Case study

Carbon Expert - Helen Cheng: uncovering the story of low carbon building materials

Carbon Expert - Helen Cheng: uncovering the story of low carbon building materials

Source: Pexels

A recap of the conversation with guest expert Helen Cheng, from our Carbon Experts Live series

An Introduction to Helen Cheng

I had the pleasure of sitting down with architectural expert Helen Cheng, Director of Sustainability and Decarbonization at Turner & Townsend, for our monthly Carbon Experts Live conversation series. One of the first things I noticed was her evident and captivating passion for all things design. Her devotion to sustainable and equitable building practices and her love affair with architecture began at a young age, fueled by her fascination with Lego. This led to the realization that every piece of a building had the power to come together and tell a story.Helen-circle-transparent

Though Helen has over 25 years of architectural experience, what really sets her apart is her commitment to sustainable design. She believes in the transformative power of architecture to propel societal change. One of her notable achievements was achieving the 6-Star Green Star rating from Australia’s Green Building Council. The 6 Star Rating represents ‘World Leadership’ in environmentally sustainable building practices, and is the highest rating in the Green Star rating program. She believes the construction industry can conserve and manage natural resources, enhance urban ecosystems’ adaptability and resilience, and advocate for the integration of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in design through the use of low carbon building materials.

Materials Matter: Exploring the Sustainability Power of Material-Centric Design

Helen’s commitment to sustainability is not only applicable to her design work, but also extends to her personal life. She, along with her family, embraces an eco-friendly lifestyle. They prefer cycling or using public transport for their daily commute. They process compost in a worm farm, collect water from food preparation to irrigate plants, and produce only 250 grams of waste per week. 

Meeting Helen Cheng was an inspiring experience that left me and the viewers in awe of her dedication to sustainable architecture, and I loved diving into some of the major topics with her: How do supply chain and disruptions tie into the whole-life cycle of materials and manufacturing? What is the connection between low-carbon materials and equitable design? How do you approach policy from a sustainability perspective? How do you design for longevity while sustaining fleeting trends? And how can we support/encourage architects to take a hands-on approach with embodied carbon? Helen genuinely believes in the power of the construction industry to drive positive change. Her story serves as a reminder that one person’s actions, no matter how small, can significantly impact building a more sustainable and equitable future for all.

How a Material’s Past Can Tell a Story

During our discussion, Helen challenged us to ponder the stories behind the low carbon construction materials we often take for granted. How many people were involved in their creation? What impact did their production have on the quality of life for those involved? Were the social benefits shared among communities, regardless of affluence? Is it better to hire locally, even if it means more money spent on training, because having a skilled workforce will be better for the local economy in the long run?

 She also urged us to consider the environmental footprint left behind by the building process. Think about all stages, from the mining processes to the pollutants emitted and the energy consumed during production. She challenged manufacturers to think about the people who live where materials are produced, and use higher standards for things like waste management, regardless of the cost. These questions reminded us to think about all of the hidden aspects of materials’ past life, and what unintended consequences could result from too narrow a view.

The Material’s Present – Keeping Low Carbon Building Materials Close to Home

Helen encouraged us to embrace the idea of using location-based materials. She emphasized the importance of considering materials that are native to the region in which they are used. For example, in Alberta, Canada, it might make more sense to choose spruce over bamboo, whereas in Singapore, bamboo would be the obvious choice. Helen provided an example of the practice of using Terracotta in some parts of India for chai tea cups, which can then be crushed and recycled repeatedly.

By choosing local resources we also tap into the wealth of knowledge and ancestral wisdom embedded in these communities. Helen shared anecdotes of Asian scaffolders that listen to the sound of bamboo to determine its flexibility. She stressed the symbiotic relationship between environmental and economic sustainability, advocating for supporting local economies through regional supply chains. Supplying products to other regions puts additional strain on the local area when you might easily supply your own region while supporting its economic growth.

Helen inspired us to “celebrate materials” for what they inherently offer, instead of moulding them to fit preconceived designs. From an embodied carbon perspective, preserving old architectural designs is the best thing we can do. As Helen put it, we “can’t rebuild history”.

The Material’s Future – Making it Last

With an eye toward the future, Helen urged building professionals to consider material longevity. Iron Bark is a timber species recognized around the world for its denseness and durability, and thus is used for things like sleepers underneath rail lines and seaside piers. These traits make it a desirable material for other uses in a building, for example, high-traffic flooring.

Architects and designers should appreciate materials for what they are, and what they can and can’t do. Helen emphasized the significance of natural materials that biodegrade or can be reused at the end of their life cycles. She urged us to focus on the macro perspective, considering the contribution of materials to the environment and ecosystem. Designing for flexibility and adaptation, rather than succumbing to fleeting trends, was another key aspect she highlighted.

Similar to how we have a base build of a building, we should have a base build for office space, for example, that can withstand the coming and going trends. By embracing quality and durability, we can create buildings that stand the test of time, just like a timeless capsule wardrobe, instead of succumbing to the newest “fast fashion”.

How Policy Plays a Role in Sustainability

Policy emerged as a critical factor in our discussion. Helen cautioned against the imposition of global mandates re: low carbon building materials, recognizing the diverse contexts and stages of development across countries. Creating global mandates around sustainability is fruitless as each country has its own way of doing things.

Instead, Helen advocates for incentivizing manufacturers to meet higher sustainability standards. Helen shared her own experiences using policy to support her debates with multinational clients. She encouraged them to adopt equitable and sustainable building practices that proceed beyond borders. Multinational companies have an appetite to decarbonize, exhibit leadership, and have huge influence & investment capabilities. Establishing policies within these multinational companies that meet standards in countries like Australia, USA and Canada allows them to internalize those policies across all operations and bring those standards to countries with less influence.

That way, when these multinational companies work in countries with limited resources, policies, or enforcement capabilities, policies are already set in place for equitable and sustainable building standards. She also emphasized the need for countries with strong economies to lead by example. These countries can support supply chains in less developed regions and uplift communities through skills training. Some of these places have hidden and unrecognized skills that are worth tapping into and companies can help local workers upskill to meet global standards.

It’s Our Responsibility

As our interview drew to a close, Helen left us with a profound message: every individual in the industry holds a whole-life responsibility. We must be aware that our actions will have unintended consequences, and it’s our duty to consider the full impact.

By approaching our work with thoughtfulness, we can shape a more sustainable and equitable future. In the grand tapestry of sustainable architecture, Helen Cheng’s unwavering dedication and enlightened perspective serve as beacons of hope. She reminds us that it is within our power to uncover the whole-life story of low carbon building materials, crafting a narrative that champions environmental stewardship, social responsibility, and economic vitality. Let us heed her words and embark on this transformative journey, one material at a time. 

Watch the entire conversation with Helen Cheng here. 


About ‘Carbon Expert of the Month’

Carbon Expert of the Month is One Click LCA’s way to showcase the expertise, inspiration and best practices of One Click LCA users. Each month, we feature experts who are passionate about reducing carbon in general and from materials in particular, who seek to push projects beyond the boundaries of common practice, and who wish to share from their personal experience.

Keen to see more?

  • Article: Add link here
  • Webinar: Add link here
  • Blog: Add link here

Ready to streamline your EPD creation?

Experience the One Click LCA EPD Generator with our experts and book a demo.


Industry news & insights — straight to your inbox

Subscribe to One Click LCA's Carbon Experts Newsletter.