Net zero carbon

Is ‘net zero carbon’ a phrase? A political slogan? A commitment? A challenge? To us, as a purpose-driven partnership of engineers and sustainability consultants, and working as we do in a construction industry that contributes more CO2 emissions per year than aviation, it’s an imperative.  

But what does it mean? What is a net zero carbon building in reality? Is ‘net zero carbon’ something you can buy for your building – a service just like acoustics consultancy or Post Occupancy Evaluation, or a design approach like Passivhaus?

Young children playing in garden at Woodlands Day Nursery and Forest School, Staffordshire University.

About net zero carbon

In truth, ‘net zero carbon’ is a recipe. A net zero carbon building must first be net zero in operational carbon. This typically means using 75% less energy in heating, cooling, and lighting than a typical building, by prioritising passive environmental design strategies, embracing all-electric engineering designs, and maximising the use of on-site renewable energy (solar PVs). A Passivhaus approach is usually the lowest risk approach to achieving this in practice. 

A net zero carbon building must also have low embodied carbon – significantly less than a standard construction today, in line with the UK Net Zero Standard. We have been at the forefront of measuring embodied carbon for several years. We provide design advice at the start of the project to set the embodied carbon strategy; support the design development with optioneering; carry out detailed embodied carbon modelling during design and post-completion; and monitor during construction. 

Only once both operational and embodied carbon emissions have been reduced to the agreed efficiency standards for those building types, can the remaining carbon be offset using a recognised framework. And only if designed to meet the UK Net Zero Carbon Buildings Standard efficiency levels in construction and operation, can the building be verified as net zero carbon. 

Soft Landings and Post Occupancy Evaluation are the final ingredients in a truly net zero carbon building. They ensure that the in-use performance targets set at the earliest project stages are being met in practice: we measure a building’s ‘as-built’ energy consumption; and fine-tune its operation, user comfort, and energy efficiency.

For owners of estates or those with large portfolios, a strategic decarbonisation approach may be required. We look at our clients’ portfolios and advise on the most appropriate route to net zero carbon, considering the practicalities, any planned preventative maintenance, and the economics of delivery. 

We have been at the forefront of designing to mitigate the Climate Emergency for decades. All five of our own offices have been verified as net zero carbon by the UKGBC since 2019; we design without fossil fuels as the default; and we are leaders in the national conversation on sustainability in construction. We are well-placed and willing to help our clients navigate the often-complex pathways to achieving and verifying net zero carbon in buildings and portfolios. We offer a workshop to all our clients to start them on this journey as part of the value we add on all projects.

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