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Surabhi Khanderia on Solving the Embodied Carbon Problem

Sustainability has naturally become a major concern and priority within just about every industry, and attempts at achieving sustainability within each industry are marked by a unique set of goals and milestones. 

Today, we would like to take an in-depth look at sustainability in architecture through the eyes of a renowned architectural designer, Surabhi Khanderia. 

Khanderia is currently serving as a Sustainability Manager with the sustainability firm, Leading Edge. She participated in the US Department of State’s I-LEAD program back in 2016, and the experience led to work with the nonprofit Drishtee, where she worked on a sustainable rural development project known as Gharaunda in her home country of India (more on this later). 

She continued her sustainability work with a variety of companies and organizations, including Philadelphia International Airport, Walt Disney Imagineering, and B+A Architecture. 

Khanderia has become a leading figure in sustainable architectural design, specifically in the area of embodied carbon, but before we dive into the subject, it’s important to provide some vital context regarding the need for sustainable architecture. 

To understand the true value of sustainable architectural efforts, we first have to understand the environmental impact of not only buildings currently in use but also the process of constructing buildings. 

Surabhi Khanderia

Khanderia explained that 40% of global CO2 emissions are created by buildings and infrastructure. Though passive design strategies have aimed to reduce a significant portion of these emissions, specifically emissions associated with normal building operations. 

However, far less attention has been paid to the remaining 13% of building emissions associated with the construction process and the materials used during the construction process. These emissions are referred to as embodied carbon. 

Khanderia: 

“Between now and 2050, embodied carbon will be responsible for half of the carbon emissions from new construction. Addressing this is necessary for meeting the ambitious goals set by the Paris climate agreement, and failing to do so can set into action an irreversible chain of climatic reactions.” 

Khanderia has dedicated herself to work that explores potential solutions for the embodied carbon problem, and we will be discussing her explorations on the subject throughout the article. 

“As architectural designers, we have the opportunity to be creative and find solutions that not only reduce carbon emissions but also enhance the aesthetics of a building. And let’s not forget the added bonus of designing for a circular economy, which tackles two threats to human existence, namely resource depletion and climate change, in one fell swoop.” 

Gharaunda, a pilot project 

Choice of materials is of course central to any efforts aiming to reduce embodied carbon in the construction of new buildings. But opportunities in which to test out new approaches to material usage aren’t exactly forthcoming, especially for a young architectural designer. 

When Khanderia was still in school, she solved this problem by creating her own opportunity to test a plan for sustainable material usage, and this project was named Gharaunda. 

This project took place in rural India, where Khanderia experimented with the use of locally available materials. 


Interiors of the low-carbon housing Gharaunda prototype made with sustainable materials and longer-lasting assemblies

“It was a great way to dip my toes in the water and see what worked. The project was a hit and eventually received recognition and funding from the government of India through the PMAY (Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojna) program.” 

This was a key moment in Khanderia’s career. It provided clear evidence that there were better ways of going about designing and constructing buildings, and she was excited to see where these convictions and ideas would lead. 

Fortunately, even at that time, the desire to pursue low-carbon solutions in architecture was picking up steam among architectural firms. So how does the landscape of low-carbon efforts look today? Which firms are leading the way?

Sustainable design in practice 

Throughout her career, Khanderia has led numerous low-carbon sustainable design efforts on projects for a variety of award-winning architecture firms, including Re: vision Architects, Ian Smith Design Studio, B+A Architecture, and The Akeena Group. 

And of course, in Khanderia’s current role as Sustainability Manager at Leading Edge Consulting Services, she’s actively collaborating with design teams from some of the top architecture firms around, such as Brick, based in Oakland, and Studio One Eleven+ RDC, based in Long Beach. 

This is an involved and comprehensive process, and Khanderia digs deep to make sure that these teams find the best possible solutions for each of their multi-million dollar projects.

“I conduct design analysis, designing charrettes with the teams, provide education and training to design professionals, prepare inspiring and educational architectural graphics that communicate low-carbon design strategies used in the projects, and furnish the design teams with a sustainable design toolkit to more easily implement these strategies.” 

Clearly, low-carbon and generally ecologically-friendly practices are already a major component of day-to-day work, at least within these forward-thinking firms, but this is also an incomplete view. Are firms across the industry taking these considerations into account? 

Khanderia admits that they aren’t, not yet anyway. Still, she sees the work of the firms mentioned above as creating an outwardly positive example for the industry as a whole. 

“While these eco-friendly practices aren’t yet the norm in the industry, leading architecture firms are setting the bar high by either having an in-house sustainability team or bringing sustainability consultants like Leading Edge on their team to pursue low-carbon goals through design.”

And architecture firms aren’t the only companies moving forward with low-carbon design. Khanderia has even worked as a member of the famous Walt Disney Imagineering team, specifically with the aim of furthering multi-million dollar low-carbon designs. 

Low-carbon policy

We’ve already discussed the negative environmental impact of business-as-usual building techniques and materials, and the seriousness of that impact has made sustainable building design and construction an urgent matter. 

And we’ve also covered the positive movement in this area, but given the fact sustainable practices in this area aren’t yet universal, would policy at the state and federal level offer a means of greatly accelerating the transition toward sustainability? 

