You are on page 1of 4

material use 136 5.


Embodied Energy
Embodied energy is the energy consumed EMBODIED ENERGY AND Embodied energy content varies greatly with
by all of the processes associated with the OPERATIONAL ENERGY different construction types. In many cases a
production of a building, from the mining higher embodied energy level can be justified
and processing of natural resources to It was thought until recently that the embodied if it contributes to lower operating energy. For
manufacturing, transport and product energy content of a building was small example, large amounts of thermal mass, high
delivery. Embodied energy does not include compared to the energy used in operating in embodied energy, can significantly reduce
the operation and disposal of the building the building over its life. Therefore, most effort heating and cooling needs in well designed
material. This would be considered in a life was put into reducing operating energy by and insulated passive solar houses. [See: 4.5
cycle approach. Embodied energy is the improving the energy efficiency of the building Passive Solar Heating; 4.6 Passive Cooling; 4.7
‘upstream’ or ‘front-end’ component of the envelope. Research has shown that this is not Insulation; 4.9 Thermal Mass]
lifecycle impact of a home. always the case.
As the energy efficiency of houses and
appliances increases, embodied energy will
become increasingly important.
Embodied energy can be the
equivalent of many years of The embodied energy levels in materials
operational energy. will be reduced as the energy efficiency of
the industries producing them is improved.
However, there also needs to be a
Operational energy consumption dependes demonstrated demand for materials low in
on the occupants. Embodied energy is not embodied energy.
occupant dependent – the energy is built
into the materials. Embodied energy content
is incurred once (apart from maintenance
This fact sheet discusses the relationship and renovation) whereas operational energy
between embodied energy and operational accumulates over time and can be influenced
energy. It then discusses the embodied throughout the life of the building.
energy of common building materials and
guidelines to consider when reducing Research by CSIRO has found that the
embodied energy impacts. average household contains about 1,000 GJ
of energy embodied in the materials used in
its construction. This is equivalent to about
15 years of normal operational energy use.
The single most important
For a house that lasts 100 years this is over
factor in reducing the impact 10 percent of the energy used in its life.
of embodied energy is to
design long life, durable and
adaptable buildings.

Every building is a complex combination of

many processed materials, each of which
contributes to the building’s total embodied
energy. Renovation and maintenance also add
to the embodied energy over a building’s life.

Choices of materials and construction

methods can significantly change the amount
of energy embodied in the structure of a
building. Embodied energy content varies
enormously between products and materials.
Assessment of the embodied energy of a
material, component or whole building is often
a complex task.
5.2 EMBODIED ENERGY 137 material use

ASSESSING EMBODIED ENERGY Estimates of embodied energy can vary by a

PER Embodied
factor of up to ten. As a result, figures quoted
Whereas the energy used in operating a Material energy MJ/kg
for embodied energy are broad guidelines
building can be readily measured, the embodied Kiln dried sawn softwood 3.4
only and should not be taken as correct.
energy contained in the structure is difficult to
What is important is to consider the relative Kiln dried sawn hardwood 2.0
assess. This energy use is often hidden.
relationships and try to use materials that have
Air dried sawn hardwood 0.5
It also depends on where boundaries are drawn the lower embodied energy.
in the assessment process. For example, Hardboard 24.2
whether to include: Particleboard 8.0
Precautions when comparing
> The energy used to transport the materials MDF 11.3
embodied energy analysis results
and workers to the building site. Plywood 10.4
The same caution about variability in the
> Just the materials for the construction of Glue-laminated timber 11.0
figures applies to assemblies as much as to
the building shell or all materials used to individual materials. For example, it may be Laminated veneer lumber 11.0
complete the building such as bathroom possible to construct a concrete slab with Plastics – general 90
and kitchen fittings, driveways and outdoor lower embodied energy than a timber floor if
PVC 80.0
paving. best practice is followed.
Synthetic rubber 110.0
> The upstream energy input in making the Where figures from a specific manufacturer
materials (such as factory/office lighting, the Acrylic paint 61.5
are available, care should be exercised in
energy used in making and maintaining the making comparisons to figures produced by Stabilised earth 0.7
machines that make the materials). other manufacturers or in tables that follow. Imported dimension granite 13.9
> The embodied energy of urban infrastructure Different calculation methods produce vastly Local dimension granite 5.9
(roads, drains, water and energy supply). different results (by a factor of up to ten). For Gypsum plaster 2.9
Gross Energy Requirement (GER) is a measure best results, compare figures produced by a Plasterboard 4.4
of the true embodied energy of a material, single source using consistent methodology
Fibre cement 4.8*
which would ideally include all of the above and base data.
Cement 5.6
and more. In practice this is usually impractical Given this variability it is important not to focus
to measure. too much on the ‘right’ numbers, but to follow Insitu Concrete 1.9

