As clocks tick inexorably closer to 2050, the goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to Net Zero presents property owners and developers with the challenge of meaningful carbon reduction. But it’s important not to be daunted by the enormity of the task. Because it’s one that they must now create a pathway to meet: even the smallest actions are steps in the right direction.

Responsibility of the built environment for carbon reduction

With the built environment contributing around 40% of total global carbon, of which 28% comes from energy consumption and 11% from carbon embodied within construction materials (World Green Building Council), it’s time to move beyond greenwashing and work to reduce carbon emissions of real estate before costly regulation and enforcement takes over. The industry needs to make proactive, systematic moves towards targeting Net Zero for all buildings, whether new, undergoing deep retrofit or refurbishment.

While the moral case for sustainable real estate is self-evident, positive action towards sustainability also increases value and let-ability of assets. This has caught the eye of investors, with assets in sustainable investment products in Europe forecast to reach €7.6tn over the next five years, outnumbering conventional funds. According to research by PwC, ESG funds, previously niche, will experience a more than threefold jump in assets by 2025, increasing their share of the European fund sector from 15% to 57%.

For all these reasons, real estate has become a major target of international efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But creating a credible net-zero-carbon trajectory for individual assets will require close consideration, followed by practical action.

Every journey to zero-carbon is unique

At Workman, we collaborate with clients to create and implement bespoke Net Zero Asset Plans to meet the carbon emission targets set by the government, or their own corporate targets, which in many cases have been set for 2030 or 2035. Each Net Zero pathway is a unique journey to creating zero-carbon buildings, providing practical recommendations and direction, while also collating existing data or identifying gaps to create the starting point for the Net Zero pathway.

Planned refurbishment work presents a valuable opportunity to identify cost-effective improvements to create better-performing buildings. This is often achieved through steps such as improvements to thermal fabric, energy efficiency, and behavioural change. For example, this could be the time for windows to be replaced with triple glazing. Roof recovering can incorporate additional insulation and fabric improvement opportunities could include insulation to walls to avoid heat loss and wasted energy.

Opportunities for heating and cooling can also be leveraged through; the removal of gas-fired systems, energy-efficient plant for heating and cooling (air/water source heat pumps), heat recovery to ventilation, natural or mixed-mode ventilation, solar thermal hot water for shower facilities, and revisiting design standards around acceptable winter and summer internal temperatures.

The environmental and economic savings derived from a total LED switchover are by now well-recognised. LED lights are often ten times more efficient than those they replace, with further efficiencies to be made by using daylight-dimming options where there is good natural light, and using smart technology to ensure that only areas with occupants are active.

A more proactive mindset

Intelligent buildings monitor energy use and identify where optimisation can be made, ensuring energy-use gaps are solved quickly. Smart building platforms utilise information gained from existing services in real time, gathered remotely into a dashboard showing energy usage 24/7/365. Such systems can also detect failures in M&E systems without the need for on-site investigation, provide info to address Net Zero ratings, reduce energy bills, and reduce the carbon footprint of buildings.

Considering carbon-positive and cost-effective solutions at the outset of a refurbishment project, will create a more resilient, and therefore more valuable, asset in the longer term. Similarly, use of certifications such as BREEAM has demonstrated that sustainability performance during design, planning, construction, operation or refurbishment helps to reduce running costs and maximise value, by attracting and retaining tenants.

There must be a shift towards a more proactive mindset, along with a re-evaluation of the success of projects, with added data on how specific buildings perform over their lifecycle. But it needn’t cause paralysing levels of bureaucracy. Each small effective step will help create a clearer pathway along the journey to carbon reduction, and ultimately Net Zero.

By Hedley Jones, Head of ESG, Refurbishment and Development, Workman