of interviews with engineering society leaders about their perspectives on how engineers are forging a critical path forward toward achieving net zero.

How is IStructE helping its members navigate the challenges of achieving net zero?

At IStructE, we have been preparing a wealth of guidance (see our Sustainability Resource Map(opens in new tab/window)). This includes key books like How to calculate embodied carbon, Design for zero, and Circular economy and reuse: guidance for designers.

We’re also implementing changes to our Chartered Structural Engineer requirements, requiring engineers to be able to calculate and reduce carbon in their work. These are being rolled out this year.

Additionally, we have updated our awards to celebrate projects that are good for the planet — take a look at the winning 2022 Structural Award projects(opens in new tab/window).

What critical preparation is needed for structural engineers to succeed in achieving net zero?

I think there are a few key things that are really critical. You must be able to calculate the carbon impact(opens in new tab/window) of your work. If you don’t measure it, how do you know if you’re reducing it? You need to be able to reuse existing structures as well as existing materials and components. And then you also need to be able to take a client’s brief and make suggestions that use less material but deliver the same outcomes the client really needs.

How is the work of your engineers helping to create a greener and more sustainable world?

Constructional steel and concrete combined make up about 10% of global emissions. This is controlled by structural engineers. Rough calculations show that a typical structural engineer might be able to remove between 100T and 1000T of CO2e from a design in a typical year. Compare that with their personal carbon footprint of 10T per year and you see that their opportunity at work vastly outweighs what they can affect at home.

Enabling our engineers to reduce carbon is key to reducing global emissions. We are a global membership body — the largest one in the world dedicated to structural engineering — so if we can get our members to focus on reducing carbon emissions, then we hope that this will help other countries to decarbonize too.

Which pitfalls or obvious obstacles to achieving net zero are your members most focused on? And what are some less obvious obstacles?

Low-carbon design is often perceived as being higher cost. The reality is that this doesn’t have to be the case; it can actually be lower cost. Designing efficient layouts from day one — and reusing existing structures as part of the plan from day one — can reduce material use and reduce cost. Helping members to help their clients understand the truth about low carbon and cost is important.

What are some notable achievements that count towards progress in achieving net zero?

We know that this topic is of significant interest to our members. Our carbon calculator, The Structural Carbon Tool(opens in new tab/window), has been downloaded 6,000 times and has won two awards. Our first-ever Climate Emergency Conference in 2020 had over 500 participants, and similar subsequent events are always well attended. This demonstrates a real industry interest in this topic — something we should continue to capitalize on.

It is also significant to see how many firms continue to place sustainability and net zero at the heart of their business strategies.

Can you highlight some opportunities for IStructE in the transition to net zero?

It’s been great to see the IStructE prioritizing sustainability and net zero, putting it on the same level of importance as safety has always been. The main opportunity is as mentioned before — constructional steel and concrete are (responsible for) 10% of global emissions(opens in new tab/window), and we can reduce that through good design!

Where do you see the most potential for net zero related change in the next 2 to 5 years?

I think we will see more designers calculating embodied carbon and reducing it through creative ingenuity on their projects. I believe we can also expect to see more interest, research and development into materials. Lower carbon concretes and steels may not make it into mainstream project use within 5 years’ time, but I think that we’ll see really interesting developments in labs and on prototype projects.

Will Arnold

Will Arnold is a Fellow and Head of Climate Action at The Institution of Structural Engineers(opens in new tab/window), responsible for embedding sustainability action into all aspects of the institution’s work. This includes driving the update of minimum standards for institution members, developing supporting guidance, and leading collaboration with wider industry. Will was the lead author of Part Z(opens in new tab/window) (an industry proposal for embodied carbon regulation in the UK) and is helping to deliver both the UK Net Zero Carbon Buildings Standard(opens in new tab/window) and the Built Environment Carbon Database(opens in new tab/window). In recognition of his work instigating change in the field of structural sustainability, Will holds the IStructE President’s Award and the Memcom Outstanding Achievement Award.

Contributor

Amanda Farley

AF

Amanda Farley

Manager of Publisher Relations

Elsevier