Zero Carbon Buildings At Zero Cost

When it comes to cutting carbon, current commercial building standards simply don’t go far enough. If we’re to escape catastrophic climate change, we need to embrace measures that will cut carbon to zero – without increasing costs.

Zero carbon buildings need not carry a cost premium.
Zero carbon buildings need not carry a cost premium.

With countries such as China, Indonesia and Brazil striving for the West’s living standards and looking to adopt the green building standards as applied in the UK or US, carbon emissions are set to rise dramatically. In fact, given their current low energy use per person, it doesn’t take too many back-of-an-envelope calculations to show that we could expect 6ºC of climate change in this scenario.

So what more can we do? Most importantly, for wide adoption, a step-change in building carbon emissions will only occur if it costs no more than business-as-usual.  We can’t follow the model of BREEAM® or LEED where the assumption is that sustainability standards come with a cost premium affordable only by the most affluent.

Instead, a proposed ten steps that, when taken together as part of an integrated design, can deliver zero carbon buildings at zero cost.

1. Smart IT

Designing offices around tablet computers instead of PCs on every desk would cut energy needs dramatically for both IT power needs and cooling energy use.

2. LED task lighting

Rather than light the whole space to a high level irrespective of whether or not people are using it, adopting LED task lighting would more than half light energy use and likewise reduce the associated cooling energy demands.

3. Daylight

Research shows that people are less likely to turn on lights if a room feels bright. So we should focus on designing for quality of daylighting rather than just the quantity brought into a building.

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4. Adaptive comfort

Giving people control over their environment – the lighting, air movement and heating – is proven to improve productivity and reduce energy consumption.

5. Simple facades

Adopting modestly sized windows would help reverse the trend for complex and expensive facades that use a lot of materials.

6. Passive cooling

Reducing the cooling demands of electrical equipment and solar gains enable the thermal mass of the building itself to provide much of its cooling passively – eliminating the need for much of the air conditioning and further cuts energy use.

7. Small ‘M&E’

Reducing demand on the mechanical and electrical systems means a building can have smaller, cheaper and more energy-efficient M&E equipment.

8. Less material

With less space consuming M&E systems in the building, you can increase usable floor area, abolish the suspended ceiling, reduce storey heights and use less cladding material – all of which reduces the building costs.

9. On-site or local renewables

With considerably lower energy consumption, it becomes much easier to meet a building’s energy needs from on-site or local renewables.

10. Integrated design

These measures will only work if they’re taken together as part of an integrated design, rather than the pick-and-mix add-on approach of BREEAM® or LEED.

Is this realistic? These measures seem relatively straightforward. The challenge will be leading the advocacy for change to both institutional standards and industry inertia.

If we’re to change this and promote widespread adoption of zero carbon commercial buildings, then we in the industry must start speaking up.

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This article originally appeared in Arup.


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