How does decarbonisation work for new-build?

Stuart McLaren is decarbonomics director at Atkins

The decarbonisation of our built environment is a key pillar in the strategy to reach global net-zero targets, and it is entirely possible to design new buildings that deliver this. The issue is to scale it so that this is the achievable standard for all developers. But several things stand in the way of seeing net-zero new-builds becoming the norm.

Beyond the absence of meaningful policy driving net-zero standards for all new-builds, other material issues exist – from the uptake of whole-life cost and carbon to inform design, the patchy adoption of standardisation to support large-scale modern methods of construction (MMC) and the paucity of effective whole-system design platforms to foster greater value-chain engagement. Underpinning all these material issues is the need for good-quality data.

Baseline level of carbon

In the absence of policy and standards driving net zero at the development level, it is vital for project proponents and their project teams to establish the baseline level of carbon at the earliest possible stage of the design process, and to let teams see the carbon alongside other key delivery metrics, such as cost and programme. This can only be done accurately with good-quality data, the adoption of whole-life carbon management, and a project delivery and design process that puts whole-system thinking into operation.

“Data standardisation will be a key enabler for decarbonisation, including net-zero new-builds”

It is also about looking at the project in the context of its location and the supply chain. Greater use of MMC will drive down carbon due to the nature of manufacture and the fact that it makes everything more efficient on site. But scaling this so that it can be applied to all new-builds will require a complete overhaul of industry around the standardisation of components, which will take significant government and industry collaboration.

Data standardisation will be a key enabler for decarbonisation, including net-zero new-builds. The ability to derive whole-system insights in a consistent and rigorous way, which allows for meaningful monitoring and verification of an asset’s ultimate performance, will require much greater interoperability between the various design platforms that exist across the industry.

Being able to compare apples with apples as a project moves through the value chain, as well as contrasting the performance of different projects, will provide a much more accurate view of how well we are performing at both the project and national level.

By establishing the conditions above, the industry stands a much better chance of being able to create scalable digital solutions, such as digital twins, developed at the enterprise or estate level, which are capable of providing granular detail on the performance of every part of a building over its entire life.

At the planning stage

Setting up for success also means introducing the decarbonisation process at the earliest possible stage of planning – from setting the critical success factors of a business case to assessing whether you even need something new in the first place. Through intelligent estate-optimisation programmes, many organisations are likely to benefit from doing more with less. After all, building nothing and building less will have the smallest carbon emissions and environmental impact, and is likely to cost less.

Assuming a new-build is required and a net-zero outcome desired, consideration should be given to its long-term use – mindful that the majority of carbon is emitted during its operational life – along with the geographical and regional context of its location, and what materials are used.

When it comes to embodied carbon, building materials are the main contributor, with steel and cement the leading offenders. Cement and steel are notoriously carbon-intensive, and typically critical for large-scale, high-rise buildings. Unfortunately, alternatives remain elusive at scale, although new patents and developments are appearing all the time. A key obstacle is often commercialising new products and processes that will need to meet strict health and safety regulations.

Key questions

This raises key questions about how we build for a net-zero future. Where alternative materials remain elusive, should we stop building the large-scale, high-rise buildings that continue to characterise modern development around the world? What is the alternative in increasingly space-constrained urban environments?

Whatever the answer, informed decision-making through proactive early planning will still need to balance carbon with all the other critical delivery metrics, such as cost and programme. And, for many, under current market conditions this will be a tough sell.

Some of the major challenges faced by new-build proponents around delivering net zero are systematic in nature and rooted in our traditional, fiscally minded approach to investment cases.

A net-zero future is only possible where the current rules of the game are changed, industry and government properly account for the cost of carbon across the whole life of assets, and we, as an industry, are all pulling in the same direction.

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