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Emergence of SE2050 Challenge Gives Structural Engineers Long-Awaited Seat at the Sustainability Table

SE2050, Holmes Structures, Carbon Leadership Forum, PCS Structural Solutions, San Francisco, Seattle, Structural Engineering Institute, Arup, HGA, Living Building Challenge, Green
Courtesy of the Structural Engineering Institute

By Meghan Hall

As sustainable building practices emerged within commercial real estate, a heavy amount of the focus has been placed on the eco-friendly aspects and energy consumption of the final development. Standards such as LEED, the Living Building Challenge, Green Globes and others have risen in their scope and popularity—undoubtedly important progress by all accounts—but its focus on just half of the equation when it comes to sustainability and commercial real estate has often inadvertently limited those conversations to architects and building owners. The emergence of the Structural Engineers 2050 Commitment Program (SE2050) looks to tackle the embodied impacts of development and shines the light on how structural engineers can be part of the greater conversation of sustainability in commercial real estate.

“Programs such as LEED have been great in trying to advance sustainability in buildings, but when LEED first came out, for example, structural engineers were excited about it, but there were not a lot of credits that structural engineers could have an impact on,” explained Megan Stringer, an associate principal at Holmes Structures’ San Francisco office. “We weren’t really at the table for those sustainability conversations for so long, but I think now that’s definitely not the case.”

Over the past couple of years, Stringer has spearheaded the implementation and adoption of SE2050 as a member of the Structural Engineering Institute’s (SEI) steering committee. The SE2050 Challenge was issued in 2019 by the Carbon Leadership Forum (CLF), and the SE2050 Commitment Program was developed by the Sustainability Committee of the SEI. The goal of the challenge is to provide an accessible sustainability program to educate and engage the structural engineering community in pursuing best practices to reach net zero embodied carbon by 2050.

The program is gaining traction quickly as structural engineers across the country are keen on jumping feet first into the conversations they originally had little part in.

“All this has come to a head and put structural engineers in a unique position. Originally, sustainability wasn’t anything structural engineers contributed to,” said Chris Jeseritz, a project manager with Seattle-based PCS Structural Solutions. “Now, structural engineers can have great effects and add a lot to the conversation and contribute to making our buildings more sustainable…”

The pivot towards focusing more on embodied impacts has come after years of targeting mostly operational factors, such as building operations and energy consumption. The push towards reducing embodied impacts has emerged as companies and AEC firms continued to push the envelop on sustainable design.

“In the last year especially, we have really started to see embodied carbon at the forefront of the conversation around sustainability, and a lot of that has been honestly driven by our architect counterparts,” said Stringer. “It is really exciting to see embodied carbon getting the attention that it deserves…and to really start to be able to tackle and it and get the word out there on strategies that we can employ as structural engineers to reduce the embodied carbon of our structures.”

Embodied impacts, however, are all of those generated by the construction of a building, right up until its occupancy. This can include everything from raw material extraction, to the manufacturing of materials for construction to transportation of said materials, to construction itself. As operational impacts have decreased as a result of increased conversations around sustainability, embodied impacts are beginning to represent a much larger share of commercial real estate’s impact on the environment. 

In just the first few months after formally launching, 20 firms have signed onto SE2050. In addition to Holmes and PCS Structural Solutions, firms such as Arup and HGA have become signatories. Companies that are part of the program begin implementing SE2050 criteria into their projects, a database will be created based on building usage, type, location, and more that will allow SE2050 to then set future benchmarks and reduction targets.

“I think one of the most exciting things about the SE2050 challenge is instead of waiting for a longer process, it is truly meeting the market head-on and giving engineers part of the conversations early,” noted Jeseritz.

For both Holmes and PCS Structural Solutions, the goal is now to hash out an embodied carbon action plan—known as an ECAP—which will outline the companies’ educational policies, project benchmarks and embodied carbon accounting, among others. ECAPs must be completed by firms within six months of signing onto the program, and then re-valuated every year or two afterward.

According to Jeseritz, PCS Structural Solutions is targeting to complete five to 10 projects specifically focused on adhering to SE2050 guidelines within the first couple of years. For now, SE2050’s requirements when it comes to completed projects is relatively low, stated Jeseritz, as knowledge of embodied carbon isn’t often taught widely in educational systems or across the industry. 

“The biggest thing that can hinder [SE2050] is just bringing up to speed a lot of engineers, and educating them on measuring embodied carbon, because you typically don’t learn this in your structural engineering curriculum,” said Jeseritz. “It is something you have to self-teach or learn from experience.”

Holmes is also in the process of widely informing its staff about SE2050, as Stringer noted that the company’s biggest priority over the next several months is education. Stringer and Jeseritz believe the number of projects submitted to the SE2050 by participating companies will rise as education on embodied impacts and advocacy for SE2050 becomes more widespread. 

Stringer hopes by the end of the year, SE2050 will have 50 signatories—a goal which she believes they will hit.

“To get the movement we have seen in such a short amount of time has been really impressive,” said Stringer. “I think some of these ideas will be a lot more mainstream in a couple of years.”