Preparing the road to zero carbon buildings

Andy Stanton explains how Atkins is putting sustainable design into practice, after signing up to the environmental ‘Declare’ commitment

This year, there have been many developments in sustainability from local, regional and national governments, as well as NGOs, scientific bodies and professional organisations. Since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change declared how stark the situation is and what we need to do to avert a climate crisis, a wave of reports and commitments has hit newsstands and policy-makers’ desks. It has shaken all industries – and none more so than the built environment.

Behind the ‘big news’, we have an even bigger contingent of people pushing us to do more; the public – young and old – mobilised by the words and drive of people such as Greta Thunberg and David Attenborough, demanding we change our ways and pave the way for a more sustainable future.

As an industry, we have overwhelming evidence that our traditional compliance approach is, at best, failing to address the performance gap between design intent and operational reality. It is also costing building operators in terms of energy and carbon impact.

With the UK having led the world in embedding carbon targets into national law through the Climate Change Act – and, more recently, signing into legislation the zero carbon target for 2050 – we need to follow up commitment with real action. Local authorities have raised the bar further, with 10% declaring a climate emergency and 42 setting targets of zero carbon by 2030, matched by some private sector companies.

The UK built environment profession is rightly recognised as world class when it comes to architecture, engineering and design. To keep this status, we must meet the challenge of the paradigm shift needed to deliver zero carbon buildings and infrastructure. We must turn headline news into action and demonstrable results. So, what can we do?

If we are to have any chance of meeting zero carbon targets, we need data and we need to share it across the industry

Atkins is putting sustainable design into practice in a number of ways. On World Environment Day, we joined more than 500 UK architecture practices in the Architects Declare movement, followed by the Structural Engineers Declare and, now, the Building Services Engineers Declare movements. It’s a major commitment for Atkins and all the signatories, and will force important conversations internally, with clients and project funders.

We are also developing our capability in Passivhaus, recognising its growth across the UK, Europe and the globe, with around 50,000 projects completed. The large evidence base supporting the standard’s success has led to the inclusion of many of its principles in guidance from the Committee on Climate Change, the UK Green Building Council and the Future Homes Standard.

The growth in Passivhaus in education and housing is delivering for clients that demand demonstrably better buildings with a focus on comfort, cost, operational performance, and energy and carbon impact. Sustainable design can achieve these high-impact outcomes, as well as tackle health and wellbeing, avert fuel poverty and health issues, or provide environments that promote better learning and development.

Working together

Becoming a delivery partner for Design for Performance (DfP), the collaboration between the Australian Nabers rating scheme and the Better Buildings Partnership, is another important step for us, to show what we can deliver when we work towards and, as a team, commit to actual targets.

Bringing together skills – such as more rigorous HVAC operational modelling – with design reviews and a focus on how systems, buildings and their controls operate in practice, will give us a real boost towards zero carbon. Importantly, it will help embed soft landings, with the additional rigour of returning to buildings a year after completion and disclosing their performance. With DfP, clients will get better buildings and, as a profession, we will learn which strategies and designs work and which don’t, from an energy, systems and maintenance perspective.

During our Passivhaus and DfP journey so far, we’ve discovered how the approach brings integrated design teams together, to form demonstrably better outcomes for sustainability. Fundamental to delivering sustainable, high-performing buildings will be the disclosure of building energy performance, which has long been the missing element to improving the way we design buildings. How can we measure our progress or success if we don’t have transparent metrics? If we are to have any chance of meeting zero carbon targets, we need this data and we need to share it across the industry.

The concept of disclosure on a wide range of metrics is familiar to sectors from commerce and finance to schools and healthcare. Many cities across the US require disclosure of operational energy – yet it is almost 10 years since a UK government consultation showed virtually universal support for rolling out Display Energy Certificates to buildings. During that time, many initiatives have tried to address this, including LessEn, Carbon Buzz, Leti, the BBP (with its large benchmarking scheme), and Etude’s London Energy Map, which Atkins and Tower Hamlets are supporting. The forthcoming monitoring and disclosure requirement of the London Plan will also be a significant milestone.

Now is the time to shine a light on the actual performance of our buildings and to rise together to meet the climate challenge. One commitment, one action and one result at a time will help us bridge the performance gap and meet our zero carbon targets.

Andy Stanton is sustainability associate director at Atkins