Refurbishing homes for net zero – upskilling our design team

 

Refurbishing and retrofitting existing homes is a large part of the challenge of transitioning the built environment to net zero. We are faced with a significant task, especially as every home is different – efficiency measures that work in one home may not be appropriate for another. Retrofitting is also a daunting task for homeowners, particularly in terms of engaging a contractor with the right skills and experience for the job. At RISE Design Studio, we have worked on several projects that have included energy efficiency measures and, as the push to net zero becomes ever more critical, we are working hard to upskill our design team so all our projects are as energy efficient as possible.

Retrofit flat London

Embracing refurbishment

The 2008 Climate Change Act committed the UK to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050. The buildings sector accounts for 37% of total UK GHG emissions and, of these emissions, 65% are from the residential sector. As a result, there has been growth in the residential retrofit industry, with buildings being adapted to be more sustainable and energy-efficient. The majority of our existing residential stock requires some level of retrofit to enable the government’s ambitious emissions targets to be reached.

Common measures include improving insulation. A new heating system might also be installed, or double glazing might be fitted. Yet, conserving energy is not the only reason to retrofit a building. Improving indoor environmental quality, reducing dampness and mould will all lead to increased health and productivity levels of residents.

Upskilling our design team

Recognising the increased momentum in London around reaching net zero, we have really enjoyed working with clients on refurbishment projects that incorporate environmental considerations. Modern architects are well-placed to add creativity and innovation into the drive to retrofit existing housing stock, particularly those that may prove very expensive to retrofit. For example, historic buildings such as Edwardian terraces are protected, and increasing energy efficiency can pose a real challenge. However, there are exciting options to retain the façade and rebuild the living spaces within the building.

More and more clients are seeking energy efficient homes and we are fully aware of the important role architects play in helping to reach the government target for 2050. As a result, we have been working hard to upskill our design team to work on these types of projects.

Maximising design benefit

There are several industry standards designed to increase the efficiency of residential property, including the Passivhaus and EnerPhit certifications. A Passivhaus project tends to use energy sources from within the building, such as body heat, heat from the sun or light bulbs, or heat from indoor appliances to create a comfortable, healthy living environment. However, it can be difficult to reach the exact requirements of the Passivhaus standard in a retrofit project.

Recognising this, the Passivhaus Institut has developed the EnerPHit standard for projects that use the Passivhaus method to reduce fuel bills and heating demand. We are working hard to implement this standard in our projects and our design team has developed the skills to align retrofit projects with this approach. EnerPHit takes into account the limitations associated with retrofit projects and relaxes some of the Passivhaus criteria to reflect this. Nevertheless, it is still a very demanding standard and generally results in a building that outperforms a new-build property both in terms of energy and comfort.

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.