Embodied Energy

The Embodied Energy Project—led by Columbia GSAPP and Oldcastle BuildingEnvelope®, and operating out of the GSAPP Incubator at NEW INC—aims to uncover key questions, issues, and opportunities for architectural design in the context of embodied energy.

Awareness of embodied energy within the architecture, engineering, and construction industry is increasing, but the term is often not completely understood. In addition, levels of embodied energy are often difficult to calculate based on lack of comprehensive data and on a few different definitions of what is included in the calculation. This project outlines some of the details involved in defining embodied energy.

Embodied Energy

Embodied energy in building materials has been studied for the past several decades by researchers interested in the relationship between building materials, construction processes, and their environmental impacts. There are two forms of embodied energy in buildings:

  1. The initial embodied energy in buildings represents the non-renewable energy consumed in the acquisition of raw materials, their processing, manufacturing, transportation to site, and construction. This initial embodied energy has two components. Direct energy—the energy used to transport building products to the site, and then to construct the building; and indirect energy—the energy used to acquire, process, manufacture and transport the building materials.

  2. The recurring embodied energy in buildings represents the non-renewable energy consumed to maintain, repair, restore, refurbish or replace materials, components or systems during the life of the building.

Operating energy is a significant measure of sustainability which enables straightforward comparisons between alternative building technologies. Buildings consume energy for heating, cooling, ventilation, lighting, equipment and appliances. Passive energy systems rely on the building enclosure to take advantage of natural energy sources. Active energy systems represent mechanical, electrical or chemical processes. Occupants of buildings can also contribute to the heating of buildings by virtue of the heat produced through metabolic processes.
Research Questions

How can we design a tool that is relevant to all kinds of cultures and climates?

Where lies the biggest potential to reduce embodied energy in the construction industry in the United States?

How do we we evaluate recycled content versus non-recycled content in terms of embodied energy?

How can we effectively communicate visually the complexities of the issue of embodied energy without over-simplifying?

Can cultural practices have quantitative values comparable to quantitative values of embodied energy?