A tripartite approach to dealing with embodied energy in housing

For any worthwhile discussion, explication of any phrases that might otherwise cause undesirable hesitation is key. We begin therefore by shedding light on embodied energy. This is defined as the energy consumed by all the processes associated with the production of an object. In the context of building construction, processes included within embodied energy analysis (EEA) include the mining and processing of the natural resources used to manufacture, the manufacture, transport, delivery and installation of a product. Embodied energy is an emerging key consideration in housing today primarily because of the impacts (perceived and real) that energy production has on the environment.

Today, housing is a complex issue; and how intriguing it is that it extends beyond the physical dwelling and encapsulates psychological notions, i.e. human ideals, needs, wants, aspirations, and economic ability. As such, in its pursuit of making a contribution towards reducing the embodied energy of housing, the ELITH project proposes a multi-pronged approach – aligned with the complexity of the housing as it is understood or misunderstood and later shaped. This approach includes:

  • Fronting the value in contextual material selection and application
  • Promoting the ability of community partnerships to propagate knowledge, expertise and appropriate technologies
  • Skilling a formally educated sustainability professional to impact on a largely informal sector

Appropriate material selection and use is the primary focus for reducing the embodied energy involved in construction. This is because the decision to use a specific material impacts on extraction, manufacture, transportation, and waste generation from construction. In Uganda and the world as a whole, changing living patterns and trends are leading to the replacement of vernacular architecture, which emphasises the use of local building materials and low-energy use with more modern building interventions (Alyami et al., 2013). These methods, while providing undeniable benefits such as durability to construction, it is hypothesised, may not be the most suitable for all applications. While the importance of reducing the embodied energy in housing is appreciated from mostly a scientific point of view, the same cannot be said from a layman’s perspective. As such the ELITH project explores a grassroots and participatory process through a material selection tool that supplements existing determinants for material selection such as initial (purchase) cost, availability and ease of use – determined to be common objective drivers for material selection with additional parameters that wholly encompass sustainability criteria – social, economic and environmental impacts such as: environmental impacts of extraction and manufacture, thermal and acoustic properties, toxicity and cost of maintenance, above all, paying keen attention to the sum of these criteria and how a material/process/technology still scores against embodied energy.

The project extends its knowledge and capacity function beyond the trained built environment professional in order to grow a society grounded in the process of material selection and later construction that is well informed about and understands embodied energy in the construction of housing.

Through its interaction with promoters of various innovations within the construction industry, the ELITH project has determined that a key stumbling block for the uptake of new ideas – such as the materials selection tool proposed prior, et al. is the propagation of knowledge that challenges rooted conceptions. To this end, the study queries how community partnerships can be emulated as both a development and problem-solving model.

Embodied energy and saving on energy use are a quantifiable variable that could be shared with the masses. When people know how much they stand to gain and subsequently experience the cost savings as a result of sustainable practices, the project objectives will be taken on as community initiatives with a ripple effect that can also serve to embellish the findings and quantitative reports of the study.

The crux of the matter is the conversation on embodied energy and the possible benefits of this consideration to an individual or his/her community.

During their community development project Alwan and Jones (2014) results indicated that while operational energy was more significant over the long term, the embodied energy of key materials could not be ignored, and that it was likely to be a bigger proportion of the total carbon in a low carbon building. The components with high-embodied energy were also identified. Their design team responded to this by altering the design to significantly reduce the embodied energy within these key components – and thus made the building far more sustainable in this regard.

A contextual equivalent wound be to analyse walling elements, considering they cover the most significant surface area of most buildings, then call attention to the amounts of fuel required to prepare the units that build these elements. Firewood is a quantifiable resource particularly in local communities where it serves as the primary fuel for food preparation.

The current study is also cognisant of the fact that knowledge ought to be nurtured and promoted, as such, built environment professional at the forefront of the evolution of technologies, form an important link between the community and innovations within the industry. A key concern though is how well educated and aware the built environment professional is, and how the system within which they exist encourages this, or an improvement in the state of affairs.

The issues to consider also spell out a possible approach in themselves; and may include:

  1. The prevailing ethical dilemma and whether professionals understand their liability.
  2. The concern about cost like it was just a numbers game, without stopping to consider the future value of buildings.
  3. If built environment professionals stop to consider issues of social equity or are they indeed too elitist to deal with health, safety and wellbeing leaving it for the social scientist?
  4. Overall the ethos of managing and promoting an attitude that thinks about how to avoid/manage/mitigate risk in view of the fact that someone has to take ownership of it all.

These four points give a good indication of where to place emphasis in order to promote sustainability in a largely informal sector. There is a deliberate attempt to encapsulate all the tenets of sustainability in the discourse that is social, economic and environmental aspects, giving them all equal importance. While this may create a larger and more enigmatic concept it is worth noting that: in developing countries, the average standard of living is much lower than in developed nations and in many instances, the challenge is to meet basic human needs. The emphasis here should therefore be on development (and assessment tools) that aim to address these basic needs while avoiding negative environmental impacts (Gibberd, 2002). The ELITH project therefore envisions itself as a prelude in the development typology suggested by Gibberd’s narrative. Efforts in reducing embodied energy in construction have widespread implications; infrastructure (including housing) development is prerequisite for development – has to happen in a sustainable manner.


ALWAN, Z., JONES, P. 2014. The importance of embodied energy in carbon footprint assessment. Structural Survey, Vol. 32 (1), 49 – 60

ALYAMI, S. H., REZGUI, Y. & KWAN, A. 2013. Developing sustainable building assessment scheme for Saudi Arabia: Delphi consultation approach. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, 27, 43-54.

GIBBERD, J. 2002. The sustainable building assessment tool: assessing how buildings can support sustainability in developing countries. Built Environment Professions Convention. Johannesburg, South Africa: Document Transformation Technologies.


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