As the AEC industry reckons with its impact on global emissions, more firms are embracing the pursuit of a "net zero carbon" future.

In recent years, buildings and construction have increasingly been put in the spotlight for their major contribution to global carbon emissions. A 2018 report from the Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction found that buildings and the construction industry are responsible for approximately 40% of the planet’s energy-related carbon emissions.

As the AEC industry reckons with the huge impact that buildings and construction have on global emissions, more and more firms are embracing the pursuit of achieving a "net zero carbon" footprint.

What Is "Net Zero Carbon"?

Carbon emissions from the construction industry come in two main forms. These are operational carbon – emissions from energy used to operate a building – and embodied carbon – emissions generated by the construction process and in the creation of materials and products used in the building. This article on “What is Net Zero Carbon?” from Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios does an excellent job of outlining these different aspects to construction's carbon footprint.

To date, operational carbon has received more attention than embodied carbon when it comes to mitigating the climate impact of buildings. This makes sense, as operational carbon currently accounts for more than twice the amount of emissions as embodied carbon. However, the two are projected to reach equivalence by 2050 due to an increasing volume of construction in the coming decades.

Achieving "net zero carbon" means that a building's carbon emissions are zero or negative through the use of renewable energy and/or offsets. According to the UK Green Building Council's Zero Carbon Buildings Framework, "a net zero carbon building is highly energy efficient and powered from on-site and/or off-site renewable energy sources, with any remaining carbon balance offset."

Infographic from the UK Green Building Council on the key features of new net zero carbon buildings.
Infographic from the UK GBC and LETI on the key features of new net zero carbon buildings.

How Can We Get There?

So what can the AEC industry do to make "net zero carbon" a reality? While the obvious answer is to have more net zero buildings, there are many kinds of actions that individual firms can take to promote the design and construction of a net zero carbon built environment.

We're proud to say that many of our customers are involved in these efforts, which span from developing high-profile net zero projects, to participating in industry alliances pushing for carbon neutrality, to publishing resources and creating tools that others can use to facilitate their own net zero designs. Below we highlight some of these in order to help shine a light on the different avenues available for tackling climate change within construction, and to encourage more firms to join in this critical "race to zero".

High-Profile Projects

When charting the future course for an industry, it's always helpful to showcase examples of where you want to go. High-profile net zero buildings lay down an essential marker for what's possible when we focus on the climate impact of buildings. Some examples of such projects from Kinship customers include:

The Sustainable Buildings Research Centre by COX Architecture

Home to Wollongong University's built environment sustainability research unit, the SBRC’s primary purpose is to deliver evidence-based research into sustainability for Australia’s built environment. COX Architecture designed the building to prototype and research various sustainable building technologies. The SBRC includes 468 solar panels to support net zero energy, an onsite rainwater system to enable net zero water performance, and the use of environmentally safe and reused building materials. On November 21, 2019, the building became the first in Australia to achieve the International Living Building Challenge, “the world’s most rigorous standard for green buildings."

Wollongong University's Sustainable Buildings Research Centre by COX Architecture
Wollongong University's Sustainable Buildings Research Centre by COX Architecture.

Old Paradise Street by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios

This project by Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios (FCB Studios) will transform the site of an old Costa Coffee roastery in London into a 60,000 sq ft work and maker space. Old Paradise Street, which has received planning permission, will feature a cross-laminated timber structure that will contribute to a projected negative carbon footprint for the first 60 years of the building's operation. In 2020, the project received a New London Award in the Working category and was named one of Dezeen's Top 10 Carbon Neutral Buildings.

Old Paradise Street is designed to be a landmark timber-framed building achieving net zero carbon.
Old Paradise Street is designed to be a landmark timber-framed building achieving net zero carbon.

Santa Monica City Services Building by Buro Happold

Another project designed to achieve the International Living Building Challenge, this 50,000 sq ft muncipal building in Los Angeles supports the Santa Monica City Council's plans to achieve community-wide carbon neutrality by 2050 or sooner, water self-sufficiency by 2023 and zero waste by 2030. As the engineers behind the building, Buro Happold employed passive design for heating and cooling, photovoltaic arrays for electricity, and three water strategies to fully meet its needs by water harvested on site. The building – originally scheduled to open on Earth Day 2020 but delayed due to stay-at-home orders – aspires to be the greenest municipal building in the world and will surpass the highest LEED certification in order to create "a regenerative space that connects occupants to light, air, food, nature, and community.”

