The importance of designing low-carbon buildings

By specifying carbon-smart products, K-12 schools can help reverse global warming.
By: | November 23, 2020
Image provided.

Lisa Conway is VP of Sustainability at Interface.

The impact of climate change is more prominent than ever – from the growing frequency of natural disasters, like the devastating wildfires in California, to rising temperatures and air pollution, and more. The outcomes can and are currently having severe, lasting consequences on the mental and physical health of the global population, including our students.

K-12 schools and districts understand the opportunity they have to increase student awareness of climate change and foster the next generation of climate activists.

In fact, the United Nation’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development contains a stand-alone goal for education systems, advocating for sustainable development issues, such as climate change and biodiversity, in teaching and learning.

Further, a study from the North American Association for Environmental Education found that a sustainable-centric curriculum improves academic performance, critical thinking skills, personal growth and civic engagement. It even improves behaviors, such as increased recycling efforts and community cleanup participation.

Walking the sustainability walk

Across the country, schools and districts are establishing and making progress toward sustainability commitments, pledging to help reverse global warming. As part of this exercise, they can consider an often-overlooked contributor to their overall carbon footprint – the facilities.


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The building and construction sector is responsible for nearly 40% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions – representing a significant opportunity for education facilities to reduce their carbon footprint.

Photo by Markus Spiske via Unsplash.

The most urgent opportunity for the built environment is embodied carbon, or the carbon footprint of a material, which considers all GHGs emitted throughout a product’s supply chain and manufacturing. This is the carbon impact of new construction or renovation projects that can’t be reduced over time.

Embodied carbon is especially critical as it makes up 11% of total GHG emissions. We have about a decade to make significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and drawdown existing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

These statistics highlight the power building material choice has in creating more sustainable buildings and lowering an education institution’s overall carbon footprint. By selecting low-carbon materials, K-12 schools and districts can further prove their commitment to sustainability by ensuring their buildings are more sustainable.

In addition, creating K-12 facilities with sustainability in mind also positively contributes to performance outcomes. According to a study of green schools, facilities designed with climate in mind see absenteeism reduced by 87%, a 74% increase in ability to attract and retain and teachers, and 72% increase in community image.


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One of the largest contributors to the overall carbon footprint of education facility interiors can be the flooring. This makes it all the more critical that school systems opt for flooring products and materials with high bio-based materials, or recycled content, to divert waste materials from the landfill. Going a step further, schools can opt for carbon negative building materials that store carbon, preventing its release into the atmosphere and helping to restore the health of the world.

How can K-12 systems and districts identify vendors that align with their sustainability objectives? Here are a few questions for vendors to help guide the decision:

  • Do you have goals to remove toxic chemicals from your products?  Anything beyond that?
  • What percentage of raw material inputs for your total product portfolio comes from recycled content or biobased materials?
  • What is the most important thing you would need to do to cut your products’ carbon footprint by 50% in the next 5 to 10 years?

Also of note, those looking to better understand the potential carbon impact of their building materials can employ new resources available that compare the amount of embodied carbon emitted by each potential product, such as the Embodied Carbon in Construction Calculator (EC3) tool. EC3 allows users to do side-by-side carbon comparisons of individual materials, empowering them to specify and procure low-carbon options based on available products.

By opting for more sustainable building materials and vendors, K-12 education systems and districts showcase their commitment to addressing climate change, the greatest threat to human health of the 21st century. At the same time, practicing and teaching the importance of sustainability supports improved student health and performance and can inspire tomorrow’s leaders by setting a great example.

Lisa Conway serves as VP of Sustainability at Interface – the global flooring manufacturer that is leading industry to love the world – and is passionate about bringing awareness to the interconnectedness of environmental sustainability and human health.