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The Countdown to Net Zero Carbon Buildings

By Brian Livingston, Global Head of Oaklins’ Building Materials, Oaklins Smith and Williamson

The Countdown to Net Zero Carbon BuildingsBrian Livingston, Global Head of Oaklins’ Building Materials, Oaklins Smith and Williamson

We look at trends related to three of the steps identified in the Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment. How can the construction and building materials sector utilize available technologies and techniques to meet the carbon neutral targets being set by the UK and Nordic governments?

In June 2019, the UK became the first G7 country to commit to net zero carbon emissions by 2050.The goal to become carbon neutral is a worldwide challenge.

Although this represents a strong commitment, the Nordics are working toward even more challenging targets. Norway and Sweden have already passed laws to become carbon neutral by 2030 and 2045, respectively. The construction and building materials sector has an important role to play in achieving these targets, and we are seeing an increasing push towards carbon-neutral buildings.

In September 2018, the World Green Building Council officially launched The Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment, which seeks to challenge companies, cities, states, and regions to reach net zero operating emissions in their portfolios by 2030 and to advocate for all buildings to operate at net zero by 2050. 

Three of the steps within the council’s framework for carbon neutrality are to: reduce construction impacts, reduce operational energy use, and increase renewable energy supply.

Reduce Construction Impacts

The best way to reduce construction impacts is to build less, use less, and build smarter. Using recyclable materials is potentially one of the easiest ways for a construction company or homeowner to reduce construction impacts. Building materials companies should keep this in mind when positioning their products in the market. Metal roofing is highly recyclable, and the use of already-recycled materials as opposed to raw materials reduces the energy required for its production. For example: Recycled steel (Galvalume) uses 26 percent of the original energy whereas recycled aluminum uses 5 of the original energy. Other highly recyclable roofing materials include asphalt, shingle, Ethylene Propylene Diene Monomer (EPDM) rubber, concrete, and clay.

Not only does using recyclable materials help reduce carbon footprint, it also helps satisfy Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification criteria, something we have discussed in detail in a previous newsletter.

Reduce Operational Energy Use

One of the simplest ways to reduce operational energy use of a building is to reduce the need for air conditioning systems. Covering roofing and cladding systems in white serves to reflect sunlight and thereby reduces the heat absorbed.

The cooling effect from the use of light colors helps reduce the need for air conditioning during the summer months. Research has indicated that using white surfaces over dark surfaces can help lower heat-wave temperatures by two degrees Celsius or more, which could have a significant impact on local climates.

There is an ever-increasing trend toward the selection of lighter-colored roofing and cladding systems. For example, in the nine-year period up to 2018, New York used over nine million square feet of white paint in free roof upgrades for nonprofits, hospitals, and affordable housing buildings to help lower building temperatures.

Increase Renewable Energy Supply

Renewable energy is an increasingly hot topic. Solar energy, though costly to implement, offers a clean, renewable source of power. Most people are familiar with solar panels, typically found on rooftops, made with semiconductor materials like those used in computer chips. When sunlight hits the solar panel cells, they turn the collected heat into electricity. However, many consider the future of solar technology to lie in photovoltaic (PV) glass. Not only is it transparent, but it also works at lower light levels, which means positioning is less important and, vitally, it can work on a vertical basis.

Although PV glass has been in use for a number of years now, its use is expected to grow significantly. Manufacturers are working to improve a number of features, such as efficiency, aesthetics, and ease of installation, and to make it as cheap to produce as normal glass. With the recent government commitments to net zero carbon emissions, the speed of developing these improvements is expected to accelerate.

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