Cost and Carbon Calculator

Helping engineers make data-driven decisions about carbon impact alongside cost efficiency at the design stage.

Last updated: 15th March 2021

Date uploaded:

Approved for use

Innovation Lead: Sherrie Rad
Project number: 104803
UKRI funding: £208,932

Website:
pricemyers.com/


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Summary

Cost has typically been the accepted benchmark used by engineers to make design decisions, seeing carbon-reducing ideas left out of new buildings if they are considered too expensive. But imagine if they no longer had to choose between one or the other? Price & Myers has created the Cost and Carbon Calculator to make it easy for engineers to reduce embodied carbon in new buildings and keep costs low. The calculator automatically assesses the embodied carbon in each of the materials being considered. It then weighs up the respective carbon and cost-saving that each material represents, and helps engineers select the best and most sustainable combination of materials, frameworks and foundations to use. The choice is no longer cost over carbon-savings. It's about which represents the greatest value to the project, the end user and the planet.

Innovation type: Digital, Energy, Process
Organisation type: ACE (Architect / Consultant Engineer), Research centre

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Project pioneers

Price & Myers is a civil and structural engineering consultancy with deep industry experience, committed to using its expertise in structural design to reduce carbon emissions from the construction industry. The firm signed the Climate and Biodiversity Declaration in 2019 and works to help meet net-zero 2050 targets through its R&D. Its in-house sustainability team is taking the lead in this project, building on its own carbon data sets and drawing on expertise from Cambridge University software team and cost data from a subcontracted Quantity Surveying specialist.

The problem

Civil engineers have only been able to accurately quantify cost in a construction project. While the industry has recognised the need to quantify embodied carbon, there hasn't yet been a tool that could process whole-building data to get a real and useful benchmark on carbon impact. Instead, embodied carbon measures have relied on human interpretation - or misinterpretation. In order to allow the industry to met net zero targets by 2050 and bring down the carbon impact of buildings, it needs a data-driven tool that can assess the cost and carbon factors alongside each other, using consistent and effective metrics.

Vision

A robust data-driven tool like the Cost and Carbon Calculator can assess a new building's carbon impact as well as its cost in a matter of minutes, leading to better, more sustainable decision making at design stage. Engineers will have greater confidence that they are being as effective in their use of carbon-reducing solutions, as they are being efficient in management of financial resources. Planning and designing like this has the potential to create a new industry standard and could lead to the introduction of mandatory measures around the environmental performance of construction design.

Key Insight

Price & Myers initially developed a prototype in-house (the Parametric Analysis and Numerical Design Assessment tool) that could assess the carbon impact of steel components in a building at design stage. Their learnings gave them the confidence to apply the same model across all materials and components and create a tool and a carbon database that the industry could effectively use to make more value-based, whole-building decisions on how to reduce embodied carbon while still considering the associated cost factors.

First step

Funding from the Transforming Construction Challenge fund allowed Price & Myers to broaden its data sets around embodied carbon in all building materials, and create a whole new analysis framework. They brought in a data analytics team from the University of Cambridge, led by Cyrille Dunant, who they had been working with for the last four years on carbon-related research projects, and a Quantity Surveying specialist to add the cost

Barrier

There is a strong will to reduce the carbon impact of the construction industry. But practically there is no efficient and consistent way to measure embodied carbon and assess the impact of various materials at design stage. So as long as carbon data stays invisible in the decision-making process, the cost will be the key, single benchmark for the assessment of a project. Tools like the Cost and Carbon Calculator will make the invisible, visible.

Digital Innovation

The Price & Myers and Cambridge University team set out to create a calculator that could draw on enough rich data that it would become an indisputable industry standard for measuring and assessing carbon, alongside cost implications. Separate codes and carbon-impact data tables for materials like steel, timber, and concrete existed - but in isolation. They needed to be brought together and incorporated into the calculator and supporting database. Fifteen different materials were identified and the team used the Inventory of Carbon and Energy (ICE) database to create a fixed carbon value for each, that would be consistent across all projects. While the fixed value only allowed for material-specific carbon and not carbon as a result of transportation, it at least ensured there was consistency in the value used in calculations. Over 40 data points were also reviewed across dozens of completed projects to give context to the carbon value of each material when used in different elements of a structure. The team at the University of Cambridge then developed a data analytical framework of hundreds of different grids, framing, and floor options that became a whole-building Cost and Carbon Calculator to assess carbon impact and cost side by side. This software will allow design engineers to rapidly assess a wide variety of variables and determine in a matter of minutes the relative financial and embodied carbon costs of hundreds of different grids, framing, and floor options. Unlike other tools, this performs a full Eurocode design (European standard for structural design) to all structural elements including foundations, ensuring that the output is a benchmark that is both structurally viable and customised to the specific site requirements. 

