Towards a post-carbon built environment

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Dark Matter Laboratories

This is the first in a series of posts introducing the work Dark Matter Labs (DML) has been doing over the past two years as part of the Laudes Foundation funded HCC: EU CINCO project, to support efforts to decarbonise construction through the use of low embodied carbon, bio-based materials and the transition to more circular construction practices.

The series gives an overview of the initiative; the challenges and opportunities identified; interventions we’ve developed in collaboration with project partners; and learnings we’ve taken from them. Within each post we’ll provide links to key ‘artefacts’ as examples of these, with an explanation of their current status, potential value to key stakeholders and possible next steps.

This piece introduces our focus areas, within the context of the wider project; outlines our whole-systems approach; covers the portfolio of activities we undertook and summarises our learnings. Subsequent posts will dig deeper into each activity area.


Since early 2021, Dark Matter Labs has been part of a group of partners supported by the Laudes Foundation to investigate and test ways to accelerate efforts to minimise embodied carbon in buildings, support material circularity and increase the use of low carbon, bio-based materials. We’ve been working on a number of initiatives with the cities of Madrid and Milan, as part of the HCC: EU CINCO project (Healthy, Clean Cities: EUropean CIties for climate-Neutral COnstruction).

Why embodied carbon?

Today, buildings are responsible for 40% of global carbon emissions, when considering both operational and embodied carbon. Whilst operational carbon — emissions associated with operating a building e.g. from heating and cooling — currently represents a larger proportion of total emissions, as energy efficiency in buildings increases and energy sources become less carbon intensive, tackling embodied carbon — emissions associated with materials and construction processes throughout the whole life cycle of a building — is now critical. We’ll simply fail to achieve our climate goals without making it a priority, something cities and other built environment actors are slowly starting to recognise at scale — with help from initiatives such as CNCA and C40.

Why bio-based materials?

Using bio-based materials — organic resources produced by plants and animals, such as timber or sheep’s wool — is considered one of the most effective routes to not only decarbonising the built environment, but shifting to a more regenerative future. Apart from offering low-embodied carbon alternatives to conventional construction materials, bio-based materials are renewable and can be sustainably produced. They provide a number of additional co-benefits including faster, safer and cleaner construction; easier and more sustainable reuse or composting options at end of life; healthier internal environments; and a boost to rural economies — something of particular relevance at a time where we’re seeing a growing urban-rural political divide, especially with regard to the environment.

Why material circularity?

The built environment is responsible for nearly 40% of global material extraction. Whilst construction and demolition waste (CDW) accounts for a third of total waste generated in the EU. This linear material extraction, use and disposal paradigm represents a material economy and a way of interacting with the natural world that is no longer viable at a planetary scale. The need to transition to a more circular model is increasingly urgent.

As former president of the American Institute of Architects, Carl Elefante, famously said, the greenest, most sustainable building is the one that already exists. While the scope of HCC EU CINCO mostly focuses on supporting decarbonisation in new construction, we recognise this needs to happen within a ‘building circularity hierarchy’.

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