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Sunday, October 24, 2021

Can net-zero buildings lead the green recovery from Covid-19?

As discussions intensify with regards to climate change-related policies to ‘build back better’ from the Covid-19 crisis, we challenged three architects to delve into what a post-pandemic green-build world looks like for them.

LUKE BUTCHER, BUTCHER BAYLEY ARCHITECTS (BBA)  

Luke Butcher, BBA

“We will not know the true fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic for some time, but it is already clear that it presents an opportunity for a global paradigm shift in the relationship between people and the planet. Given that the construction and operation of buildings account for up to 40% of all energy-related carbon dioxide emissions, to not capitalise on the potential to re-focus our collective efforts towards net-zero would represent one of the greatest missed opportunities for tackling the climate and biodiversity crisis in generations.

The research and technology to drive this industry wide transformation already exists but a catalyst to enact a collective will for change has been lacking. This is not to say that achieving net-zero is easy, there is tremendous effort already going into this field across the world – but if the obstacles of societal and industry acceptance are lifted, then a clear path forward emerges. Through close collaboration architects, engineers, contractors and their clients can play a positive and pro-active role in delivering buildings and places that have a positive impact on the world in which we all live.

Wrap Around House by BBA
Photography by Matthew Smith

On this issue, there are no new facts or questions, they have been known for a number of years and shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. As an industry we need to ask ourselves why we haven’t done more to address it? Perhaps, for example, more should be done to expand green home grants that don’t currently go far enough or incentivise refurbishing buildings rather than demolishing and rebuilding.

Everyone has their part to play. At BBA, we believe change begins with every conversation we have with a new client. It’s about marrying aspirations with impact. In our execution, we take the little things as standard – bee bricks, best-possible insulation – and we build from there, covering everything from the building design to the paintwork.

It’s important to remember that net-zero is not the only issue we must tackle in our built environment. Issues of embodied carbon, biodiversity loss, resource depletion, social inequality, and circular economies, to name a few, are needed as part of a ‘green’ recovery that delivers a more sustainable, equitable and resilient world for future generations.

Considering all this, I think we should rephrase the question: ‘Can we afford to let net-zero buildings not be a key part of a green recovery from Covid-19?’ To which my simple answer would be, no.” – www.wearebba.co.uk

JAMES MILNE, GT3

James Milne, GT3

“The coronavirus pandemic has pushed the climate crisis to the bottom of the agenda, but that doesn’t make the need for sustainable design and building any less significant or urgent. With construction one of the few industries that remains open, and buildings being central to the country’s carbon footprint, there is a unique opportunity to bring the green agenda to the forefront of the COVID-19 recovery.

The climate crisis has become an undeniable concern for both individuals and organisations worldwide. It is not surprising that 74% of the UK’s councils have now declared a climate emergency and that this year, the NHS became the world’s first health organisation to commit to becoming carbon net-zero by 2040.

With the government’s ‘build build build’ strategy laid out as the roadmap to drive the UK out of a potential post-COVID recession, we are facing a unique opportunity to let net-zero lead the way in our green recovery.

Buildings – including our homes, workplaces, shops, schools, and places of leisure – currently emit 19% of UK carbon emissions, with a further 11% derived from electricity generation and 28% from land transport. The RIBA journal has also found that the average lifespan of a building is 30 years, meaning that schemes designed now will still exist when the UK is committed to being a carbon neutral society by 2050.

Spelthorne Leisure Centre in Surrey is currently being designed by GT3 with Passivhaus principles, in line with zero carbon objectives

However, an important factor to consider when discussing whether net-zero buildings can lead a green recovery is how we can ensure sustainable choices are made. In the same way that health and safety laws inform design, it is imperative to regulate for carbon neutrality and we hope to see stronger thermal performance guidelines implemented soon.

Furthermore, there are ways we can upskill ourselves with specification tools and technical knowledge to contribute to designing more environmentally friendly buildings. The Embodied Carbon in Construction Calculator (EC3) is an innovative tool for integrating carbon neutrality into architectural planning and making net-zero a fundamental factor in planning. Wider adoption of Passivhaus design and Declare labels would also go a long way to increasing our industry’s eco credentials.

Equally significantly, the consideration of user experience and behaviour by architects during the planning process is key to achieving successful net-zero design. Our brief writing service supports clients in the development of their projects and helps to put sustainability at the heart of the development.

We have a responsibility to design in a way that promotes pro-environmental behaviour, making sustainable living the obvious choice. Design needs to extend from the performance of the building itself, to the behaviour of its end users, employing principles from psychology to inspire and enable green living – be that via improved pedestrian access and bike storage, or recycling and electric vehicle charging points. By making sustainability a project aim, and applying psychological principles, it is possible to use design to alter not only the carbon footprint of a building but that of its users.

As we face a pivotal moment in the climate crisis, with precious time left to make real change, the green recovery from COVID-19 offers a unique opportunity to produce meaningful and generation defining work. With buildings forming the setting in which we live, work, learn, and play, we cannot underestimate the incredible potential of net-zero design to instigate long-lasting change.” – www.gt3architects.com

RICHARD HYAMS, ASTUDIO

Richard Hyams, Astudio

As the construction industry looks to rebound in the wake of the pandemic, it would be easy to irresponsibly shun sustainability in favour of speed and results. However, with construction accounting for 40% of the UK’s total carbon footprint, it is imperative that the industry remains committed to reducing our environmental impact – not just to meet government targets, but to ensure that our structures can stand the test of time.

In the wake of Covid-19, more than half of the population want the UK to commit to a recovery plan that puts the environment first. With changing public attitudes increasingly demanding more sustainable practices, green technologies present a major opportunity for construction to reduce its impact and lead the way in the UK’s green recovery.

Adopting modern methods of construction – where elements of a building are constructed off-site, before they are transported and pieced together on-site – is a great place to start.

With less time spent on site, less lorry traffic, and reduced heavy machinery use, methods such as modular construction can produce immediate emissions savings for the construction sector. Likewise, factory construction has the additional benefit of improved quality controls, which reduce waste by as much as 90%. Coupling these benefits with the use of sustainable and low-carbon materials can lead to a drastic reduction in emissions resulting from our built environment.

astudio was appointed for the design and fit-out of The University of Chicago Booth’s new campus building in London

Architecture is only at the beginning of its journey into virtual reality, but the technology is already proving incredibly useful during the design process.

This can be achieved using multi-purpose green facades, which are likely to see increased use in the coming years. At astudio, we have been working with Brunel University to develop living wall technology, which allows us to skin structures with algae compounds that absorb pollutants in the atmosphere and provide a sustainable biofuel source that will reduce the environmental and financial cost of powering our buildings. Moreover, using natural substances like the mushroom fungus mycelium, we can grow these structures without producing any waste.

At astudio, we have built VR into our design process and discovered vast benefits that help us to eliminate unnecessary waste and emissions from our projects. VR and parametric models don’t only allow architects and their clients to visualise a project with the waste of construction materials on physical models, but it also allows us to walk through designs, gather insight, and optimise elements to create more energy efficient structures.

The sector must also consider how to improve our existing buildings in order to meet our sustainability targets. Relatively simple implementations, such as energy systems designed to turn on and off depending on footfall, can significantly reduce a building’s impact.

However, building technology has advanced immensely in recent years, making it feasible to construct buildings that can sustain themselves by producing their own renewable energy source.

By embracing these innovations, architecture and construction can play a starring role in Britain’s green recovery.” – www.astudio.co.uk

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