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Zero carbon buildings are becoming a reality

The UK’s buildings have the reputation of being old, draughty and expensive to heat. Fortunately, this has been changing slowly as building regulations have gradually required ever higher energy efficiency standards. As of 2016, all new homes will have to be built to ‘zero carbon’ standards (with commercial buildings set to follow in 2019), i.e. they will have to be highly energy efficient and meet those energy needs from zero carbon sources.

However, these buildings will not be truly ‘zero carbon’, as the standards only apply to so-called regulated emissions (those related to heating and fixed lighting).  Over and above this, a mechanism called ‘allowable solutions’ will allow developers to meet the standard through carbon offsets – by for example installing gas boilers, while offsetting the associated emissions elsewhere. As we discussed in our 2014 Progress report, allowable solutions can be sensible when applied to on-site electricity generation but is problematic when applied to heat and efficiency measures.

The new combined heat and power energy centre
The new combined heat and power energy centre

‘True zero carbon’ (i.e. no emissions from energy use) is already a reality, as a colleague and I recently saw on a site visit to a new 2500 bed student village during Green Building Week. For me, this was the first return visit to the University of Hertfordshire (UoH) since I taught Environmental Studies there in the 1990s. Back then, the student accommodation was certainly not zero carbon, and the design itself was fairly uninspiring. As of this autumn, UoH’s students get to enjoy sustainable, well-designed buildings, with light and warm rooms, as well as low running costs for the University.

A cutting-edge biomass gasification combined heat and power plant will soon provide heat and power needs for the student village and nearby faculty buildings, ensuring carbon emissions are truly zero. Embodied carbon has also been kept as low as possible through pre-fabricated timber structured insulated panel (SIP) construction.

The £190 million development, built by developer Bouygues who facilitated our visit, also addresses other sustainability issues through wildlife meadows, ponds, sustainable urban drainage systems (SUDS) and allotments (hoping to inspire a student gardening movement!).The development is aiming to get a BREEAM outstanding sustainability rating which very few buildings manage to achieve.

It was great to see zero carbon construction in practice. Currently, the Government is proposing exemptions from zero carbon standards (e.g. for small developments) but, as we said in our 2014 Progress report, no rationale has been provided for this. Examples like the UoH development provide evidence that zero carbon is entirely feasible.

This blog was written by Dr. Ute Collier, Team Leader for Buildings and Industry.