A Moral Obligation: Net-Zero Design and the Fight Against Climate Change

Ross Davies 10 March 2020 (Last Updated March 10th, 2020 12:31)

With the built-up environment a serious contributor of carbon emissions, architects have a part to play in tackling climate change. While not yet a standard practice, net-zero design is surely the way forward, writes Ross Davies.

A Moral Obligation: Net-Zero Design and the Fight Against Climate Change
In 2019, the World Green Building Council (WGBC) revealed its Net-Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment had surpassed 60 signatories. Credit: Joseph Sohm via Shutterstock.

In September 2019, the World Green Building Council (WGBC) revealed its Net-Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment had surpassed 60 signatories.

Given this was accomplished in just shy of a year from the initiative’s launch is testament to how seriously it’s being taken. Among those to have signed the commitment – which aims to ensure all new building portfolios are carbon neutral by 2030 – are businesses, organisations, states and cities, including London, New York and Tokyo.

An obvious target for WGBC, architects are also starting to put pen to paper. In May, Foster + Partners became the first studio to sign the commitment. It has since been followed by Bennetts Associates, another UK-based practice.

More are hoped to follow, as part of WGBC’s mission to hold the construction industry to the goals laid out in the Paris Climate Agreement. With climate change now arguably the defining issue of our time, so architects need to grasp that they have a role to play in reducing carbon emissions.

According to the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), the built environment is responsible for approximately 40% of the UK’s carbon footprint. Earlier this year, the body gave its support to a new document published by the UK Green Building Council (the UK arm of WGBC).

The paper, entitled “Net-Zero Carbon Buildings: A Framework Definition”, determines approaches builders need to adopt to achieve carbon-neutral emissions. These include looking at emissions from a trilateral perspective: across a building’s construction, its operations and its whole lifecycle.

High on the agenda: Sustainable architecture practices

As well as working on aligning UKWGBC’s framework definition into its new Plan of Work – to be published soon – RIBA has also launched its own 2030 Climate Challenge, which calls on its members to incorporate more sustainable practices to reduce operation energy, embodied carbon and potable water.

“Tackling climate change is high on the agenda for architects,” says Adrian Dobson, RIBA’s executive director of professional services.

“It’s been encouraging to see so many architects sign up to our 2030 Climate Challenge, which sets tough but achievable targets to help meet net-zero – or better – whole life carbon for new and retrofitted buildings by 2030.”

“It is a responsibility that we have as a profession,” agrees Manny Atkinson, a director at architecture and design firm BTP. “Sustainable design and consideration to climate change is a key and very important topic increasingly at the forefront of an architect’s consideration.”

Leading proponents: Foster + Partners and Bennetts Associates

Victoria Burrows, WGBC’s director of advancing net-zero, also says she has been ‘inspired’ by recent examples of carbon neutral buildings, citing the examples of new projects by the aforementioned Foster + Partners and Bennetts Associates.

In addition to its 2030 pledge, Foster + Partners’ Bloomberg headquarters in London is widely considered to be the world’s most sustainable office building.

Completed in 2017, the structure’s façade includes built-in bronze fins that can be opened for natural ventilation, as well as aluminium petals inset with LED lights. Adjudicated against the BREEAM environmental assessment method, the building was given a rating of ‘outstanding’.

Bennetts, meanwhile, is working on Facebook’s new London headquarters. Set for completion in 2021, the King’s Cross-located building is targeting a sustainability rating of ‘excellent’ from BREEAM. This year, it also became the first architectural firm in the world to tick all the boxes set by Science Based Targets – an initiative backed by CDP, UN Global Compact, WRI and WWF – and commit to the UN’s Climate Neutral Now campaign.

The practice has been commended for its 20 sustainability targets for 2022 campaign, which includes a commitment to decrease its energy-related greenhouse gas emissions by at least 21% by 2022.

“These are powerful statements,” says Burrows. “They demonstrate that the design community understands how much their own spaces are responsible for energy and carbon emissions.

“They are identifying opportunities to reduce consumption, implementing decarbonisation action plans and have a better understanding of how to advise clients on achieving net-zero through addressing their own carbon footprint.”

Minimal consumption, maximum production: The ultimate net-zero energy dynamic

The ultimate aim of net-zero buildings is to either reduce or offset carbon emissions produced beyond construction and across their entire lifecycles.

“This includes the use of low carbon and carbon sink materials and construction methods; local sourcing and reuse of materials; conducting full lifecycle assessment; maximising opportunities to refurbish existing buildings; and designing buildings for disassembly to maximise material reuse,” says Burrows.

Constructions able to achieve this have the potential to not only be low-impact but actually serve as an energy source for the wider area.

This is the case with Lark Rise, a smart home situated in the Buckinghamshire town of Aylesbury, UK. Designed by bere:architects, it is the country’s first domestic dwelling to be designed to Passivhaus Plus – the world’s toughest energy design standard.

Completed in 2015, Lark Rise produces around double the energy it consumes and exports ten times as much energy as it gets from the national grid.

No time to delay: Are architects ready to act now?

Across the Atlantic, the signs are as equally encouraging – in spite of President Trump’s position of scepticism around climate change. In 2017, New York university Cornell Tech revealed its plans to make the Bloomberg Centre the world’s first net-zero high-rise.

Mayor Bill de Blasio is also reported to be considering a bill that would ban the construction of new glass skyscrapers – which require more energy to heat and to cool – in the city.

Scientists have warned for some time now that global warming is not a future peril, but one that is taking place right now. That architects grasp the severity of the situation and their environmental responsibilities is encouraging. But an attitudinal shift alone won’t suffice. As RIBA’s Dobson says: “We must take action without delay.”

“Changing the way the construction industry operates is not going to happen overnight but architects have the knowledge, skills and experience to lead in making these changes,” he says.

“Architects will need all their powers of persuasion to make the case to clients for exceeding regulatory minimums and ensure they’re on board with tackling the climate emergency.”