The Language of Carbon: A Glossary of Terms

Seventeen terms that will help you talk the talk of carbon positive design.

Content used with permission from ARCHITECT Magazine and Architecture 2030. Originally published January 15, 2020.

Adaptive reuse
Reusing an existing building for a new purpose. As an alternative to new construction, adaptive reuse can allow a project to significantly reduce its embodied carbon impact and participate in a circular economy.

Bio-based material or biomaterial
A product that consists of a substance (or substances) derived from living matter (biomass).

Carbon footprint
The total amount of greenhouse gas, particularly carbon dioxide, emitted as the result of a specific activity.

Carbon positive
A city, development, building, or product that goes beyond carbon neutral to create an environmental benefit, and intentionally removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and turns it into useful forms.

Carbon sequestration
The process of capturing and storing atmospheric carbon dioxide that would otherwise be emitted or remain in the atmosphere.

Carbon smart material
A material that is low carbon, carbon neutral, or carbon sequestering.

Circular economy
An alternative to the linear economy model (which is premised on extraction, production, and disposal) based on the principles of designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems.

The replacement of fossil fuel-based building systems (e.g. natural gas space and water heaters) with electric systems, which can be fossil fuel free if powered by on- or off-site renewable energy or a carbon-free electric grid.

Embodied carbon
The CO₂ emitted during the extraction, manufacture, and transport of building materials and products, and the construction of buildings and infrastructure.

Embodied energy
The energy consumed during the extraction, manufacture, and transport of building materials and products, and the construction of buildings and infrastructure.

Energy upgrade
Improving the energy efficiency of building operations and shifting to electric systems powered by the procurement or on-site generation of renewable energy.

Environmental product declaration
An internationally accepted, verified, and published report that communicates transparent information about the environmental impacts of a product throughout its life cycle.

Life cycle assessment (LCA)
A standardized, data-driven method of tracking and reporting the environmental impacts of a product or process throughout its full life cycle.

Mass timber
A type of structural system that utilizes large solid or engineered wood panels and framing members.

Operational energy
The amount of energy that a building consumes for heating, cooling, ventilation, lighting, equipment, and appliances.

Renewable procurement
The attainment or acquisition of renewable energy not generated on-site, by the purchase of renewable energy credits, shares in community solar, or other means.

Zero net carbon
A highly energy-efficient building that produces on-site, or procures, enough carbon-free renewable energy to meet building operations energy consumption annually.


The Blueprint for Better campaign is a call to action. AIA is asking architects, design professionals, civic leaders, and the public in every community to join our efforts. Help us transform the day-to-day practice of architecture to achieve a zero-carbon, resilient, healthy, just, and equitable built environment.

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