Net zero carbon buildings: we have the tools, we just need the will and commitment
Jesse Putzel • 12 Mar 2019 •
Since the loss of our national (UK) targets for zero carbon buildings in 2015, progress in moving the agenda forward has been slow. Save for a few exemplar projects that showcase the possibilities of net zero carbon, the majority hover around either meeting the bare minimum for building regulations, or make diminutive improvements. But that doesn’t look like the status quo for much longer, with the launch of a major new program from UK Green Building Council (UKGBC), who are setting out to fast track the move to buildings that have a net zero carbon impact: the Advancing Net Zero programme.
BAM is one of six program partners, along with a wide range of stakeholder organisations (experts in their field), supporting the first stages of this multi-year program. Inspired by the World Green Building Council’s Campaign, the program of work endeavours to drive the transition to a net zero carbon built environment in the UK. It will seek to gain consensus around a definition of what a net zero carbon building is and also set targets, provide guidance and gain industry – and eventually government – commitments.
So how can net zero carbon buildings be achieved?
The initial steps – and the program’s chief concern – are to gain a thorough understanding of the energy that buildings use throughout their life-cycle, in doing so ascertaining ways to minimise that consumption as much as possible. This needs to be driven from the earliest stages of projects, with unequivocal objectives running right through from clients to contractors, and the wider supply chain. If we can achieve this, it will make the task of powering and heating these buildings with low or zero carbon energy much easier, although still challenging.
The program will also look to address the wider (whole life) carbon impacts that buildings have, from manufacture and supply of the materials that go into them, to the impact of maintenance and refurbishment, and eventual end-of-life. This is important, because even as we drive down energy use and fully utilise renewable energy, we’re still left with a huge pool of carbon impacts. As contractors, designers and clients, we can have a huge influence over these; if we ignore them we won’t achieve the challenging targets necessary to mitigate the impacts of climate change.
Creative solutions will also be needed. For instance, how we might offset the building’s impacts through off site solutions (in the short and medium term, not all types and sizes of buildings could be powered by on-site renewable energy). Options could include the purchasing of certified renewable energy from the grid, or specific projects to develop renewable energy generation or improve energy efficiency elsewhere - as long as it’s a local or regional investment and achieves something that wouldn’t have happened without it.
To address whole life emissions (all the carbon from using a building plus everything else), a good start would be to require all projects to measure whole life impacts – then we can start targeting meaningful improvements.
At BAM, we know that this is the way the industry must go and we will be proactive and work with our peers and our clients to quicken the pace of change. We’ve already seen that net zero carbon buildings are possible. We delivered the first ever zero carbon primary school in Exeter, Montgomery Primary. This was built using the Passivhaus standard to achieve high levels of energy efficiency and onsite renewables were then capable of providing enough power over a year to run the building.
Montgomery School - built to PassivHaus standards in Exeter
In the Netherlands we are actively delivering zero energy homes, which produce as much energy as they need on site (or more) through high levels of energy efficiency and onsite renewable energy systems. This is becoming much more widespread in the Netherlands where they have a clear road map that both business and government are aligned to.
Getting to the point where every project we deliver is net zero carbon seems like an overwhelming challenge. The timescales we have to make this transition are also frightening… to keep to the limits of temperature increases caused by climate change that we need, we need every building to be zero carbon from 2030. But, we know it’s technically possible. We already have the tools, we just need the will and commitment.
Jesse Putzel is Head of Sustainability at BAM Construct UK
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