The concept of net zero is simple. It means that all carbon emissions related to the production, transportation, construction, and life cycle of a construction material, its processes, or building should be somehow neutralized, with the final amount of emissions resulting in zero. However, reaching this goal can require broad and complex actions throughout the design and construction processes. This topic has recently dominated the debate in many fields, especially in the construction industry. As data from the World Green Building Council (WGBC) has demonstrated, the building sector is responsible for 36% of energy consumption on a global level, 38% of carbon emissions related to energy, 50% of resources consumption, and is expected to double its total footprint by 2060.
A troubling future
Concerns around carbon emission are deeply related to predictions about the future of the planet, especially if there is no reduction in the amounts released into the atmosphere in the coming years. The latest edition of the report released in 2022 by the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) warns that if the carbon emission rate is maintained throughout the coming decades, the greenhouse effect (and the consequential rise in global temperatures) will potentially lead us to a crucial tipping point. In short, this means a point of no return, where the damages inflicted on the planet cannot be repaired. Some of the consequences are already present in our lives and the daily news cycle, including the destruction of forests, the extinction of animal species, an imbalance in ecosystems, the rise of sea levels, and many other disastrous effects.
Fighting against the climate crisis therefore requires a drastic reduction of carbon emissions. Aiming to highlight the impact of every single action and choice that we make, the EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) has developed a Greenhouse Gas Equivalencies Calculator that converts emissions and data related to energy, to the equivalent quantity of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. It allows us to translate often abstract information into concrete and easily understandable terms, like annual emissions from vehicles, families, or power plants.
Of the 38% of greenhouse gasses emitted by the construction industry, a building’s daily energy use—known as operational carbon—corresponds to around 28% of the total emissions. The remaining 10% come from embodied carbon, which is the sum of all the greenhouse gas emissions associated with a material throughout its life cycle, with the exception of its operational stage. This encompasses a material’s extraction from the soil and manufacturing, the subsequent building stage, its maintenance and its eventual disposal.
The role of the construction industry in mitigating climate change
We believe that as designers and architects, we play a significant role in the fight to mitigate climate change, especially in reducing the operational and embodied carbon emissions of their buildings. Greenhouse-effect gas is mostly produced through the burning of fossil fuels for energy generation. With this in mind, emissions related to building operations can be reduced through the use of more efficient lights that consume less energy and better thermal insulation. Well-designed building envelopes work hand-in-hand with a passive approach to environmental comfort, by reducing the need for air conditioning and heating. In short, by prioritizing consumption reduction, energy efficiency and avoiding energy waste, architecture professionals can make an impact in reducing overall emissions.
On the other hand, the embodied carbon of a building can be reduced if we choose locally available and durable materials, especially if they can be easily reused or recycled after their initial use. The AIA (American Institute of Architects) has published a guide with strategies to lower the embodied carbon in buildings. It includes tips for reusing and recycling buildings and materials, maximizing structural efficiency, and above all utilizing low carbon materials or products that are even able to remove carbon from the atmosphere. It is also increasingly common to see construction products with EPD (Environmental Product Declarations), which give an indication of its environmental impact throughout its life cycle.
RIMOND and Net Zero Design
In the Al Wasl Plaza Dome construction project for the Expo Dubai, for example, we implemented a sustainability questionnaire for the material selection process, where we fostered the use of materials with an EPD certificate and enforced this through our supply chain to achieve these requirements. Where this was not achieved, we offsetted the carbon emissions with the Gold Standard foundation, helping the Sidrap Wind Farm Project in Indonesia. In this same project, the recycling of the concrete waste produced had a diversion percentage of 99.98% away from landfills and we kept an Overall Waste / Recycling Status during the construction for waste from steel, wood, paper, food and concrete.
RIMOND is highly experienced in net zero design, applying this research and expertise in our healthcare projects. We aim to reduce energy consumption from design using digital tools of BIM and CFD analysis, evident through the ventilated spaces, passive cooling and heating approaches we take in our projects. In addition, we are actively participating in the Horizon 2020 Framework Programme to promote research and innovation through energy-efficient buildings and Nearly Zero Energy Building (NZEB) renovation methodologies.
Tools to reduce the impact of construction, such as the ones mentioned above, are increasingly feasible and have shown that the industry has the potential to lead the way in new processes that create effective and positive changes for the planet. Pursuing carbon neutrality, whether related to refurbishments or new constructions, is vital to ensuring a better future for our planet.