Illuminating Embodied Carbon: The Need for New Metrics in Lighting Design

by Chelsea Kreielsheimer, Senior Lighting Designer

Sustainability in architecture has made great strides in achieving net zero energy and analyzing operational energy, but that is no longer enough. The lighting industry has lagged when compared to other sectors of the Architecture Engineering and Construction industry regarding healthy materials, carbon impact, and product certifications. We must now look toward absolute zero carbon through the lens of operational carbon, embodied carbon, and whole building life cycle assessment.  

We will only be able to reach this goal and understand the true project impact by untangling the web of embodied carbon and putting metrics to the remaining sources of emissions so that we may capture as much information as we can for accurate carbon accounting and life cycle assessment.

Through the initiatives and emissions goals outlined by The AIA 2030 Commitment, The MEP 2040 Challenge, the UN 2022 Global Status Report and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, we know that all sectors of the industry must begin to push sustainability efforts to the next level. Atelier Ten’s lighting design team is at the forefront of the discussions advocating for information regarding embodied carbon and material transparency of lighting fixtures. Recently, some lighting manufacturers have begun to lead the way with sustainability-minded practices at their factories and sustainability-driven fixture design.  

Due to the complexities of the products, concerns with sourcing components, complex questions about drivers and LED chips, and cost risks, lighting is only just starting to delve into sustainable product certifications such as Declare Labels and Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs). Many other industries such as paint, lumber, and carpet are already reporting their embodied carbon impact. Certifying a light fixture for material health or carbon emissions is more like certifying a computer rather than a building material such as concrete or an item of furniture. In recent years, teams across the lighting industry have been working together to catch up. 

Atelier Ten’s lighting design team has been deeply involved in The GreenLight Alliance’s collaborative initiatives to tackle some of these challenges. The GreenLight Alliance’s Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) Incubator is a strong example of forming a network comprised of people who are passionate about sustainability throughout the different sectors of design, manufacturing, and construction.

The LCA Incubator has taken a proactive approach to engaging around the topic of sustainability. Manufacturers participate in lively debate and work toward industry average third party verified Environmental Product Declarations for five of the most typically used light fixtures. That will provide an initial snapshot of the impact of high-volume architectural luminaires, while also highlighting key aspects of analysis that warrant further industry consensus. On the designer side, designers collaborate to prioritize sustainability initiatives and learn how to review the manufacturers’ data to then apply it to their design practices.

At Atelier Ten, we are hopeful that through established baseline metrics we can continue to partner with sustainability-minded manufacturers to produce product-specific Environmental Products Declarations that will define previously undeclared scope around embodied carbon and lighting.

This is just the beginning of the impactful role that lighting design will continue to have in the field of sustainability and environmental design. There is significant work still to be done around the circular economy, reducing lighting carbon impact from the top down. From recyclable and replaceable modular parts to aligning system lifetime with project lifetime, designers are beginning to evaluate the entire system and find unique opportunities for thought provoking leadership.  

For the recent Ellinikon project in Athens, Greece, our environmental design team partnered with the lighting team to include life cycle information for the light fixture with the most significant quantity. This increased the accuracy of our LCA analysis and facilitated internal discussions around continued research. Atelier Ten looks forward to leading these industry-wide conversations and using this information directly in our project work. 

For more information about Atelier Ten’s carbon methodology, you can read our Roadmap to Absolute Zero Carbon.