The net zero building: Why we need to transform the built environment and achieve carbon neutrality

net zero building

Today’s office and commercial building designs are taking the net zero movement to new levels. As more businesses become aware of the need to reduce their carbon footprint, the term has entered the mainstream and, slowly but surely, more net zero buildings are springing up.

This is a major step in the right direction for climate change, energy efficiency and sustainable design practices. However, it’s not without its challenges. Architects, builders, real estate companies and other professionals working in the built environment are looking at ways to implement net zero features in existing commercial spaces so they can continue to meet the growing demand while also reducing carbon emissions. Yes, it’s a tall ask and there are many variables, but it’s completely achievable.

Read on to learn more about the importance of net zero buildings, how buildings contribute to climate change, and what we can do to achieve a net zero carbon built environment.

 

Why is net zero important?

In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a warning that struck a chord – limiting global warming by 1.5%, as outlined in the Paris Climate Agreement, was not going to be easy. The IPCC said that by 2030 greenhouse gas emissions would need to be dramatically cut in order to stay on track for net zero emissions by 2050. A tough task by any reckoning.

Historically, zero carbon policies tended to focus on operational emissions, such as energy consumption, looking primarily at the performance of new buildings in what was a rather limited scope. Instead, the approach needs be much broader. Some organisations championing the drive to net zero now look at retrofitting existing buildings as well as accounting for net zero at the build and operational phases.

Those at the vanguard decided that waiting for policy to inform practice would get us nowhere. A challenge such is this does not fall squarely at the feet of governments, it requires widespread collaboration – businesses, local and national governments, non-governmental organisations, developers and individuals would all would need to work together to reduce emissions. Upon this realisation, some set about bringing these together in order to find the best solutions to the industry’s most pressing issues.

BE-ST is one such organisation. They work with architects, suppliers, contractors, developers, housebuilders, industry leaders, policymakers and key stakeholders to find the outcomes necessary for change. It’s this level of collaboration that will ultimately make waves and inspire true, global transformation. BE-ST’s pledge perfectly illustrates the range of considerations we must make.

 

The BE-ST net zero pledge

  • A built environment that produces zero carbon emissions.
  • A sector that is data-rich and digitally enabled.
  • Safeguarding of existing jobs & businesses and creating new green jobs & businesses.
  • Greater supply chain resilience.
  • Talent attraction, improved education pathways and a highly skilled workforce.
  • Attraction of inward investment and enabling of businesses to export.
  • More impact from academic investment and help increase business investment in innovation and R&D.
  • Green economic growth across all sectors underpinned by a vibrant and sustainable construction and built environment ecosystem.
  • Eradication of fuel poverty and tackle health inequalities.
  • More efficient use of public investment and support a just transition.
  • Diverse talent attraction and retention.
  • Better places for Scotland’s citizens to live, work and explore.

As you can see, it’s not all construction materials and efficient lighting. Better education around the topic, social justice, technological advancement and fiscal responsibility all feature in a framework that treats a net zero built environment seriously. 

 

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How do buildings contribute to climate change?

Understanding how buildings contribute to climate change is incredibly important. Otherwise, how are we going to change what we don’t understand? 

Buildings contribute to carbon emissions in a number of ways, but the most pressing of all is how we use them and how we build them. Every year, buildings account for approximately 36% of global energy use and 39% of energy-related carbon emissions. This includes the construction phase, too.

Perhaps even more alarming is that in the United States alone, commercial and residential buildings account for around 40% of the nation’s energy consumption. All told, buildings are one of the biggest sources of greenhouse gas emissions.

We typically measure building emissions in two ways. First is operational emissions. These come from things like energy consumption – the heating, lighting and cooling of a building. Operational emissions account for roughly 28% of emissions each year. Second is the manufacturing of building materials and the construction itself. These account for about a quarter of a building’s emissions during its lifecycle and 11% of emissions globally.

The carbon emissions of a building are complicated, but we know that their carbon footprint is significant and it must change. In the end, the goal is clear – we must follow the path to a carbon neutral built environment full of net zero buildings.

 

What is a net zero building?

Net zero simply means balancing our carbon emissions with the carbon we take in. In the case of buildings, it means that the building is no longer adding to the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Instead, it has reached net-zero or carbon neutrality.

Typically, most buildings produce more energy than they consume. This is especially true of newly constructed buildings that have not taken into consideration net zero or sustainable practices during the design and construction phases. The next phase, during the occupation of a building, is where we can look at monitoring and measuring things like energy consumption, retrofitting inefficiencies where we find them.

In order for a building to achieve zero operational emissions, there are a few things we must consider. It needs to be as energy efficient as possible, powered by renewable energy if possible, with any of the left over carbon emissions offset in other ways. 

When it comes to construction, carbon emissions as a result of the production of materials and the construction need to be offset, too. This reduction in embodied carbon can be achieved through renewable energy, the use of sustainable materials or, again, offsetting those carbon emissions.

 

5 steps towards a net zero building

  1. Establish the scope – This step looks at the operational energy and construction emissions.
  2. Reduce the environmental impact of construction – The production of materials and construction phases need to take into account whole life carbon and embodied carbon of the building.
  3. Reduce operational energy use – Energy demand and energy consumption should be measured and monitored using smart building sensors, for example.
  4. Increase the supply of renewable energy – Sourcing on-site or off-site renewable energy can make a considerable impact on offsetting the whole life carbon and embodied carbon of a building.
  5. Offset the remaining carbon – Offsetting frameworks and strategies should be used to offset any remaining carbon. 

 

A net zero future

It’s true that without buildings our communities cannot function, but we must accept that building emissions are catastrophic for the climate. Net zero buildings are needed now more than ever.

While the energy intensity of the building sector is getting better – improving by about 1.5% each year – more buildings are being constructed. However, net zero buildings still only account for approximately 1% of all buildings across the world. If action isn’t taken soon, the carbon emissions of buildings will likely double by 2050. 

So, as we push towards net zero carbon goals, striving to hit each and every target and milestone along the way, we must be mindful of every stage of the built environment process, from planning all the way through to use.

Our future depends on it.