With the effects of climate change
becoming increasingly important, and buildings accounting for 24% of the
world’s greenhouse gas emissions (IEA/ECBCS, 2010)1 , the architecture and construction sectors have
begun moving towards more sustainable methods of building such as using fewer
non-renewable materials and avoiding the disturbance of fragile ecosystems. Many
government policies and incentives have aimed to attract developers in this
direction however US based non-profit organisation, Architecture 2030
challenged the world to make all new buildings carbon-neutral by the year 2030.
While this certainly is an ambitious proposal, there is significant debate
about whether zero-carbon construction is feasible and affordable enough to be
implemented at a macro scale.

The Challenge

US based non-profit organisation,
Architecture 20302
challenged the worldwide architecture industry to adopt several targets seeking
to reduce the building sector’s reliance on fossil fuels to zero by 2030
(Architecture2030, 2006). To reach these targets, the organisation recommends “… implementing innovative sustainable
design strategies, generating on-site renewable power and/or purchasing
…renewable energy.” Architecture 2030 has also provided 2030 Palette, a
database with books, publications and other tools for architects and developers
that are interested in creating low-carbon built environments, improving the
accessibility of information on sustainable architecture and making zero-carbon
building more feasible.


Defining Zero-Carbon

The definition of zero-carbon is
important especially for the builders and developer that will be implementing
zero-carbon building to assess whether they are reaching the targets set by
Architecture 2030. The UK Green Building Council Task Group, a charity whose
mission it is to unite the building industry in becoming more sustainable,
states that:

construction industry stands ready to invest in innovation and skills to meet
higher standards, but the lack of detail on policy implementation means that
current efforts are fragmented and disparate, creating inefficiencies…”3

This Task Group believes that a lack
of clear direction could make any targets or goals like the 2030 goal more
difficult to attain for the industry.


According to the UK Department for
Communities and Local Government4, a
zero-carbon home is one in which “over a year, the net carbon emissions from
energy use…would be zero” (UK Government, 2006). This quote was included in a
document outlining the UK’s aim to make all new buildings zero-carbon by 2016 and
aims to clarify the meaning of zero carbon to the UK building industry. It also
expresses that negating the capital
carbon of the home is not necessary, allowing for materials that release
high amounts of carbon during the manufacturing and construction process to be
used in zero-carbon homes (UK Government, 2006).


The independent research conducted by The
Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology in Sydney5 attempted
to analyse the current definitions for zero carbon building, like that
referenced above, and other low impact building types to recommend a more
suitable definition to be used in Australia (Riedy et al., 2011).


            “We recommend the following standard definition
for zero carbon buildings: A zero carbon building is one that has no net annual
Scope 1 and 2 emissions from
operation of building incorporated services. …Recognising that there is no
‘one-size-fits-all’ definition, we also propose consistent terminology for
variations on this definition, as outlined in Table ES1” 5


Carbon Building

Occupant Emissions

carbon occupied building

embodied emissions

carbon embodied building

all emission sources in the building life cycle

carbon life-cycle building

No grid

zero carbon building

less than zero emissions

Carbon positive
building (or carbon positive occupied building etc)

Fig.1. (Table
ES1) Variations on zero-carbon building definitions, 2011 5

The Institute for Sustainable Futures’
recommended definition, like that of The UK Department for Communities and
Local Government, specifies that electricity and carbon used to heat and power
the built-in facilities of a building must also be net zero for it to be
considered zero carbon (Riedy et al., 2011). The report declines to include
factors, such as the energy required to power loose appliances that would be
brought into the home upon moving in or the embodied energy of the materials used for the building’s fabric in
the list of services that would need to have zero net carbon in the recommended
definition. Instead they propose that the alternative definitions listed in the
table be used consistently for variations on the definition.


