Making Net Zero Buildings a Reality

Sonal Jain, sustainability director at JLL and Sachi Findlater from JLL’s upstream sustainability services discuss why now is the time to implement changes towards becoming net zero in order to begin to see the tangible, positive impact on our environment.

In June, the UK Government legislated to achieve a net zero carbon economy by 2050. Operation of buildings is directly responsible for 29% of UK emissions according to the Committee on Climate Change, and so the built environment will be a major strategic focus for achieving net zero carbon across the economy. The built environment has already reduced emissions by 13% since 2013 but there is much further to go if the UK is to reach its net zero by 2050 target.

What does net zero mean for real estate?

But what does decarbonisation in the real estate sector really mean? The lack of consensus on the issue has long been a point of confusion and in 2016 the World Green Building Council (WGBC) responded to the need for a consistent way of talking about net zero carbon buildings by setting up the Advancing Net Zero campaign. The WGBC developed a high-level definition of net zero carbon buildings along with a pathway to decarbonisation.

Aligning with the global ambition, earlier this year the UK Green Building Council published its first framework definition for net zero carbon buildings and a target for achieving net zero carbon for all new buildings by 2030 and all existing buildings by 2050. The UK framework sets out a pathway to achieving net zero carbon buildings not only in operation, but in construction as well, recognising that the indirect embodied carbon emissions associated with the manufacture of construction materials can be responsible for as much as 50% of a building’s emissions across its entire lifetime. 

The pathway to achieving net zero carbon through the management of buildings’ operation and construction is clear:

In operation:

  • Actively monitor and measure building’s annual energy use and emissions. This information should be disclosed alongside the floor area to give a better understanding of how the building is performing.
  • Reduce energy use through efficient systems.
  • Supply the remainder of energy from renewable sources, prioritising on-site over off-site renewables.
  • Pay to offset any remaining emissions.


In construction:

  • Measure and disclose emissions associated with construction activities, along with embodied carbon emissions of the materials used.
  • Design buildings which can run more efficiently, and which will use less energy throughout their lifetime.
  • Design in building-integrated renewables wherever possible.
  • Pay to offset the emissions from construction activities and the embodied emissions of the materials used.

Leadership response to net zero buildings

While these changes may seem daunting, many in the sector are already committed to taking action. Across the globe, 23 businesses, alongside 23 cities and six states & regions, have committed to net zero carbon buildings. Some of the biggest cities in the UK have set their own ambitious decarbonisations targets.  Manchester City Council has pledged to become a net zero carbon city by 2038, Bristol aims for full decarbonisation by 2030, while London’s Mayor has committed to achieve net zero carbon across London by 2050.

In the real estate sector, some are going even further than this; Hammerson has committed to becoming Net Positive in not only carbon, but waste, water and socio-economic impacts as well by 2030.  Grosvenor recently announced their ambition to achieve net zero carbon in operation for their estate, including listed buildings, by 2030. They are also committed to reducing their embodied carbon emissions, taking an important step towards net zero carbon in Construction.

Making net zero buildings a reality

The headline commitments from the Government, cities and the sector leaders have given strong signals on the willingness of the industry to implement change. Ultimately however, hitting the net zero carbon target will require fundamental changes across the industry.

At a basic level, it will mean switching to renewable power sources and moving away from the use of fossil fuels in buildings, like natural gas for heating. Low or Zero Carbon heating solutions are already being adopted in the market, as seen in Lendlease’s 25-acre Elephant Park development, providing zero carbon heat powered by a Combined Heat and Power plant. The challenge will be retrofitting older buildings, as this may require updating traditional energy systems, as well as changing internal layouts and facade. But, with only a maximum of two refurbishment cycles between now and 2050 there is limited opportunity to implement these changes; early action is needed to carefully evaluate the most cost-effective route to transition existing assets to zero carbon.

Given that much of the future performance of a building is dictated by early decisions, achieving net zero carbon, both in operation and in construction, will mean changing the way that we approach design and construction. We will need to explore designs which use fewer materials, and choose materials with lower embodied carbon. Simple choices such as using recycled steel rather than virgin steel and incorporating recycled concrete where possible can have a huge impact on the embodied carbon of the building.

Finally, and most importantly, the industry will need to move to a performance focussed approach (as opposed to remaining compliance focussed – whether its Part L or EPC). Net zero carbon is not a label, but a process which demonstrates that a building’s performance is being maintained at net zero carbon. This will require a shift in the whole value chain taking greater ownership of the building’s performance. There is already international best practice which we can learn from - National Australian Built Environment Rating System (NABERS) scheme in Australia has demonstrated the huge positive environmental impact which can be achieved when developers change their approach to design to ensure that buildings meet the expected performance. Recognising the clear benefits of this approach, a collaboration of 20 property investors and delivery partners, led by Better Building Partnership, have partnered with NABERS to implement Design for Performance approach in the UK.

The property sector has significant opportunity to support the transition to a net zero carbon economy in the UK. With the first milestone set for 2030, a mere eleven years away, now is the time to implement these changes and begin to see tangible, positive impact on our environment.

Adapted from an article first published in EG  on 10 August 2019.

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