Whole life innovation

Price & Myers understands the need to address and reduce embodied carbon in the construction industry, which was why it decided to sign the Climate and Biodiversity Declaration in 2019. But will and good sentiment is not enough. The team wanted to create practical tools for engineers and designers to reduce the carbon impact of new buildings from design stage. The Cost and Carbon Calculator brings together standardised carbon values of materials with the actual carbon impact of dozens of completed projects to provide real-world context to the embodied carbon within construction. Engineers can now quickly calculate the carbon impact, as well as the cost, of a project to help design more sustainable buildings in the future and meet net zero targets.

Collaborators

Price and Myers has deep industrial experience and specialist knowledge in structural and civil engineering. Its in-house sustainability team has been a key part of the project, responsible for collecting the carbon data sets to be used for the comparisons. They are taking the lead in testing and reviewing the features of the tool and feeding this back to the software team at Cambridge to ensure it runs as required. The University of Cambridge will be providing technical expertise in terms of software development. The lead there (Cyrille Dunant) developed the original package and will take the lead in terms of integrating the new features and setting up the code to enable future development. The team benefitted from support from the London Energy Transformation Initiative (LETI) who provided some initial industry-wide benchmarks. The Inventory of Carbon and Energy used to set the carbon values of materials was developed by Circular Ecology. The cost data was supplied via a subcontracted Quantity Surveying specialist.

  • Cambridge University
  • Circular Ecology
  • London Energy Transformation Initiative (LETI)
  • Price & Myers

Lead support

Innovate UK funded the first development of the Parametric Analysis and Numerical Design Assessment tool. As part of the support from the Transforming Construction Challenge, Price & Myers was introduced to i3P (Infrastructure Industry Innovation Partnership) who were in the process of developing a Zero Carbon World roadmap to help infrastructure clients and their supply chain identify new innovation to address their challenges. Price & Myers have been brought into this scheme to raise the profile of their innovation and assist with its uptake.

Long Term Vision

The Cost and Carbon Calculator is a practical tool but with a long-term aspiration - to help the industry meet net zero by 2050 by reducing the amount of embodied carbon in new buildings. As well as supporting data-driven decisions on a project by project basis, it has the potential to set new industry standards on the carbon impact of projects, and can enhance learning for future collaborations so that environmental and economic analysis becomes a meaningful process in every area of construction.

Human Stories

Architects, engineering consultants and clients wishing to improve the environmental credentials of their projects can benefit from this tool. It means that assessing the carbon impact of materials is no longer subject to human judgment or interpretation. The Cost and Carbon Calculator enables data-driven decisions about materials that require the least amount of embodied carbon for the most effective cost. Engineers can make quicker, more sustainable decisions. Data works best when it creates meaningful change in industries and when it's readily and easily available to all. The Cost and Carbon Calculator is one of many digital and data-driven innovations that are helping the industry reduce its impact on the planet.

Powerful Processes

The project team drew on rich data to create an industry standard for measuring and assessing carbon, alongside cost. Fifteen different materials were given a fixed carbon value and over 40 data points were reviewed across dozens of completed projects to give context to the carbon value of each material when used in different elements of a structure. The team at the University of Cambridge then developed a data analytical framework of such complexity that it was able to incorporate all of these different variables and deliver a whole-building calculator that stacked up carbon impact and cost side by side. The rigorous and complex data sets used in the software mean the Cost and Carbon Calculator can be applied across many project sizes and types proving it to be a flexible tool for the industry. And the involvement of the London Energy Transformation Initiative (LETI) has helped translate this into initial industry-wide benchmarks.

Fascinating Facts

Fifteen different materials were identified and the team used the Inventory of Carbon and Energy (ICE) database to create a fixed carbon value for each. Over 40 data points were also reviewed across dozens of completed projects to give context to the carbon value of each material when used in different elements of a structure. Early analysis suggests that the Cost and Carbon Calculator could reduce 10-40% of the embodied carbon of steel-framed buildings alone, and similar savings for concrete framed buildings.

Benefits

Cost
The Carbon and Cost Calculator helps engineers manage costs effectively and efficiently, and at the same time make data-driven decisions on those materials that have less embodied carbon. But the tool also offers a cost saving by reducing the time an engineer would spend at design stage. Price & Myers estimates that the tool could be used on approximately 75 projects per year for an average practice like theirs. These projects would typically involve 2 to 3 weeks engineering time at the scheme stage, where the benefits of the tool can be felt most. Early estimates suggest 75% of this time can be saved through use of the software. That's the equivalent of £500,000 worth of increased efficiency savings for the business per year, and a return on investment of 900% after 5 years.

Emissions
Early analysis conducted by Price & Myers team found that the Cost and Carbon Calculator could reduce 10-40% of the embodied carbon of steel-framed buildings alone. They estimate that there are similar savings for concrete framed buildings as well. This is a critical metric for the team going forward to be able to demonstrate the real-world impact of the calculator. To put this into perspective, initial research suggests this parametric benchmarking software tool may result in 50-100kg/m2 savings in embodied CO2e. Using an average construction cost of £2,500m2, this could equate to 160,000m2 per year and as much as a 12,000-tonne savings in CO2e across construction projects in 2021.