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the complex realities of net zero design


As awareness of our responsibility to the environment grows, More attention is being paid to the promise of net zero buildings.

13th February 2024

Promising a future where buildings produce as much energy as they consume has led net-zero buildings to gain significant attention around the world. But are they truly possible, or is just a matter of trading carbon credits to disguise polluting buildings? 

There are three elements involved in being net zero: generating energy through on-site renewable resources, saving energy by using technological design strategies, and off-setting carbon credits.  

Before diving into the issues, we should establish a clear understanding of these key terms: 

Net Zero: A net zero building is one that balances the energy it consumes with the energy it produces over the course of a year. As well as operational energy for heating, cooling, lighting, and so on, it should also include the energy used in the building's construction. 

Sustainability: Its different to net zero, in that sustainable buildings are environmentally responsible and do not use up irreplaceable natural resources, emit carbon, and degrade the environment. 

Carbon credits: These help property developers build net zero buildings by allowing them to offset emissions that are challenging to eliminate entirely. They can be gained by offsetting projects such as reforestation and they can be bought and traded. 

Real-World Examples: Net Zero Buildings Making an Impact

The benefits net zero buildings offer in fighting climate change are undisputed. With the built environment being blamed for 40% of the planet’s carbon emissions, it is an obvious focal point.    

By generating renewable energy and reducing their energy consumption, net zero buildings reduce their carbon footprints. While the initial construction costs may be higher, net zero buildings typically result in lower long-term operational expenses owing to reduced energy bills. 

They benefit internal environment for residents and workers with enhanced insulation, efficient HVAC systems, and natural lighting to improve indoor air quality and comfort. They are generally more resilient than their counterparts as they are often designed to withstand disruptions in energy supply such as power outages or extreme weather events. 

The Controversy Surrounding Carbon Credits

With all these impressive benefits what is holding developers back? Perhaps unsurprisingly money is the biggest block. Designing and constructing net zero buildings can be more expensive than conventional structures, deterring some investors and developers away. 

Most renewable energy sources are weather-dependent such as solar panels and wind turbines leading to energy deficits on cloudy or windless days, requiring energy storage solutions. 

There are technological hurdles. Achieving net zero can need cutting-edge technology which may not be available at the time or place needed. Another key issue is occupant behaviour. A building's net zero status relies on its occupants continuing to use energy-efficient practices, which can be difficult to maintain and enforce. 

This is something we at Pavegen feel strongly about and we have helped some clients use our kinetic energy tiles as a way of not only generating electricity from footsteps, but also helping to build awareness of a sustainability initiative in their building.  

Real-World Examples: Net Zero Buildings Making an Impact (Continued)

Does this mean net zero buildings are a pipe dream? Well, there are several noteworthy buildings around the world claiming net zero status which serve as examples of what can be achieved. 

One of the leading companies in the field is an Amsterdam based developer, Edge. Its head office built in 2014 was dubbed the "greenest office building in the world" with a BREEAM (Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method) rating of 98.36%. It says its first fully net zero project will be Edge London Bridge in the UK, to be delivered in 2025. 

While across the pond in Seattle the Bullitt Center is a commercial office building that its owners say was “designed to show what’s possible today, changing the way people think about high performance green building.” It generates all its energy from renewable sources, has an innovative rainwater harvesting system for water needs, composting toilets, toxic-free materials, and FSC wood. 

British firm, Peel L&P has a portfolio of 11 buildings certified as net zero according to the UK Green Building Council’s (UKGBC) definition. Its office block in Manchester, The Venus, uses the ISO50001 Energy Management System, all its waste is either recycled or used for energy recovery and has a BREEAM rating of ‘very good’.  

Claiming to be largest net zero building in the world, The Unisphere, in Maryland in the USA, features almost 3,000 solar panels. It has an indoor pool for passive heat regulation and an ‘energy wheel’ that uses real-time data to monitor net energy consumption. Smart, integrated systems target resources according to indoor occupancy levels. 

Located in the heart of Dubai, The Change Initiative Building is a retail and office space incorporating advanced building materials, rooftop solar panels, efficient HVAC systems, and rainwater harvesting. The structure was awarded LEED Platinum certification.  

These examples showcase the diverse approaches to achieving net-zero energy status in various building types and environments. They underscore the importance of innovation, sustainable design, and the integration of renewable energy sources to create a more sustainable and environmentally friendly built environment. 

The Path to a Sustainable Future with Net Zero Buildings

The third element of net zero is also its most controversial. Carbon credits are criticised by some with environmental, economic, and ethical concerns.  

Some argue that carbon offset projects may not deliver the promised emissions reductions and is some cases may even lead to increased emissions if projects are poorly designed, monitored inadequately, or lack environmental integrity. 

Others cite a lack of standards in the market making it harder to compare the credits across different projects. The opacity of some carbon offset projects and the difficulty in tracking the flow of funds and actual emissions reductions have raised general concerns about the overall legitimacy and accountability of the carbon credit market. 

Factor in the volatility of the carbon credit markets, and the potential use of carbon credits to appear environmentally responsible without making substantive changes to emissions - or so-called "greenwashing" - and the opposition is substantial. Some view carbon offsets as a way for individuals or companies to continue high emissions lifestyles or activities with minimal personal sacrifice, potentially undermining broader efforts to reduce emissions. 

All this highlights the needs for robust oversight, transparency, and continuous improvement in the process to ensure that they live up to their promise of climate change mitigation while addressing these ethical and environmental concerns. 

It is clear net zero buildings offer compelling environmental and financial benefits, but they are not without their challenges. The path to achieving and maintaining net zero status can be arduous. However, as technology advances and society's commitment to sustainability deepens, net zero buildings will surely become an increasingly realistic and necessary aspiration in our collective effort to combat climate change and secure a sustainable future. 

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