Net zero carbon buildings explained: here’s why they matter

Posted on: 3 January, 2024

If we’re to address our role in the ongoing climate crisis, the built environment needs to explore and champion the potential for net zero carbon buildings.

In 2023, the UK government pledged to take a pragmatic and proactive path to becoming net zero, with the aim to stop contributing to greenhouse gases in the atmosphere by 2050. This was a response to growing concerns around climate change and the impact humans are having on the planet.

There are several key contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, but by far one of the biggest contributors is the built environment. In fact, roughly 40% of carbon emissions come from the construction, operation and maintenance of buildings. Of that, 28% are a result of heating, cooling and lighting properties.

However, while new initiatives like modular construction and prefabrication are helping reduce emissions in the construction process, decarbonising buildings altogether may be the solution.

What are net zero carbon buildings?

The concept of a net zero carbon building comes from the World Green Building Council (WGBC) and refers to a building that is highly energy efficient. These buildings must be completely powered by on-site and/or off-site renewable energy sources.

Net zero buildings take advantage of any available, cost-effective technology that can help to reduce emissions, whilst also increasing the health, equity and prosperity of the local area.

The WGBC defined net zero carbon buildings in this way because they were dissatisfied with the existing concept of ‘net zero energy’. The hope is that all new buildings will be net zero by 2030 and the whole lifecycle of existing structures will follow suit by 2050. To achieve this, £3.9 billion worth of funding has been set aside for decarbonising heat and buildings in a bid to reduce the impact of the built environment on global emissions.

Why do we need to embrace net zero buildings?

Despite these goals being set, good intentions alone are not going to be enough to reach net zero status and it’s concerning to learn that the construction industry is significantly off track in terms of meeting the country’s net zero objectives.

While in-depth analysis found that carbon emissions from the UK built environment fell by 13% between 2018 and 2022, that was 6% less than the target (of 19%) needed to meet the commitments that were set out by the government. This might not seem like a lot, but in real terms that shortfall is equivalent to pollution from 6.5 million cars.

Learn more: What is embodied carbon (and what can we do about it)?

It’s clear from this data that the industry isn’t moving fast enough and in order to reach these goals, the construction industry will have to decarbonise nearly twice as fast by 2025 to get back on track. So, although it might be an uncomfortable truth, there’s a desperate need for the industry to address its role in the climate crisis, and the concept of net zero buildings allows them to do this. These properties will also be a critical solution for the built environment in the fight against climate change.

Additional benefits of net zero buildings

As well as recognising the role of construction in climate change, there are some other reasons why we need to focus on net zero buildings.

The most obvious benefit is that these buildings promote environmental sustainability and help to reduce our carbon footprint. As they are better for the environment, they directly help with the decarbonisation of the wider economy, another key target for 2050.

Another positive is that these building types produce clean energy – yet another win for the planet and another step towards the government’s net zero goals.

For those inhabiting these spaces, net zero buildings can reduce energy costs. Not only that, but the purified air and better internal environment can offer more comfort to all occupants.

These buildings are also designed to be more resilient than conventional buildings so they will last far longer, reducing the need for demolition and new builds, and require less maintenance overall.

So, if we hope to meet 2050 targets and continue to support climate initiatives well beyond this, net zero buildings are going to be a key solution.

How to make net zero carbon buildings a reality

While the simplest option may appear to be building new, energy-efficient houses in the future, this isn’t the only solution. In fact, it would be counterproductive to start demolishing existing structures only to replace them with new, net zero buildings. Instead, repurposing existing buildings is going to be a pivotal starting point.

Despite this, the current renovation rate for existing buildings barely reaches 1%, and more needs to be done to halt unnecessary demolition and revitalise these buildings through retrofitting.

Learn more: A guide to retrofitting (and how it could help us reach net zero)

Retrofitting is the process of improving an existing structure and fitting new systems to increase its energy efficiency and lower energy consumption. This can range from the smallest change, like introducing new energy-efficient light bulbs, all the way up to installing state-of-the-art heating systems and connected smart meters.

However, some may argue that if a building is no longer fit for purpose, retrofitting may not be enough to make it more efficient. In this case, adaptive reuse could be the better solution. Unlike retrofitting, this is the process of reusing an existing building in a different way than it was originally intended. An example could be transforming old navy barracks into a school or old office blocks into affordable housing.

Below are some other other key ways that net zero carbon buildings can become a reality.

1. Reducing the need for materials and replacements

An important move towards sustainability and net zero buildings is reducing the use of virgin materials. This is done by building stronger and better-designed structures from the start, those that use longer-lasting products that can also be reused or recycled.

Choosing these products and designing buildings in this way will also reduce the need for material replacements in the long term. It’s all about designing structures for adaptability, deconstruction and reuse.

2. Eradicating reliance on fossil energy

New research and technology are appearing all the time in a bid to offer more sustainable options and reduce the demand for energy from fossil fuels. Ultimately, the goal is to eradicate the need for these fuels completely.

By introducing new technology, as well as heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems that utilise renewable energy, we can slowly but surely reduce reliance on fossil energy in the built environment.

Learn more: Climate change denial: 6 common myths, debunked

3. Reskilling professionals in the industry

In order to prepare for the structures of the future, those who work in the built environment must consider learning new skills that are conducive to a net zero world. Whether it’s construction workers, architects, interior designers or any other position in the industry, investing strategically in training and upskilling professionals for the digital world can help to reduce carbon emissions and reliance on fuel long into the future.

Learn more: Diagnosing the green skills gap: what skills is the built environment missing?

4. Getting energy networks on board

Finally, it’s vital that energy networks are investing in sustainable solutions and taking proactive steps to be part of the net zero building revolution.

These companies need to start investing in new systems right away if they hope to remain competitive and ensure net zero goals are met.

They might also consider introducing reward schemes for those who make low-carbon choices through their energy bills. In doing so, low carbon demands can become the cheaper, mainstream option, leading to a brighter, healthier future.

Final thoughts

To sum up, a net zero future is ultimately about the four Rs: reducing, reusing, redesigning and reskilling.

We’re still a long way from reaching net zero status as both a sector and a nation, but if our sector takes responsibility for its contributions towards the climate crisis, together we can take positive steps towards making net carbon zero buildings a reality.

Sustainability isn’t a passing trend – it’s here to stay and is constantly evolving. If you want employees that inspire and action change in their careers, UCEM’s Sustainability Business Specialist Apprenticeship will give your teams the skills they need, both now and in the future.

Find out more: Sustainability Business Specialist Apprenticeship – University College of Estate Management