Ever more companies, cities and even nations are committing to deliver net zero buildings in an effort to tackle climate change. This is certainly welcome news for the planet, but what exactly are net zero buildings?
Let’s dig into this trend – and explore a handful of net zero building examples – to learn more about what this concept really means.
What are net zero buildings?
Net zero carbon buildings can be defined as any structures that have no net carbon emissions associated with their construction, usage, or decommissioning. Net-zero carbon means that either no carbon dioxide was emitted during the building’s creation, or the CO2 released during the build was offset (by, for instance, planting trees). There are several net zero construction standards, including BREEAM, LEED, and DGNB, among others.
To be truly net zero:
- The construction stage needs to be carbon neutral – with low impact materials and methods used
- There should be no emissions during the building’s usage
- The building also needs to achieve net zero during decommissioning (by, for instance, recycling materials)
Why do we need to reduce building emissions?
The argument for net zero construction is straightforward. The World Green Building Council estimates that 39% of carbon emissions are associated with the construction industry, and an additional 28% to building operations (heating, cooling and lighting).
Most countries have committed to achieving net zero carbon emissions by the year 2050 in order to achieve the Paris Agreement climate goals. Since buildings and construction are responsible for such a significant chunk of carbon emissions, finding ways to eliminate them is crucial to achieving those targets.
While net zero construction is certainly a part of the solution to tackling climate change, there are many other things the industry can do to tackle the problem, including:
- Avoiding knocking down old buildings, and instead repurposing them
- Insulating existing buildings to reduce emissions
- Avoiding new construction altogether unless absolutely necessary
Common features of net zero carbon buildings
There are several different ways of making a building net zero, and the techniques and methods used ultimately depend on local climate, resources and availability of materials. Below are some common features and design elements found in net zero buildings.
- Passive design: Passive design attempts to provide both heating and cooling of a building via passive means (sunshine, shade, ventilation, insulation), rather than active means (i.e. HVAC systems).
- Sustainable materials: Net zero construction prioritises the use of sustainable materials, with a particular focus on timber (since this material can regrow whilst also sequestering carbon), bamboo, cob, and recycled plastics or steel.
- Minimising waste: Net-zero construction uses smart project management and BIM design to plan the use of materials as accurately as possible. This helps minimise the waste of materials during construction.
- Carbon offsetting: Net zero buildings try to avoid the use of fossil fuels and energy-intensive materials like concrete during construction. However, when this cannot be avoided, they try to offset these emissions through things like tree planting.
- On-site renewable energy generation: Many net zero carbon buildings generate energy sustainably on-site through the use of things like solar panels, or ground and air heat pumps. It is also common to provide spaces for electric car charging, cycle storage and other sustainability features.
Recommended: Key principles of sustainable building design
6 net zero building examples
So, what does net zero construction look like? Here are six examples of net zero buildings in the UK:
White Collar Factory, London
Image source: Cory Doctorow, Flickr
The White Collar Factory is a 16-storey office building close to the Old Street roundabout technology hub. It provides a mixture of office, residential and retail space, plus a public square and cycle parking. Completed in 2017, the building was designed to BREEAM standards and comprises a number of unique features to reduce the building’s carbon footprint. This includes a clever cooling system that funnels cold water through pipes in the building’s concrete core.
Image source: Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios
Paradise is a six-storey office in South London which claims to have achieved carbon negative status thanks to the extensive use of cross-laminated timber throughout its construction. The studio behind the building reckons that the sequestered carbon within the timber effectively offsets the emissions generated during the building’s construction.
Goldsmith Street, Norwich
Image source: Mikhail Riches
Winner of the 2019 Stirling Prize for architecture, Goldsmith Street is a terraced social housing development built to passive design standards. The 93 homes on the site use minimal energy and are easy to maintain, while cars are restricted to the edge of the development.
Boughton Heath Retirement Village, Chester
The planned Boughton Heath Retirement Village will cover 15,000 square metres and provide 114 new flats. The development features an ambient loop heat network which is expected to cut emissions from heating by 50%. The project will also generate renewable energy on-site.
Apex Park Warehouse, Daventry
Image source: Prologis
As e-commerce has boomed, there’s been a parallel rise in the number of warehouses built. And the new Prologis warehouse in Northamptonshire provides 435,000 square feet and claims to have gone beyond net-zero carbon construction standards. Achieving a BREEAM outstanding certificate, it includes built-in sustainability features such as a rooftop solar array and rainwater harvesting.
Woodlands Day Nursery, Staffordshire
This nursery and forest school is built with a timber frame, timber cladding and timber canopy. Besides using sustainable materials, it also uses air source heat pumps for cooling and heating as well as a roof-mounted solar array.
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The right tools for net-zero buildings
A growing number of construction firms, architects, designers and engineers have committed to the idea of net zero buildings. This target is ambitious, but achievable – so long as businesses change their processes and ways of working.
PlanRadar can support firms that are working on net zero construction. During the construction phase, the PlanRadar app can be used to manage projects efficiently and identify problems such as poor insulation so they can easily be fixed by the construction team. PlanRadar can also help facilities managers to ensure that the sites they run are being maintained optimally so that the structure continues to comply with zero carbon standards.
Learn more about PlanRadar here, and find out how it can support you to construct net zero buildings.