Process Energy Requirement (PER) is a general guidelines. Precast steam-cured concrete 2.0
measure of the energy directly related to the Precast tilt-up concrete 1.9
manufacture of the material. This is simpler to Clay bricks 2.5
quantify. Consequently, most figures quoted for Precise figures are not
Concrete blocks 1.5
embodied energy are based on the PER. This essential to decide which
would include the energy used in transporting building materials to use to AAC 3.6
the raw materials to the factory but not energy lower the embodied energy Glass 12.7
used to transport the final product to the in a structure. Aluminium 170
building site.
Copper 100
In general, PER accounts for 50-80 per cent
Galvanised steel 38
of GER. Even within this narrower definition,
arriving at a single figure for a material is EMBODIED ENERGY OF Source: Lawson Buildings, Materials, Energy and the
impractical as it depends on: COMMON MATERIALS Environment (1996); * fibre cement figure updated
from earlier version and endorsed by Dr. Lawson.
> Efficiency of the individual manufacturing Typical figures for some Australian materials are
process. given in the tables that follow. Generally, the
more highly processed a material is the higher These figures should be used with caution
> The fuels used in manufacture of the because:
its embodied energy.
> The actual embodied energy of a material
> The distances materials are transported. manufactured and used in Melbourne will
> The amount of recycled product used, etc. be very different if the same material is
transported by road to Darwin.
Each of these factors varies according
to product, process, manufacturer and > Aluminium from a recycled source will
application. They also vary depending on how contain less than ten per cent of the
the embodied energy has been assessed. embodied energy of aluminium manufactured
from raw materials.

> High monetary value, high embodied energy

materials, such as stainless steel, will almost
certainly be recycled many times, reducing
their lifecycle impact.
material use 138 5.2 EMBODIED ENERGY

CSIRO research has found that materials used There is little benefit in building a house with
PER Embodied
in the average Australian house contain the high embodied energy in the thermal mass or
Assembly energy MJ/m2
following levels of embodied energy: other elements of the envelope in areas where
Single Skin AAC Block Wall 440 heating and cooling requirements are minimal
or where other passive design principles are
Single Skin AAC Block Wall
448 not applied.
gyprock lining

