Following the WorldGBC’s update to the Net-Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment to recognise enhanced leadership action in tackling carbon emissions from the building and construction sector, we wanted to break down how your business can strive towards Net-Zero Carbon. 

COP26 marked a climate breakthrough - the Cities, Regions and Built Environment session saw an alliance of developers and government agencies announcing 26 climate action initiatives, including $1.2 trillion in real estate assets now forming part of the ‘Race to Zero’.

Previously, the 2021 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change gave a stark warning on the ‘unprecedented’ impact of what was to come - it is in this context that the term ‘Net-Zero Carbon’ started to enter the mainstream. Businesses, government and civil society are grappling with what this will mean for them, and how it can be applied in practice.


Where do carbon emissions in construction come from?


Carbon emissions associated with a building fall into two categories:

  • - Embodied carbon emissions are those associated with the building materials and products including the production, construction, replacement, demolition and disposal stages.
  • - Operational carbon emissions are those associated with the energy used to run the building once complete, such as heating, cooling, hot water generation, lighting, lifts, computers/phone charging, gym and kitchen facilities. In most existing buildings these energy demands are met by burning gas in boilers or by using electricity.


And how does Net-Zero Carbon apply to Design & Construction?


NZC standards are achieved by limiting each emission type to levels considered compatible with a NZC future - where all demand can be met by a mixture of on-site renewable energy generation or zero carbon energy supplied via the national grid.

The best way to minimise emissions is to reuse, remodel or retrofit an existing building - refurbishing is critical if the UK is to hit 2050 NZC targets. New buildings must make use of low-embodied carbon materials - e.g. sustainably sourced timber, materials with high recycled contents and low-carbon replacements.

Designers will need to consider how to minimise the quantity of material, in particular those with high embodied carbon content (e.g. metals and concrete), whilst facilitating future re-use of their buildings. Ultimately, designing buildings that can be disassembled into high-grade components, ideally of single material composition.


So, what does this mean for your business? 


Area has identified 10 steps that you can take on your journey to NZC. To dive deeper, you can download the full guide.


1. Materials

Construction material related emissions account for 28% of the total global emissions from buildings and the construction sector. As buildings become more efficient by reducing the energy used for operation, the construction materials impact can account for up to 70% over the lifespan of a building. Be sure to consider a reusable design approach, including material efficiently, sustainable materials and Environmental Product Declaration certified suppliers.


2. Heating

Heating energy accounts for about 20% of the UK’s total carbon emissions. The UK’s electrical grid is progressively decarbonising which means that left alone, heat will become responsible for a larger proportion of the total UK CO2 emissions. To decarbonise heating in buildings, the strategy is dependent on the type, age and location - efficient use of electricity to generate heat is the clearest route: building owners and designers considering a new heating system should investigate the use of heat pumps and understand the implications to their project to assess their feasibility.


3. Light & Daylight

Most commercial buildings waste an average of 30% of the energy they use. Good daylight provision, when combined with a comprehensive artificial lighting control system, can provide significant energy savings on lighting electricity usage. Truly sustainable workplaces additionally consider the use of daylight to make them healthy, economically viable spaces.

Conserving natural resources, eliminating pollution, protecting biodiversity and going beyond the expected will contribute to climate-positive development and buildings that enhance their settings and the people that experience them. Careful and considered use of natural light is central to this philosophy - daylight is much more than a source of illumination; it is essential for our physical and emotional well-being.


4. Ventilation

Good ventilation is critical in order to maintain air quality for occupants and protect a building itself from a build-up of moisture and pollutants. In a post-COVID world, maintaining air quality - ensuring the generous provision of fresh air - to occupied spaces is also likely to be one of the key mitigants against virus spread.  

Mechanical Ventilation with Heat Recovery (MVHR) systems are generally accepted as the ‘low energy’ approach to providing ventilation in buildings, particularly in winter in temperate climates. This relies on the assumption that the energy saved by recovering heat, is greater than the energy expended on fan power and other devices. 


5. Water

Energy used to generate domestic hot water remains small in comparison to the energy required for space heating. However, as building’s lower their energy consumption by adopting efficient building fabric standards toward ultra-low energy performance, this percentage will increase. 

The key actions to reducing water consumption are prioritising water-efficient fittings, considering point of use instantaneous water heaters and taking steps to minimise distribution losses by reducing pipe lengths and minimising lateral distribution.


6. Wellbeing

Improving the health and wellbeing of occupants will help ensure the delivery of NZC buildings is sustainable and the buildings created will be long lasting and successful.

Buildings that support occupant wellbeing are more valuable, they are less likely to be demolished and when they are repurposed or renovated, the renovations are likely to be less intrusive and require less embodied carbon.

What are the most important practical measures? Set a wellbeing brief for every project and include broad targets that address the 6 design factors most affect occupant wellbeing.

Discover the 6 design factors in our latest guide


7. Renewable Energy

Integrating renewables into buildings allows them to meet a proportion of their own energy needs and minimise carbon emissions beyond what can be achieved by efficiency measures alone. 

Solar PV panels will be the most appropriate form of renewable technology available. Solar PV panels convert natural light, both indirect and direct sunlight into electrical energy.


8. Acoustics

Studies have confirmed exposure to workplace noise can have a detrimental effect on performance. Acoustic problems and disturbance are often derived from either long reverberation times or from noise outside the room and poor sound insulation.

A low-energy, low-carbon approach to acoustic design should be targeted for occupants. Prioritise the use of sustainable acoustic finishes - aim to use sustainable materials and to minimise their quantity by using them efficiently.


9. Waste

Each year the equivalent of 60 football pitches of construction waste is produced in the UK.

Waste has a negative impact on a project unless it is disposed of ethically. Aim to minimise landfill by maximising the amount of stripped out material that can be reused in high grade forms. Be sure to conduct a pre-strip out audit to consider what is suitable for reuse or recycling, including furniture, flooring, packaging - our guide includes a checklist of everything to need to consider. 

Waste not sent to reuse pathways should be separated and sorted into the key waste groups - be sure to follow a ‘waste hierarchy’ when selecting pathways for the material. Prioritise ‘Take back’ schemes offered by manufacturers as they’re likely to result in higher proportions of closed loop recycling, which are preferred.


10. Commissioning, Operation & In-use

No matter how sustainable a building may have been in its design and construction, it can only remain so if it is operated responsibly and maintained properly.

We want building owners and occupiers to get the most out of their space - you should implement a structured approach to promote collaboration between building designers, clients and the future occupants and operators of a building. Focus on delivering buildings that are comfortable and straightforward to use, with systems optimised to minimise energy use and maintenance costs.



To dive deeper into our 10 steps towards a Net-Zero Carbon workplace, check out the guide

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