News Brief

Structural Engineers Study Embodied Carbon of 600 Buildings

More than half of a building’s embodied carbon is in its bones, prompting research—and soon, a new Revit tool.

A bar graph shows that floors account for the biggest portion of embodied carbon attributed to structural systems.

On average, floors account for the largest portion of embodied carbon from structural systems, according to a recent study.

Graph: Thornton Tomasetti
Which structural component would you expect to have the most embodied carbon? The foundation? The framing? The answer is actually the floors, according to an analysis of more than 600 buildings conducted by the engineering firm Thornton Tomasetti. (Disclosure: BuildingGreen’s president, Nadav Malin, is on Thornton Tomasetti’s Sustainability Advisory Board.)

Structural engineering accounts for 55% of a typical new building’s overall embodied carbon, according to the firm. In an average commercial building, that impact is comprised of:

  • floor slabs (47%)
  • structural foundations (17%)
  • walls (16%)
  • structural framing (12%)
  • structural columns (6%)

To reduce the embodied carbon of structural systems, Thornton Tomasetti suggests alternatives like hollow-core slabs, voided slabs, or timber floors.

The analysis also found that steel buildings had more embodied carbon in their structures than concrete or composite buildings. And LEED-certified buildings had lower average embodied carbon than non-LEED buildings (510 kg/m2 versus 590 kg/m2)—likely because LEED rewards the use of recycled steel and fly ash in concrete.

After learning how influential structural engineering choices can be, Thornton Tomasetti is also building a tool for Revit that will allow users to optimize for low embodied carbon.

Published January 7, 2020

Pearson, C. (2019, December 20). Structural Engineers Study Embodied Carbon of 600 Buildings. Retrieved from

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January 13, 2020 - 9:56 pm

Dear Sir,

We are using low carbon cement - soil cement , lime cement and pozzolan. We use an emulsufier equivalent to PH7 to burn the excess carbon. Our concrete is expansive. Thermal value 1,21 . Ultrasonic 4,3 . Non destructive tests with 35% of fly ash 39,7 mpa in 14 days. Setting time -Walls -7 hours . Roof any span =12 hours.

We want to test the embodied energy.

January 27, 2020 - 7:53 pm

The key to accurate assessments of Embodied Carbon is the quality of the Life Cycle Assessment tools used. Full Cradle-to-Grave assessments are required and artificial discounting of 'biogenic' emissions must be avoided.