Single Skin Stabilised (Rammed) Each design should select the best
405 combination for its application based on
Earth Wall (5% cement)
climate, transport distances, availability of
Steel Frame, Compressed Fibre materials and budget, balanced against known
Cement Clad Wall embodied energy content.
Source: CSIRO
Timber Frame, Reconstituted Guidelines for reducing embodied energy:
Timber Weatherboard Wall
> Design for long life and adaptability, using
Timber Frame, Fibre Cement durable low maintenance materials.
Weatherboard Wall
> Ensure materials can be easily separated.
Materials with the lowest embodied energy Cavity Clay Brick Wall 860
intensities, such as concrete, bricks and timber, > Avoid building a bigger house than you
Cavity Clay Brick Wall with need. This will save materials.
are usually consumed in large quantities.
plasterboard internal lining and 906
Materials with high energy content such as acrylic paint finish > Modify or refurbish instead of demolishing
stainless steel are often used in much smaller or adding.
amounts. As a result, the greatest amount of Cavity Concrete Block Wall 465
embodied energy in a building can be either > Ensure materials from demolition of existing
Strawbale ----
from low embodied energy materials such as buildings, and construction wastes are re-
concrete, or high embodied energy materials Source: Lawson Buildings, Materials, Energy and the used or recycled.
such as steel. Environment (1996)
> Use locally sourced materials (including
materials salvaged on site) to reduce
PER Embodied transport.
Comparing the energy content per square
Assembly energy MJ/m2
metre of construction is easier for designers > Select low embodied energy materials
Floors than looking at the energy content of all the (which may include materials with a high
individual materials used. The table above recycled content) preferably based on
Elevated timber floor 293
shows some typical figures that have been supplier-specific data.
110mm concrete slab on ground 645 derived for a range of construction systems.
> Avoid wasteful material use.
200mm precast concrete
644 > Specify standard sizes, don’t use energy-
T beam/infill
intensive materials as fillers.
> Ensure off-cuts are recycled and avoid
EMBODIED ENERGY redundant structure, etc. Some very energy
Timber frame, concrete tile,
plasterboard ceiling Lightweight building construction such as intensive finishes, such as paints, often have
timber frame is usually lower in embodied high wastage levels.
Timber frame, terracotta tile,
271 energy than heavyweight construction. This
plasterboard ceiling > Select materials that can be re-used or
is not necessarily the case if large amounts of
recycled easily at the end of their lives using
Timber frame, steel sheet, light but high energy materials such as steel or
330 existing recycling systems.
plasterboard ceiling aluminium are used.
Source: Lawson Buildings, Materials, Energy and the > Give preference to materials manufactured
There are many situations where a lightweight
Environment (1996) using renewable energy sources.
building is the most appropriate and may result
in the lowest lifecycle energy use (eg. hot, > Use efficient building envelope design and
humid climates, sloping or shaded sites or fittings to minimise materials (eg. an energy
For most people it is more useful to think in
sensitive landscapes). efficient building envelope can downsize or
terms of building components and assemblies
eliminate the need for heaters and coolers,
rather than individual materials. For example, a In climates with greater heating and cooling
water-efficient taps allow downsizing of water
brick veneer wall will contain bricks, mortar, ties, requirements and significant day/night
timber, plasterboard and insulation. temperature variations, embodied energy in a
high level of well insulated thermal mass can > Ask suppliers for information on their
significantly offset the energy used for heating products and share this information.
and cooling.
5.2 EMBODIED ENERGY 139 material use

Re-use and recycling ADDITIONAL READING

Some materials such as bricks and roof tiles BEDP Environment Design Guide
suffer damage losses in re-use. PRO 2 Embodied Energy of Building Materials

E coSpecifier
Re-use of building materials
L awson, B (1996) Building Materials, Energy and
commonly saves about 95 per the Environment: Towards Ecological Sustainable
cent of embodied energy that Development, RAIA, Canberra
would otherwise be wasted.
Principal author:
Savings from recycling of materials for Geoff Milne
reprocessing varies considerably with savings Contributing author:
up to 95 per cent for aluminium but only 20 per Chris Reardon
cent for glass.

Some reprocessing may use more energy,

particularly if long transport distances are
Source: CSIRO

Life Cycle Assessment

Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) examines
the total environmental impact of a
material or product through every step of
its life – from obtaining raw materials (for
example, through mining or logging) all the
way through manufacture, transport to a
store, using it in the home and disposal or

LCA can consider a range of environmental

impacts such as resource depletion,
energy and water use, greenhouse
emissions, waste generation and so on.

LCA can be applied to a whole product (a

house or unit) or to an individual element
or process included in that product. It is
necessarily complex and the details are
beyond the scope of this fact sheet. An
internationally agreed standard (ISO 14040)
defines standard LCA methodologies and