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2019 Research & Development Showcase: Beacon

July 27, 2020
Our Beacon tool produces visualizations of embodied-carbon quantities by material type, building element and floor levels.
Beacon is a sophisticated Revit plug-in that generates comprehensive data visualizations of the embodied carbon in building projects.
beacon
Fast Facts

Project: Beacon Embodied-Carbon Assessment Tool

One powerful product of CORE, Thornton Tomasetti’s innovation engine, is a new embodied-carbon assessment tool. Released in 2019 to help structural engineers increase the sustainability of their designs, Beacon is an open-source plug-in for Autodesk’s Revit software. Beacon offers a quickly downloadable and installable way to calculate the embodied carbon in a Revit model – and break down the embodied carbon of materials by building element.

We interviewed Chief Technology Officer Robert Otani, who spoke to us about this new tool and its roots in nearly a decade of R&D on embodied carbon.

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What inspired the development of Beacon, and what thinking led up to it?

ROB  Our interest in embodied-carbon assessment started when Thornton Tomasetti acquired a sustainability consulting firm in 2012. That drove the question of how we could integrate sustainability and structural engineering. We identified embodied carbon – the combined carbon footprint of materials used in a building – as the aspect of structural design with the largest impact on sustainability. Early on, we developed the Carbon Calculator, a Rhino and Grasshopper tool that used parametric modeling to automatically calculate the effects of changes to building massing and material type on embodied carbon. We knew measurement of embodied carbon was valuable, but it wasn’t really on the industry’s radar yet.

Around this same time, we started a joint Corporate Responsibility and CORE R&D project to measure the embodied carbon in our projects and to contribute to industry research on embodied-carbon benchmarks. We built a tool that found Revit models in project directories and mined them for information. That data, combined with interviews with project managers, enabled us to assess embodied carbon. But we knew that there could be a faster, more sophisticated tool for calculating embodied carbon.

A year before Beacon’s release, we integrated embodied-carbon measurements into Spotlight, our data visualization tool. Then, in late 2019, we saw a groundswell of industry interest in embodied carbon and in new tools like the Embodied Carbon in Construction Calculator (EC3). So it made sense to repackage some of Spotlight’s capabilities as a complementary tool to EC3.

How did our years of embodied-carbon R&D inform the development of Beacon?

ROB  We learned that the tool has to be fast and easy to use. We also learned a lot about what engineers need from it – they want to visualize where the embodied carbon actually is. Is it in the slabs? The walls? Most of our control over projects is in the materials. We can change cement replacement, and we can influence whether the structure is steel or concrete. We learned that we should show the amount of embodied carbon floor by floor so designers could understand exactly where it is. That’s the first step in optimization. A calculation of a building’s total embodied carbon is neat, but it doesn’t tell you where to optimize the design to achieve the greatest reductions.

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Beacon Demo

Now that the building industry is open to more exploration of embodied carbon, what are your next steps?

ROB  We had over 300 downloads in the first three months after we released Beacon as an open-source tool. We hope we’ll continue to get feedback on what capabilities people need and how to expand Beacon’s capabilities. People are just learning what embodied carbon is right now and just starting to understand the factors that drive the metrics and the large variations between product manufacturers.

There have already been requests to include elements that are less about structural engineering and more about architecture, such as façades, so we’re looking at incorporating additional elements in the future. We also have a current R&D project that ties back to what we started in 2012. It uses a parametric design tool to highlight embodied-carbon metrics for design options early in the project, when engineers can have the most impact. We are also interested in integration with other embodied-carbon tools.

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As a structural engineer, what do you find exciting about the potential of embodied-carbon reduction in structures?

ROB  In the past, sustainable design was all about operating energy, and architects and mechanical engineers have done a good job reducing the energy used in a building. But now, structural engineers have a way to do our part too.

Cutting embodied carbon also makes sense, in many cases, from a cost perspective. A push to reduce embodied carbon can drive greater material efficiency and lead to a more marketable project. 

This is probably the first time in history that structural engineers, as a group, understand that we can have a major, direct impact on the environment that by focusing on embodied carbon, we can help solve the problem of climate change.

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