If you’re trying to lose weight and counting calories, there’s an app for that. Now, if you’re trying to design new office towers or apartment buildings while minimizing their carbon impact, there’s an app for that as well.

Two new widgets out of the Pacific Northwest aim to address what their developers say is a pressing need to begin using less carbon-intensive building materials. They work like meal-tracking apps, only for new construction. Input: Materials used in the building. Output: The amount of carbon dioxide used to produce the materials, called embodied carbon.

Over a building’s lifetime, embodied carbon is a relatively small part of a building’s total carbon footprint, nearly 80% of which comes from building operations. Traditionally, green building certifications like LEED have asked builders to prove that their building is designed to minimize that ongoing energy use.

But the graph of a building’s carbon impact is a tall spike with a very long tail: Putting up a new building requires a large initial carbon-dioxide expenditure, mostly bound up in materials’ embodied carbon. And deadlines for reducing carbon emissions to stave off climate change are approaching rapidly.

That’s why green building groups have been turning their attention to reducing embodied carbon. But climate-conscious builders encountered a problem familiar to anyone who’s tried counting calories by hand: Because the information isn’t centralized, researching the embodied carbon in everything that goes into making a building — from concrete to carpets — is an overwhelming endeavor.

Enter EC3, North America’s first free, open-source tool for calculating embodied carbon. Incubated at the University of Washington and supported by more than 50 industry groups, including Microsoft, EC3 is launching in beta next week.


Portland-based architecture firm ZGF rolled out a similar tool, focused specifically on concrete, last week. Manufacturing concrete is responsible for much of the embodied carbon in new construction.

People behind embodied-carbon calculators say the more information builders have about the relative carbon impact of materials, the better they’ll be able to advocate for the development of new, less carbon-intensive building technologies.

“There are really innovative products out there that aren’t getting to market because people aren’t prioritizing them,” said Kate Simonen, the UW professor behind EC3. “There has to be a reason to try something new. Sometimes the reason, for building materials, can be the carbon reduction.”