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What You Need to Know About the Latest Embodied Carbon Regulations for Buildings

By the SEAOC Sustainable Design Committee
Oct. 18, 2023

On Aug. 2, 2023, the California Building Standards Commission (CBSC), voted unanimously for building code changes to limit embodied carbon emissions in the construction, remodel, or adaptive reuse of commercial buildings larger than 100,000 sq feet and school projects over 50,000 sq ft. The code offers three pathways for carbon reduction compliance: building reuse, performance proved through life cycle analysis, and prescriptive material procurement limits. Compliance will be required starting July 1, 2024, statewide, and structural engineers will play a crucial role in the implementation and effectiveness of these requirements.


Embodied carbon is the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gasses that are released into the air when fabricating, transporting, and constructing materials for buildings, like steel, concrete, or wood. Embodied carbon can be measured through Life-Cycle Assessment (LCA). As designers and specifiers of materials, it is important that structural engineers embrace our role in decarbonizing the built environment.


The code additions are amendments to the 2022 California Green Building Standards Code (CALGreen), Part 11, Title 24. They provide three alternative compliance paths that can be elected by design professionals to meet the new standards. 

  1. Reuseof at least 45% of an existing building’s primary structural elements and enclosure.
  2. Performancepath that allows use of a Whole Building Life Cycle Assessment analysis. This pathway considers the same scope as the well-established framework of the “Building Life-Cycle Impact Reduction” LEED credit, which includes structure and enclosure, and is already commonly used in the industry. A minimum 10% reduction is required.
  3. Prescriptivepath based on specification of materials that meet specified emission limits. This pathway expands upon California’s Buy Clean California Act (BCCA) of 2017, extending the scope of projects covered beyond public projects and adding concrete to the list of covered materials.

Structural engineers directly touch each conformance pathway. Principally, engineers specify the structural materials that have the biggest carbon footprint, i.e. steel and concrete. Designers must work with contractors and suppliers to understand our impact and specify materials that both meet structural performance criteria, as well as global warming potential limits--and have the documentation to prove it (i.e. an EPD).


In addition to material procurement, structural engineers set the initial performance of a project through primary structural system selection and coordination with the architectural team. It is at this stage that design optimization is possible and can be reflected with LCA. As data becomes more well-established through efforts by SE 2050and the CLF, performance criteria and metrics will also become clearer as to support future reduction requirements.


Lastly, in reusing buildings, structural engineers hold a critical seat at the table to ensure seismic resilience and find creative solutions to make adaptive reuse possible.


In making these changes, California becomes the first state in the nation to set general code standards that require the reduction of embodied carbon emissions in the design and building process applicable to both commercial buildings and schools.


In the coming months, SEAOC, AIA California, and others will be developing and hosting programs to expand awareness, education, and implementation of the code changes for design professionals and our collaterals and partners in the building industry and beyond. 


Planned Events:




President's Message

Emily Guglielmo, SE, PE, F.SEI

2023-2024 SEAOC President

Experts estimate that over 35% of structural engineering tasks could be automated by artificial intelligence (AI) in the United States.

If true, this estimate would place us just behind that predicted for the administrative and legal professions. The impact of AI in our profession would surpass science, business, finance, and sales. A profession historically resistant to change, we find ourselves at a pivotal juncture.

Structural engineering is both susceptible and alluring to the transformative power of AI. Our profession is codified, mathematical, prescriptive, and commands compensation large enough to attract interest beyond our borders. Venture capitalists are pouncing on the opportunities associated with AI in our profession. They are establishing structural engineering companies, using AI to automate designs, and circumventing traditional consulting firms to engage directly with stakeholders.

AI is not simply an impending wave; it is at an inflection point demanding our close attention. The choice before us is clear: a future colored by fear or one illuminated with promise. Amid the risks of job displacement lies a profound opportunity for a symbiotic relationship between AI and human creativity. The potential to swiftly solve complex problems, enhance lives, and forge a force for good is within reach. Achieving these goals requires vision, open-mindedness, and dedication to optimize the use of AI.

We might not recognize it; however, we interact with AI on a regular basis. Personal assistants like Siri, Cortana, and Microsoft's "Co-Pilot" AI facilitate a seamless transition from thoughts to paper. Embracing AI's low-hanging fruit to create a first draft of an email or a report invites us to explore its potential. The use of AI for reports can complete 80% of the effort "for free," allowing for a high-quality finished product and/or significant time savings.

Challenges loom large, including preserving development of engineering principles, quality control, and regulation compliance. Recognizing the potential of AI to perpetuate bias, leveraging diverse data sets, and scrutinizing algorithms for fairness and equity are crucial for responsible AI integration.

While concerns appropriately exist for AI, opportunities abound. AI has the potential to liberate engineers from monotonous tasks, resulting in increased opportunities for innovation and problem-solving. AI will inevitably widen the gap between high-performing and low-performing entities, empowering top talent to tackle significant challenges while lower performers risk being replaced. As we embrace AI, soft skills, such as business development, communication, and relationship-building are even more critical. 

As AI inevitably diminishes the significance of portions of our traditional business, it is imperative to proactively explore alternative avenues for value creation, such as de-carbonizing buildings, innovating new systems, or refining project delivery opportunities. We must structure our compensation around value, not hours. Those who move AI closer to the client gain a competitive advantage, while those who ignore or underutilize AI face a race to the bottom.

I admit the path forward is uncertain. However, open-mindedness, willingness to embrace change, and empowerment of our youth can harness AI's potential for good. We stand at a fork in the road – a dystopian future with job loss or a utopia where we are liberated from menial tasks, empowered as problem-solving innovators. The choice is ours.

For the latest insights and opportunities, SEAOC proudly presents a 3-part series on AI in structural engineering. Please sign up today and join us on this transformative journey.

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