Santa Monica's City Services Building aspires to be the greenest municipal building in the world. Image: Alex Nye.

Industry Pledges

There are a number of industry pledges that allow firms to join a collective commitment around tackling climate change in construction. By coming together around a shared set of actions or principles, signatory firms create more momentum than they could individually, while helping generate peer pressure (the good kind) for more firms to join in the cause.

Some of these pledges are more prescriptive, such as the Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment from the World Green Building Council, which calls on signatories to reach net zero carbon for their own building operations by 2030 (among other things). Others, such as the UK's Architects Declare and its international equivalent, Construction Declares, entail more general commitments around adopting design principles, accounting for lifecycle impacts, and advocating for industry change. Numerous Kinship customers have taken these pledges, with some serving as founding signatories:

  • Architects Declare – Allies and Morrison, BDP, Bryden Wood, Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios (founding signatory), Foster + Partners (founding signatory), Heatherwick Studio, Pascall+Watson, tp bennett, Wilkinson Eyre (founding signatory).
  • Building Services Engineers Declare – BDP, Bryden Wood, Buro Happold, chapmanbdsp, Hoare Lea, Hydrock.
  • Construction Declares – Arkitema (Denmark), BIG (Denmark), COX Architecture (Australia), KieranTimberlake (USA), MJMA (Canada), NEUF Architect(e)s (Canada), Teeple Architects (Canada).
  • Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment – Buro Happold, Foster + Partners (first architecture signatory), Hoare Lea.
Since its launch in 2019, Architects Declare has spread to over 20 countries and 5,000 signatories.
Since its launch in 2019, Architects Declare has spread to over 20 countries and 5,000 signatories.

Resources & Tools

AEC firms that care about building a net zero future are also helping to develop tools and resources that others can adopt to further their own progress. These include educational resources to learn about net zero and different ways to get there, as well as design tools to analyze and optimize designs for their climate impacts. Below are a handful of examples that Kinship customers have helped to create for the industry:

London Energy Transformation Initiative's (LETI) Publications

LETI is a volunteer network of over 1000 built environment professionals who are working together to put London on the path to a zero carbon future. Published in 2020 with help from Bryden Wood and Allies and Morrison, LETI's The Climate Emergency Design Guide and Embodied Carbon Primer are free to access and are backed by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) and the Chartered Institution of Building Service Engineers (CIBSE), as well as leading businesses. 

UK Green Building Council's Net Zero Carbon Buildings Framework

Published in 2019 with the support of Hoare Lea, the UK Green Building Council's Net Zero Carbon Buildings: A Framework Definition aims to provide the industry with clear guidance on how to achieve net zero carbon in both construction (embodied carbon) and operation (operational carbon). The framework documents are free and can be used by developers, designers, owners, occupiers and policy makers in their development of building tools, policies and practices.

FCBS Carbon

Last year, Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios launched FCBS Carbon as a free industry tool for estimating the whole life carbon of a building. The tool is developed as a macro-enabled spreadsheet and uses data from the ICE Database and Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) for generating estimates. FCBS Carbon can be used from the very earliest stages of design to provide insight into the potential carbon impact of a building over its lifetime.

Tally Life Cycle Assessment App

Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is an in-depth analysis of whole buildings, manufactured building products and materials, and material assemblies. While LCAs can provide a complete picture of the environmental impacts associated with a building, their use is relatively new and burdensome for most AEC professionals. In addition, LCAs have typically been performed after construction, when it's too late for the data to influence design decisions.

In order to make LCAs more user-friendly and enable them to be performed during the design phase, KieranTimberlake's affiliate company, KT Innovations, partnered with Autodesk and thinkstep to create a Revit plugin called Tally. Tally allows Revit users to add complete information about building materials and architectural products to their BIM models, and can then quantify a building or material's embodied environmental impacts to land, air, and water systems.

Looking Ahead

These are only some of the many paths available for firms to take on the journey to achieving net zero carbon emissions. And while it's certainly possible and productive to debate the merits of various approaches, perhaps the most important thing right now is simply for more of the industry to get started. With the clock rapidly ticking to limit global warming, there is no time to lose in the race to a net zero carbon built environment.