Net zero design – it all starts with definition 1

Designing for net zero – it all starts with definition

Architects have a key role to play in delivering net zero design, but to be sustainable in the truest sense, we need to ensure we are considering the whole lifecycle of a building and its components.

This article is by Simon Bird

Simon is a director of the practice, taking a leading role on strategic, interior and architectural projects.


Biden’s new special envoy, Boris’ ten-point plan, Rishi’s spending review – it is encouraging to see a renewed political commitment to the environment being embedded into the economic response to Covid-19.  It feels like a real turning point. The built environment industry needs to answer this clear call to action – together, we have a huge part to play in tackling the climate crisis and achieving the UK’s 2050 net zero targets.

The current measures of a building’s carbon impact, such as BREEAM, SKA or LEED, have served as excellent catalysts – speeding up the pace at which the industry had embraced low carbon design and architecture. Now we must question if they go far enough, or fast enough. When an empty, unused, brand new office building can score the same as one that is fully utilised, the goalposts clearly need shifting. We must make sure that our definition of ‘net zero’ is a more expansive, holistic one.

“As a practice, we are currently reassessing our previous designs to evaluate how these could have achieved net zero... this is informing our own guidance for delivering designs in the future.”

Leading the way on a wider, holistic understanding of net zero are organisations such as New London Architecture and the Greater London Authority. The Mayor of London’s new Whole Life-Cycle Carbon assessment neatly summarises the three main considerations when designing for net zero: A building’s operational carbon emissions, its embodied emissions, and any potential future emissions. These future emissions are assessed by including how the building contributes to the circular economy post ‘end of life’ – not just ensuring that the structure has a long life span, but making sure it is easy to reuse and recycle the materials when the building has served its purpose.

This starts to get to the crux of why net zero design is so difficult to understand and measure: we need to look at the whole life cycle of a building and beyond – from cradle to cradle. Where buildings (and all their embodied carbon) already exist, it is simpler to live up to these principles. For instance, by choosing to renovate, retrofit or rejuvenate rather than demolish and start again from scratch. But the challenge comes when creating something new. How do we make sure that our future designs are net zero in the truest sense?

As a practice, we are currently reassessing our previous designs to evaluate how these could have achieved net zero. Identifying where we need to go further, the additional interventions and costs required, is informing our own guidance for delivering net zero design in the future.

As architects we are excited at the pivotal role we can play through more sustainable designs, while also ensuring that clients and occupiers get a high-quality product that meets all their requirements. The gauntlet has been thrown down. It’s for all of us to adapt and learn so that we can produce ever better designs that will underpin the new circular economy, and live up to a greater definition of net zero.

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