Architect’s Perspective

The architecture industry has already
shown that it is possible to design a zero-carbon building. For example,
Professor Phil Jones6 from the Welsh School of Architecture designed
and built a house that goes beyond the requirements of a zero-carbon and
produces more energy than it consumes:

“The Welsh and UK Governments…have set targets for very low ‘nearly
zero’ energy buildings by 2020, and zero carbon new housing can deliver this
and more…. Through this project we have risen to this challenge and used the
latest design and technology to build the UK’s first smart energy positive
house” 6

Professor Jones
believes that it is possible to rise to ambitious energy targets using
“affordable technologies” and took some design compromises to cut costs, namely,
building the south facing roof completely out of solar panels instead of
attaching the panels to a conventional roof. In his opinion, this kind of
innovative approach to building should be employed to meet low energy targets


While Professor Jones’ design relies
on energy saving technology to become energy-positive, Clare Murray7,
Head of Sustainability at Levitt Bernstein architecture firm, argues that
low-carbon technologies within homes do not perform as well in reality as they
are predicted to thus making it difficult for them to reach their zero-carbon

“Predicted system efficiencies often far exceed those installed. It is
these gaps between design and reality which render the CO2 reductions
on paper meaningless and prevent the best outcome for residents and maintenance
teams.” 7

of Florida’s Professor Charles Kibert8
attributes these inefficiencies to occupant behaviour since “there is no vested
interest… to limit their consumption”. Kibert also emphasises that, without
adequate involvement from the owners or occupants of zero-carbon buildings, it
will be difficult to reach zero-carbon goals on a larger scale.

On his blog,
Elrond Burrell9, Registered
Architect and Certified Passivhaus
Designer based in the UK, raises the issue of suitable locations for designing
zero carbon homes since a zero-carbon home can generate renewable energy
on-site to account for its electricity uses and many sites hold constraints
that make this difficult. Burrell cites urban areas as particularly unsuitable
due to high building density, as limited roof space and nearby buildings
casting shadows onto the site may hamper its efforts to harness solar and wind
power. This could threaten the feasibility of zero-carbon building across the
UK since there are a range of densely populated and sparsely populated
settlements located here. While 2030 Architecture recommends the purchase of
renewable energies when generation is not possible, this remains a significant
issue as it asks where the generation of the increased demand for renewable
energy would take place.


Finally, a
study conducted by Plymouth University, Edinburgh University and Hong Kong
University in China surveyed 34 professionals in the architecture industry



Government opinions


In his 2015
statement, former chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne declared that the
UK government would discontinue its zero-carbon and Allowable Solutions targets
carbon off-setting scheme to make it easier for planning

1 IEA/ECBCS (2010)

http://www.iea-shc.org/data/sites/1/publications/T40A52Flyer3a.pdf, Date Accessed: 30th
November 2017

2 Architecture2030,

http://architecture2030.org/2030_challenges/2030-challenge/ , Date Accessed: 23 November

3 UK
Green Building Council (2014)

, Date Accessed: 15 December 2017

4 UK Government 2006, ‘Building a Greener Future: Towards Zero
Carbon Development: Consultation’ Department of Communities and Local Government,
(2006), pp.3, Communities and Local Government Publications (West Yorkshire)

http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20120919183345/http://www.communities.gov.uk/documents/planningandbuilding/pdf/153125.pdf ,Date Accessed: 29th
November 2017

Riedy, C., Lederwasch, A., and Ison, N., (2011) ‘Defining zero emission
buildings – Review and recommendations: Final Report’. Prepared for
Sustainability Victoria by the Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of
Technology, Sydney

http://www.asbec.asn.au/files/ASBEC_Zero_Carbon_Definitions_Final_Report_Release_Version_15112011_0.pdf , Date Accessed: 29th November 2017




Cardiff University (2015),

https://www.cardiff.ac.uk/news/view/122063-smart-carbon-positive-energy-house, Date Accessed: 2nd December 2017

7 Clare Murray (2016),

 https://www.architectsjournal.co.uk/opinion/chasing-zero-carbon-targets-in-dense-residevelopments-is-like-chasing-rainbows/10010488.article , Date Accessed: 29th November 2017

8Nadiv Malin (2010), 

 https://www.buildinggreen.com/feature/problem-net-zero-buildings-and-case-net-zero-neighborhoods ,Date Accessed: 2nd



Elrond Burrell (2014),

Zero-Carbon Buildings? It’s the Wrong Target

,Date Accessed: 2nd December 2017



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