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Zero Carbon: How to build back better

The built environment is at the heart of plans for a more sustainable future – and everyone from investors and developers to occupiers and contractors has a role to play if the UK is to hit its ambitious carbon reduction targets.

In April, the UK Government committed to a 78% cut in carbon emissions by 2035 (compared to 1990 levels). The Prime Minister said the new pledge signalled “greater ambition”. It will also go some way to helping the Government meet a longer-term and more publicised commitment to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

These latest developments follow a warning from the Internal Energy Agency that CO2 emissions are likely to surge this year, as the world rebounds from COVID-19. Still, plenty of public and private sector groups sense an opportunity to ‘build back better’.

The UK government has a 10-point plan for a green industrial revolution. The built environment features heavily in this strategy, including an investment to improve the energy efficiency of homes, schools and hospitals.

This recent blog explained how the Minimum Energy Efficiency Standards (MEES) could help the organisations responsible for commercial property leases become more energy efficient. But MEES represents one small piece of a much larger carbon puzzle. To have a realistic chance of reducing the built environment’s significant contribution to CO2 emissions, there needs to be a widespread investment in green technologies and a more joined-up approach between stakeholders at every point of the built environment life cycle.

Solar with trees reflected

Invest in green
In recent years, the inclusion of low carbon or renewable energy technology has become a common requirement for local authorities to grant planning permission. In turn, demand for electrically powered systems instead of gas appliances is growing because the former uses less energy.

Andy Demetriou, Head of Integral’s Projects division, has seen a marked increase in the installation of energy efficient technology such as air, water and ground source heat pumps, photovoltaics and thermal solar installations for new builds and refurbishments. Demetriou also suggests other considerations when looking at sustainable schemes;

“Where buildings have a hybrid heating system, stakeholders should also consider biogas, bio-synthetic natural gas and hydrogen technology. In addition, we can review the suitability of combined heat and power, a system that traps heat that would otherwise be wasted and converts it into thermal energy, such as steam or hot water. “

Another way to ensure better energy efficiency within a building is to focus on passive house design principles, including building form, orientation, siting, shading, air -tightness and insulation, specialist glass, and heavy construction for thermal mass. Get these elements right and a building needs much less energy to run and keep occupants comfortable once it’s operational. Something as simple as installing bigger windows for more access to sunlight will allow occupiers to save energy by turning lighting and heating systems off for longer periods.

This is where an experienced project team can add further value by guiding organisations through the assessment tools – like Passivehaus and BREEAM – to support energy efficiency planning during the design process.

Connect the dots
The drive toward net zero has led to the emergence of ‘whole life carbon’, the process whereby a building’s carbon output is measured from construction through to destruction and disposal. Though these carbon emissions are not currently regulated, the London Plan, a spatial development strategy for the capital, has proposed that developers of large schemes should submit whole-life carbon calculations at the planning stage.

The shift in attitude towards whole-life carbon demonstrates the key to creating net zero buildings: developing a detailed understanding of how buildings run, and the way occupiers use them post-construction.

Demetriou stresses the importance of leveraging expertise in engineering and facilities services to provide crucial insights at the early stages of any build or refurbishment project. This may include guidance on the temperature and lighting in specific environments, orientation of equipment, the best internal layout of a building, and where can technology may be able to provide payback through energy efficiency. Too often, ignoring this expertise at the beginning of the design process leads to poor decision-making and costly refurbishment or replacement works in the future.

Get smart
Smart meters and sensors measure the energy performance and the indoor climate of buildings. By installing these systems in the construction phase, engineering teams can continue to provide analysis and guidance long after the building is occupied. Regularly scheduled reviews build a picture of where energy use is concentrated and where it’s being wasted. The data from these smart systems can also be used to educate occupiers to develop the right behaviours – if people are leaving lights on in unoccupied rooms, for example – and advise on further energy improvements by installing new technology.

Last April, when most buildings closed and almost all travel stopped due to COVID lockdown rules, global carbon emissions fell by record levels. It provided hope for change. But it also underlined the scale of the challenge ahead for sectors like the built environment if net zero remains a serious ambition.

Read time: 4:24 min.

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