Five key steps to creating a zero carbon building

Green transition 10 November 2020 Martin Bissell

While awareness within the construction industry of our responsibility to work towards net zero carbon is growing, we now need to accelerate harder and faster if we are to put good intentions into practice and make a tangible impact. Now is the time to embrace new delivery models and drive a widespread shift in the market’s expectations.

6 min

With the built environment contributing up to 40% of the UK’s total carbon footprint, the shift towards net zero carbon is already gathering pace across the industry’s supply chain and will continue to do so at ever greater speed as we transition to full decarbonisation by 2050. 

However, while awareness within the construction industry of our responsibility to work towards net zero carbon is growing, we now need to accelerate harder and faster if we are to put good intentions into practice and make a tangible impact. Now is the time to embrace new delivery models and drive a widespread shift in the market’s expectations.   

1. Awareness

With an abundance of rhetoric and multiple sources of information, how do you start developing a common language to ensure your teams understand the importance of advancing net zero? 

The UK Green Building Council’s (UKGBC) ‘Net Zero Carbon Buildings: A Framework Definition’ is a good place to start for accessible guidance on what net zero carbon means for buildings and why it matters. For more detailed guidance, LETI’s (London Energy Transformative Initiative) ‘Climate Emergency Design Guide’, provides a useful technical framework to work within.

Above all, clients, design teams and construction teams all need to believe that net zero carbon is necessary and should share a genuine passion to deliver it. Whilst having a single carbon specialist or “champion” on the team will of course help, successful delivery requires all in the team to be actively engaged in a positive way. Net zero carbon must be addressed and prioritised along with budget and other key brief requirements, rather than treated as a bolt-on optional extra.

2. Inform

It’s worth first remembering that while the UKGBC guidance is helpful to provide some level of initial direction on creating a road map, the specific considerations you have to take into account will very much be dependent on your business operations, your primary carbon drivers and how you fit into net zero target timescales geographically.

Whilst it is important to address the nationwide framework of net zero by 2050, this may not be the overriding timing for every business - for instance, Greater Manchester has set the target of all new buildings to be net zero by 2038 and Birmingham has declared a 2030 target. Once you’ve taken the time to understand the carbon profile of your business, you can start aligning with the various timings at play.

3. Invest 

Investing in net zero carbon design early will ultimately save in operational costs and potentially construction too. With this long-term goal in mind, designers should focus on desired outcomes and actual performance in use, rather than just designing to minimum compliance standards. 

This may mean more intensive work in the early stages but the financial, reputational and environmental pay off will be significant. Adopting an evidence-based approach from the very start in the design process will ensure bespoke solutions that trim the fat off design, resulting in leaner buildings that are more operationally efficient and significantly more cost effective to run.

4. Target

It’s important to remember that measuring carbon in a building from start to finish is still an emerging science and the whole supply chain is learning how to deal with it. With investors, regulators, internal demands and external stakeholders taking an ever-greater interest in carbon reduction, it makes sense to record the carbon impact of our buildings, products and processes from now on. Whether to reduce our taxation liability in the future, to appeal to a more climate savvy customer base, or to ensure that money is spent in the most carbon-efficient way, we can’t manage what we can’t measure.

Therefore, we would advocate setting carbon performance targets as part of the procurement strategy and insisting on carbon accounting throughout a project. This is a low-cost action for clients, but one with a hugely significant impact on the wider industry.  Even if the targets are not particularly challenging at first, it places a demand on the supply chain to start thinking about the carbon footprint of their own products and operations and to see carbon as a metric which must be measured and reduced to stay competitive in the market.  

5. Share

Industry collaboration will be key to accelerating change at the pace needed. Nobody wants to be seen as a “climate criminal” and contributing to the problem, so get out and talk about what you’re doing to move the agenda forward. The more awareness raised about what is being achieved in the net zero carbon space, the more pressure is put on peers and competitors to step up to the mark and thus the whole industry adapts more quickly. 

This can only be achieved by a greater openness and willingness across the industry to share our learnings. After all, with only a few building cycles between now and 2050, we must seize the small window of opportunity to learn and build upon on our knowledge of what works and equally what doesn’t. 

When approached positively, net zero carbon isn’t a threat, it’s a significant opportunity. A net zero carbon world is coming whether you are ready or not, so preparing early will be key to staying on the front foot for when regulatory change inevitably hits. Adapt now on your own terms to get ahead of the competition and be ready for the future.

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