Net Zero Carbon Week took place earlier in July, and following it we reflected on some of the key points that we took away from the discussions we engaged with. Whilst there is certainly a growing appetite within our industry to understand Net Zero Carbon, there is still a considerable amount of misleading or contradictory information being shared.

To help add clarity, we have outlined some lessons we’ve learnt at Chetwoods from designing and delivering buildings that are targeting and achieving alignment with the UKGBC Net Zero Carbon Framework Definition.

What does Net Zero Carbon mean?

Net Zero Carbon refers to the balance of Greenhouse Gases (GHG) emissions and the amount removed from the atmosphere. The GHG are often referred to as ‘carbon emissions’ in general usage. The UK government has a legally binding target to deliver a Net Zero Carbon Britain by 2050, however the consequences of the climate and ecological emergency are already being felt at home and across the world and so there is no time to waste.

This is a significant undertaking and is why the task is being broken down into smaller pieces to process. The GHG emissions related to the operations of a business are typically broken down into Scopes 1–3:

Chetwoods net zero carbon

When it comes to buildings, the UK Green Building Council has determined an industry recognised Framework Definition for Net Zero Carbon Buildings. There are three scopes for a building:

Chetwoods net zero carbon

How is Net Zero Carbon for buildings achieved?

First of all, the scope needs to be defined: construction, operational or whole life carbon. There then needs to be whole design team engagement to reduce emissions through design, to the point where real barriers are understood. It is not enough to say that it didn’t work five years ago, the industry is constantly shifting and improving. Modelling is recommended but there are also basic principles to be considered as standard:

  • If there are existing buildings on site, can they be retained, or if not, deconstructed for reuse?
  • Can the scale of the scheme be rationalised?
  • Look at orientation and form factors.
  • Aim to exceed building regulations for thermal efficiency using Passivhaus or LETI targets.
  • Is the structure as efficient as possible, can a bio-based structural system be applied? Failing that, could any reclaimed structural elements be used?
  • Specify bio-based or reclaimed materials wherever possible.
  • Specify renewable energy where energy demand is known or can be predicted, facilitating for more if required.
  • Consider designing the building to be able to give back additional energy generated to another building in the community.
  • Design for adaptability and disassembly. Generally designing in accordance with Circular Economy principles.
  • Set out to demonstrate improvements against the RIBA 2030 Climate Challenge and LETI embodied and operational emissions targets.

We find the best results come when the broader supply chain is involved in the conversation: subcontractors, technical staff from manufacturing and at times PhD students and academics.

Once all avenues have been exhausted within the contextual constraints of the project, the remaining emissions resulting from sourcing to construction need to be offset. At this point in time, offsetting ought to be perceived more as carbon philanthropy. Offsets programmes today do not have an immediate effect; they are not generally sequestering carbon from the atmosphere immediately – but over a period of time in the future, so they should not be relied upon as a sole means of reaching Net Zero Carbon in construction.

There is a Net Zero Carbon Certification by the UKGBC in the works which will confirm that a building has followed this process as best as possible. However, this will be specific to the UK, and in the meantime the International Living Futures Institute has also released a zero carbon certification, which seems to follow similar principles.

Does Net Zero Carbon give the full picture?

We need to get to a point very quickly where we are delivering buildings in alignment with the UKGBC Net Zero Carbon Building framework definition, adhering to LETI targets and measuring carbon emissions on schemes as standard, but we do also need to remember that there are broader aspects to address the climate and ecological emergency.

We must consider the UN Sustainable Development Goals in design decisions if we want to avoid unfortunate trade-offs. The best decisions are those that serve the ecosystems of the planet as best as possible and we need to bring communities along with us.

An example of bigger picture thinking is that water conservation is not directly included in the Net Zero scope of work. It is important to highlight that hot water usage can be responsible for a considerable amount of energy, and therefore reducing overall water consumption and improving hot water systems should always be considered when designing Net Zero buildings.

There are different schools of thought on offsetting. Some create surplus clean energy to compensate for remaining embodied carbon.

Chetwoods approach to Net Zero Carbon

At Chetwoods, reducing our impact on our planet is extremely important to us. Our mission to reduce carbon emissions from all our buildings is integrated in all three areas of our brand – Studio, Thrive and Works. Studio considers the human experience, striving to design buildings that will last for generations to come, Thrive reminds us that orientation, form and material choice is key. Works champions the digital delivery of projects, implementing and researching cutting-edge technology to improve efficiencies and measure our carbon impact.

We have been a climate positive practice since 2019, however we are still on a journey to reducing our emissions and our reliance on Gold Standard offsets.

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