Finding our footing: Data-driven assessment of low-carbon building foundations at the urban scale

Caitlin Mueller and Kiley Feickert

Due to increasing global population, floor area is expected to double by 2070 [1]. At the same time, business-as-usual construction practices have led the building sector to contribute around 39% of today’s CO2 emissions [1]. In particular, concrete structural systems in buildings are major consumers of raw materials that emit significant quantities of carbon and deplete nonrenewable resources. Ongoing research by the proposal team has addressed this challenge at the scale of individual building components (such as structural floor slabs and foundations) and full building systems by designing efficient systems that utilize material only where it is required structurally. However, there is a need to more holistically understand and quantify the potential impact and opportunity of construction innovation in rapidly urbanizing areas. In particular, while many parts of a building are repeated and can be standardized at regional scales, building foundations are highly sensitive to local geotechnical conditions. Ongoing research by the PI Mueller and Feickert has shown that if materially efficient foundations are used in lieu of typical prismatic foundations, embodied carbon savings in excess of 60% can be achieved [2]. However, material consumption and the resulting carbon emissions of building foundations depends on the bearing capacity of the soil and the load applied from the building above. Therefore, identifying where materially efficient foundations and related technologies have the largest emissions saving potential is an opportunity to promote urban growth while reducing environmental impact. Based on existing techniques developed by the PIs, the proposed research aims to parse unexplored but publicly available geotechnical data at the urban scale in order to determine opportunities to reduce embodied carbon through shape optimization and digital fabrication of building foundations.

[1] Energy Technology Policy Division, “Energy Technology Perspectives 2020,” International Energy Agency Directorate on Sustainability, Technology and Outlooks, Feb. 2021.
[2] Stephen, C., Brown, N., Mayencourt, P. and Mueller, C. “Clustering analysis of structural loading for post-disaster housing design,” Proceedings of the International Association for Shell and Spatial Structures (IASS) Symposium 2018, Boston, USA, 2018.

Image courtesy of Kiley Feickert and Caitlin Mueller.

This research is funded by 2022 Norman B. Leventhal Center for Advanced Urbanism Seed Grant.