Thinking of building a new house or renovating your old one? Got a new office building that’s going up soon? Wondering how all this will affect the environment? Colorado’s Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) has developed an online carbon calculator called Green Footstep to help homeowners and businesses determine their carbon footprint.
It’s certainly nothing new. There are a number of online carbon calculators. Even Microsoft got into the act earlier this year by launching their Environmental Sustainability Dashboard, an enterprise resource planning (ERP) software package. Its goal is to help companies track their energy use and greenhouse gas emissions, something that most ERP systems don’t do.
"ERP systems are really good at giving you the financial numbers, but where they fall short is with the environment or social issues," said Jennifer Pollard, a senior Microsoft product manager, as quoted in a February 9th article in The Seattle Times.
But what makes RMI’s system special is that it not only calculates the construction footprint of the project but the operational footprint of the building’s lifetime once that project is finished.
“Green Footstep makes it easier for design professionals to set the design targets they’ll need to achieve a carbon neutrality that includes not just operation, but also embodied carbon and others,” said Victor Olgyay, AIA, principal at RMI, in a recent statement from the organization. “Just as a life cycle cost analysis of a green building design shows the operating costs you are saving over time, Green Footstep shows you the saved carbon.”
The online program also shows designers how to comply with Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design’s (LEED) energy credits and the 2030 Challenge, the organization founded by renowned architect Edward Mazria in 2002 that has challenged designers to make all new buildings carbon neutral by 2030.
Green Footstep considers their program a “designer’s tool.” Michael Bendewald, an analyst with RMI who developed the online version, said that designers can use it to make specific design decisions that reduce carbon emissions from the earliest points of design to certified occupancy. But as Bendewald sees it, the overall carbon emissions of a project can send a homeowner or business into “carbon debt.”
Putting it in terms of a bank account, Bendewald said a facility owns the “native-state” of carbon on a site when you consider the standing timber and vegetation that exists before development starts. “Any carbon emissions send the owner into a ‘carbon debt,’” explained Bendewald. “In order for a project to be ‘carbon neutral,’ this debt must be paid off and the original amount of carbon – equal in magnitude to the native-state carbon storage – must be restored. Green Footstep allows designers to adjust design targets, such as building energy use intensity and incorporating more renewables, that will get the building out of the carbon debt, edging the building closer to carbon neutrality.”
A carbon footprint break down is listed on GreenerPath.org. To put it in perspective, they illustrate statistically what the average home and commercial building can emit. A 2,000 square foot house including a basement that is framed in wood having 2,500 square foot of trees removed and 1,000 square feet of shrubs added has a carbon footprint of 152,000 pounds. The same calculation for a 10,000 square foot, five-story commercial building framed in steel including a basement area with 4,000 square feet of trees removed and 1,000 square feet of wetlands filled in has a carbon footprint of 912,000 pounds.
With numbers like that, all the more reason to aim for carbon neutrality. In that regard, Green Footstep is just another means to that end. On their web site, it states that the public issue of climate debate often targets specific resources like oil, fish, or timber. Carbon is a resource that is less tangible. They call it a “life-supporting” system that is a critical exchange between the plants and animals. With our heavy dependence on fossil fuels and a decrease in carbon absorbing plants because of overdevelopment, the natural ability to recycle carbon gets thrown off. Just as overfishing can exceed the capacity of a fish supply, we have exceeded our capacity to naturally replenish our carbon exchange.
But with grassroots movements like the 2030 Challenge to be carbon neutral inside a few decades, will the term “carbon footprint” become a thing of the past? According to Eric G. Olson in an October 16th entry in The New York Times green blog, carbon footprint may become so commonplace and outdated a term that we will no longer use the phrase in business.
“Carbon footprint, for example, will just become another measure along with profitability and growth. Also, branding of environmental initiatives will become commonplace and less of a differentiator in the long term,” said Olson, a management consultant and author of the coming book Better Green Business. “Consumers will be able to make informed choices based on environmental labeling, like today’s nutritional labels. But there’s a lot of ground to cover between now and then.”
Barry Katz, an architect and builder in Westport, agrees with that point of view. He said in a previous article on this site that he hopes green building will become so commonplace that people will simply come to expect it as a standard procedure in construction.
“People will assume that this is the way things will be built,” said Katz. “Just like people assume they will have central air.”
With programs like Green Footstep, the goal of carbon neutrality can be that much closer. One small footstep for the consumer. One giant footstep for the environment.
Image courtesy of ToolsOfTheTrade.net.