Khanderia feels that current forces both within and outside of architecture are showing signs of momentum. 

“On one side, we have the jurisdictional referees setting the rules of the game by raising their minimum standards. On the other side, we have the ownership teams, fueled by their commitment to the ESG movement and investor pressure, ready to score some sustainability points.” 

First, let’s talk about ESG. For anyone who isn’t familiar with the concept, ESG represents a company’s self-reporting of environmental, social, and governance standards. ESG reporting is often available to the public, but it’s really meant for those within the company and, in particular, shareholders and prospective shareholders. 

More and more investors are looking beyond financial statistics when considering investing in a specific company. Namely, they’re looking at a company’s impact on the world at large, with the goal being to seek out and support companies that aim to reduce negative impact and increase positive impact, all while supporting sustainable financial growth. 

Khanderia: 

“With the ESG movement in full swing, companies are setting rigorous goals to reduce carbon emissions throughout their real estate portfolios.” 

Next up is actual policy and legislation. Several areas in North America such as Colorado and Vancouver, BC have started implementing carbon action plans and embodied carbon policies for new buildings through climate action plans, procurement policies, material reuse policies, executive orders, zoning, and land use regulations, and building codes. 

Khanderia also mentioned key legislation in the state of California. 

“In California, AB 2446, which was signed by the governor in 2022, has led the California Air Resources Board to work on establishing a framework to benchmark and eventually reduce the embodied carbon emissions associated with buildings by 20% by 2030 and 40% by 2035.”

For architects working today, all this information is vital for understanding the ways in which architecture will continue to change. Even if we claim that there isn’t currently a legal requirement to implement sustainable design, it’s likely that there will be such a need in the not-so-distant future. 

Khanderia:

“Knowing these client goals is very useful for architects to establish a basis of design early in the process and plan for these design strategies early on to reap the fruits of a science-based and data-driven production of art. And who knows, maybe we’ll even inspire other industries to follow suit. Let’s make sustainability the new black, or rather the new green, in the world of design.”

Challenges in low-carbon design 

There are plenty of reasons to feel optimistic about the future of sustainable architectural design, but there’s always a catch. Engaging in sustainable design and building practices will always be worth it, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy, either. 

When we asked Khanderia to name some of the current challenges within sustainable design, she had this to say,

“There are a few that I can think of, including complexity, data availability, cost, scope, stakeholder engagement, communication, industry-wide benchmarks, and integration into the design process.” 

Life cycle assessments, or LCAs, represent a combination of challenges. An LCA is a complex method for quantifying the embodied carbon emissions a project represents. According to Khanderia, these studies are complicated, time-consuming, and require highly specialized expertise. They also rely heavily on accurate and comprehensive data regarding the environmental impact of specific building materials and systems. 

“If you’re not a trained professional, finding the right data for an LCA study can be like trying to find a needle in a haystack. Conducting an LCA study can also be costly, in terms of both the time and resources required to gather and analyze the necessary data.” 

And even with all these hurdles, an LCA still doesn’t provide the whole picture when it comes to the projected impact of a building over its entire life cycle. After all, this is still a relatively new process, and the necessary data may be unreliable or simply may not be available. 

In Khanderia’s view, encouraging stakeholders to go through with an LCA is a key step, not only for improving LCAs and forecasting the impact of a project, but also for normalizing and standardizing this sustainability consideration.

“The biggest challenge of integrating embodied carbon considerations in the design process is changing the mindset of stakeholders and to be able to speak to the benefits of conducting an LCA. For architectural designers, it requires a change in the standard of practice, and it requires clearly setting expectations and training staff. It takes preparation and teamwork.”

But if that new standard is established successfully, throughout the industry and not just within specific firms, then architecture will be that much closer to enabling a more sustainable future.  

“Staying committed to a more sustainable design process is like trying to break a bad habit. It’s not always easy, but with the right motivation and support, it can be done.”

The puzzle 

So what have we learned about sustainable design, and why is it important to the future of architecture?

Carbon emissions relating to building and infrastructure are staggering, and one of the most crucial forms of emission that needs to be addressed is embodied carbon. There’s been a great deal of progress on this front so far, both in terms of the motivations of architects, design teams, and investors, and also official policy, but there’s still a great deal of work to be done. 

Engaging in sustainable architectural design can be expensive, time-consuming, and difficult, but the benefits are clearly worth the effort. 

As a closing point, we wanted to highlight Khanderia’s unique view of how low-carbon design can actually represent a compelling opportunity for professionals working in this space.  

“Designing low-carbon buildings is not only good for the environment, but it also provides an opportunity for architects and designers to push the boundaries of what is possible and create truly innovative and creative projects. Like solving a puzzle, it requires creativity, resourcefulness, and a willingness to think outside the box. The result is a masterpiece of sustainability and style. It is about enhancing the beauty and functionality of our spaces while minimizing our impact on the planet.” 

Low-carbon design isn’t an isolated pursuit, it’s part of a much larger fabric of engineering, science, and aesthetics, and expert designers like Khanderia will continue to find ways to create stunning works of art that also contribute to a better future. 

If you’d like to learn more about embodied carbon research and development, please visit the Carbon Leadership Forum and Building Transparency

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Mike Thompson

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