Sustainability in construction: Famous net zero buildings
40% of global carbon emissions come from buildings, so for the UK and the world to meet net zero targets the construction industry has to find ways to significantly reduce emissions. It is a challenging task, not least because 80% of the buildings that we will need by 2050 – the UK’s net zero deadline – are already in use or in the planning process.
But it is possible to construct and operate net zero buildings, and they offer huge opportunities for sustainable construction careers – as this guide to green architecture will show.
What is a net zero building?
A carbon neutral building or net zero building is one that in its construction and operational life, has not had a negative impact on its environment. If a net zero building has generated carbon emissions, then these have been less than the amount of carbon that the building has removed from the atmosphere.
Features of net zero buildings
The most common characteristics of net zero buildings include the following:
- A reduction in the use of building materials with high-emission impacts
- Incorporating low-emission building techniques, such as offsite construction
- Making buildings energy self-sufficient through renewable energy sources and systems
Embodied and operational emissions
Embodied carbon emissions are those that are generated through construction activity. It includes the way that building materials are sourced and transported, and what happens at the construction site itself. Carbon offsetting can be used to reduce the impact of embodied emissions, as it is more difficult at present to achieve net zero during the construction phase.
Operational emissions relate to the carbon that is emitted by a building during its day-to-day life. In other words, how much energy does it consume, particularly from non-renewable sources, relative to what it produces? While still challenging, limiting operational emissions is becoming a feature of building design and one that is only going to increase in the future.
Certification of sustainability
Several certification schemes assess the green credentials of new buildings or those retrofitted with sustainable systems. Sustainability certificates set standards for building designers and developers to aspire to, and reward companies that meet carbon-neutral building standards.
Benefits and challenges of net zero buildings
Net zero carbon construction has clear benefits, both for the people that occupy these buildings and for the wider environment:
- With every net zero building, carbon emissions fall
- Energy efficient buildings cost less to heat
- Sustainable buildings are usually more comfortable places in which to live and work
- They hold their value over less efficient buildings
The challenges are clear, too, however:
- Net zero carbon construction is more expensive than standard construction
- Up-front costs can put developers off
- Retrofitting buildings will take decades to have an impact on sustainability
- Embodied emissions are harder to control than operational emissions
Famous net zero buildings worldwide
The Forge, London, UK
The Forge, a nine-storey, 13,000m2 office development in Bankside, London, is the first commercial premises in the UK to be designed according to the UK Green Building Council’s definition of a net zero building. It was constructed in kit form, using P-DfMA (platform approach to design for manufacture and assembly). This construction technique saw embodied emissions reduce by 25% and 178 tonnes of steel were also saved during construction. It was built by Sir Robert McAlpine for Landsec.
Passivhaus Council Housing, York, UK
Passivhaus is a housing standard based on the principle of energy efficiency and reducing a building’s ecological footprint. Passivhaus buildings are designed so that heat loss is kept to a minimum, and they meet their energy needs through a combination of high levels of insulation, airtight building materials and passive heat sources. The council housing schemes being developed in York achieve Passivhaus certification through their use of air-source heat pumps and solar photovoltaic panels.
The Edge, Amsterdam, Netherlands
The Edge, Deloitte’s HQ in Amsterdam, is not only one of the smartest and most connected buildings in the world (‘a computer with a roof’), but it is also one of the most sustainable. The Edge achieved a score of 98.4% from BREEAM, the UK’s environmental accreditation methodology, the highest rating it has ever given. The solar panels on the south side of the building deliver more energy than the building consumes, and the Edge is heated by groundwater sources that keep the building heated or cooled depending on the season.
The Bullitt Center, Washington, US
Opened on Earth Day in 2013, the Bullitt Center in Seattle was always intended to be the greenest commercial building in the world. It has a 250-year lifespan (as opposed to the 40 years of most office buildings), so embeds long-term sustainability into its design. As a result of its energy conservation measures, water recycling systems and solar arrays, the Bullit Center cut its electricity consumption to 15% of a standard commercial building of a similar size. It has bike racks instead of parking spaces and over its first 10 years generated 30% more energy than it consumed.
