Working towards a Net Zero London

 

Earlier this month, New London Architecture (NLA) published a report on ‘Zero Carbon London‘. Part of NLA’s Net Zero programme (#NLANetZero), the report provides new insight into progress in the built environment profession in the fight against climate change. It is based on results of a survey of over 100 London-based companies in the sector and points out some of the biggest challenges and opportunities for the city to get to Net Zero. In this post, we pull out some of the key points that ring particularly true for our firm.

Net Zero London RISE Design Studio

What is Net Zero London?

‘Net zero carbon’ is often used as a proxy for the six greenhouse gases: carbon dioxide is the most common of these. ‘Net’ refers to the sum of carbon emissions and carbon offsetting/sequestration (e.g. via absorption of carbon dioxide because of new woodland creation) being equal to zero. It is now widely-proven that climate change is caused by the increased concentration of greenhouse gases emitted in the atmosphere from human activities. This leads to an increase in global temperatures (global warming). Reducing the emissions of man-made greenhouse gases is therefore vital for tackling the climate emergency, and this is why ‘net zero carbon’ is so important.

For cities, which account for over 70% of global emissions and consume over two thirds of the world’s energy, reaching net zero is urgent. London has been one of the first global cities to commit to becoming carbon neutral by 2050 – the Greater London Authority has a plan to achieve this ambitious aim. 27 of the 32 London Boroughs and City of London have so far declared a climate emergency. London is also one of the major global cities that has signed the C40 Net Zero Carbon Buildings Declaration, committing to ensure that all new buildings operate at net zero carbon by 2030 (and all existing buildings at net zero carbon by 2050).

Achieving net zero in construction

The UK Green Building Council (UKGBC) explains net zero in construction as ‘when the amount of carbon emissions associated with a building’s product and construction stages up to practical completion is zero or negative, through the use of offsets or the net export of on-site renewable energy’. A net zero carbon building tends to be highly energy efficient and powered from on- or off-site renewable sources, with any remaining carbon balance offset.

There are plenty of exciting initiatives and projects being undertaken by public authorities and the private sector: from a citizens’ assembly facilitated by Camden Council to come up with recommendations for zero carbon homes, to the RIBA 2030 Climate Challenge that sets out the actions that chartered practice like RISE Design Studio will need to take.

More to be done

The NLA survey highlighted good progress in the sector. First, the vast majority of those who took part have signed up to one of the industry pledges such as Architects Declare (we have signed up). Second, those in the industry generally feel that they have the skills to address climate issues.

However, those who completed the survey feel that the biggest barriers to positive change are regulation and finance. The lack of green finance is a critical barrier for the London Boroughs to implement and achieve their targets. For organisations like ours, the current policy frameworks are not effective and act as a barrier for implementing measures that will get us to net zero. For example, a recent government consultation on banning the use of combustible materials in buildings suggests that a lack of joined-up thinking remains an issue – timber plays a very important role in decarbonsing construction.

The Covid-19 lockdown between March and May 2020 demonstrated that it is possible to reduce emissions and address behaviour change in a short time – carbon emissions in London dropped by 60%. But, the challenge is to achieve this reduction at the same time as people living their lives freely.

There is strong optimism in the sector that there is now an opportunity to transform our way of life and act in a more environmentally-conscious way. The upcoming inauguration of a US President who ran on a manifesto of clean energy and net zero no later than 2050 is also encouraging, particularly if he manages to rally the rest of the world (and our Prime Minister) to take the same steps.

Architecture and the planet: a crucial moment

 

David Attenborough’s ‘A Life On Our Planet‘ brings into sharp focus the destruction of Earth’s habitats that he has witnessed during his nearly 70 years in broadcasting. There is no mistaking the significant scale of the issues currently faced by our planet. At the end of the film, Attenborough offers us some rays of hope: the power of the right financial incentives to encourage reforestation and renewable energy development; the potential to replenish the seas with fish by protecting our coastlines; the importance of raising the global standard of living to slow population growth. But what role can architects play in tackling the pressing issues such as climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution?

Garden studio RISE Design Studio

Cultivating a circular economy

It is common knowledge that buildings have a significant impact on our environment. In 2014, a European Commission report noted that construction and builing use in the EU accounts for 40% of all energy use, 35% of greenhouse gas emissions, 50% of all extracted material, 30% of water use and 35% of all generated waste.

Armed with this information, it has become imperative that architects consider how their design decisions can reduce the impact of the industry. It is time to move away from the traditional ‘take, make and waste’ system towards a ‘take, make and reuse’ approach – a circular rather than linear economy. Recycling materials becomes paramount, working hard to divert construction and demolition debris from landfill and reusing, repairing or remanufacturing materials where possible.

Burrows road home renovation RISE Design Studio

– This glazed extension to the rear of a house in London used bricks reclaimed during the demolition to create a feature wall in the new space. 

Building in biodiversity

We also now know that plants and trees in our cities play an important role in tackling climate change and improving the health and wellbeing of residents. Green infrastructure – networks of green space and other green features in our communities – is central to quality placemaking. There is a compelling case for developing more natural and semi-natural habitats in our cities, towns and buildings, and architects play a key role in considering green infrastructure in the earliest stages of design.

Mill Hill new build RISE Design Studio Green roof

– Our new build house in Mill Hill features a green roof (along with other Passivhaus principles) to minimise the environmental impact and energy consumption of the house.

Embracing energy efficiency

Increasing the energy efficiency of buildings is a concern that has been increasingly recognised in UK legislation and policy. This may involve retrofitting buildings – using new technologies and materials such as insulation to increase energy efficiency. Conserving energy not only has environmental benefits – improving the quality of the indoor environment and reducing dampness increase health and productivity levels of residents.

Rise-Design-Studio-Douglas-House-ph-Edmund-Sumner-25-600x817

– Our Douglas House renovation features a range of passive and active environmental technologies (insulation, airtightness, solar panels, a mechanical ventilation heat recovery system, rainwater harvesting and smart thermostats).

At RISE, we see the importance of contributing to positive change in the way we conceive, construct and deliver the built world. We have made a serious commitment to reducing the impact of our projects on the environment and creating designs that improve the health and wellbeing of our clients and communities.