The Unisphere, Maryland, US
United Therapeutics are at the cutting edge of biotechnology, and they wanted their building in Silver Spring, Maryland to be equally as innovative in terms of its green credentials. The Unisphere building is at the time of publication the world’s largest net zero commercial building, at 135,000 square feet. Among its innovations are nearly 3,000 solar panels, 52 geothermal wells, daylight harvesting, a thermal pool and windows that open or close automatically to aid the natural ventilation of the building.
Pixel Building, Melbourne, Australia
The Pixel Building in the Melbourne suburb of Carlton was Australia’s first carbon-neutral office development. It is small compared to the others in this list, but packs quite a punch in terms of its sustainable features. The Pixel Building generates its water supply with a green roof and greywater collection process, and a wind turbine produces power for the building. A low-carbon concrete, Pixelcrete, was used in the construction. Opened in 2011, the Pixel Building received the highest-ever rating from the Green Building Council of Australia.
The Venus, Manchester, UK
Built by Peel L&P, a construction company with an emerging portfolio of net zero buildings, the Venus is a glass-fronted office development in the Trafford area of Manchester. It was one of several buildings in the North West of England to be independently verified as net zero according to the UK Green Building Council’s definition. 100% of its waste is either recycled or used for energy recovery, and it has a BREEAM rating of ‘very good’.
The Floating Office, Rotterdam, Netherlands
The Floating Office is exactly that – a three-storey building constructed on concrete barges that will allow it to float in the Rijnhaven, a former industrial part of the Maas river in Rotterdam. It was conceived as the HQ of the Global Center on Adaptation, in order to show how architecture could adapt to climate change. If sea levels rise the Floating Office can move with them, and the building provides its own electricity and water supply. One of its principal materials is cross-laminated timber, which is light, floats and retains CO2. It was opened in 2021.
Powerhouse Telemark, Porsgrunn, Norway
The Norwegian architects Snøhetta have designed a series of ‘Powerhouse’ buildings across the Scandinavian country. The latest, in Porsgrunn, by the Telemark canal, is a striking statement of sustainability. Its tilted roof of photovoltaic cells maximises the amount of solar energy it harvests, and combined with its south-facing façade the building generates 20 times the annual energy use of a household in Norway. It is built to Passivhaus standards with super insulation and a geothermal heating and cooling system.
NUS: School of Design and Environment, Singapore
The School of Design and Environment at the National University of Singapore is the first net zero building of its kind in the Tropics. The building was purposely designed to house an academic faculty that teaches sustainable design and was opened in 2019. The roof includes over 1,200 solar panels, and a hybrid cooling system provides a comfortable, energy-efficient working environment. It has a flexible design which promotes connectivity and human interaction.
How many buildings are net zero?
The World Green Building Council estimated in 2017 that there were 500 net-zero commercial buildings and 2,000 net-zero homes in the world at that time. It warned that every building must be net zero carbon by 2050 to keep to the temperature rise of 2°C – the target set by the Paris Agreement.
What is the net zero strategy for construction in the UK?
The UK government has committed to achieving a 68% reduction in carbon emissions by 2030, in line with its 2050 net zero target. With the building sector such a high contributor to emissions, several new regulations have been introduced as part of its net zero strategy for construction:
- Future Homes and Future Buildings Standards – ensuring that all new domestic and commercial buildings by 2025 are ‘net-zero ready’. This means that they do not require any retrofitting measures to be zero-carbon compliant
- Phasing out the installation of new natural gas boilers from 2035
- Introducing a performance-based rating scheme for large non-domestic buildings
Read more about what the Construction Industry Training Board (CITB) is doing to help the construction industry lower emissions with its net zero action plan.
Want to find out more about sustainable careers in sustainable futures?
With the construction industry having such a clear focus on net zero building, there are great opportunities available for sustainable building careers. At Go Construct we have over 170 different job profiles, including many roles in sustainability:
These are just a few – here’s our full summary of green construction careers.