The recent cacophony of businesses ‘declaring a climate emergency’ has been excellent at raising the building industry’s awareness about the challenge that lies ahead. But what is needed now, more than ever, is to turn those words into actions.

That’s why we’re very proud to have become the first building industry consultants to go through the process of verifying our offices as being net zero carbon, in accordance with UKGBC’s Net Zero Carbon Buildings Framework. This means we achieved a net zero carbon balance for the energy used in all five of our offices from June 2018 to June 2019 with the data verified by a third-party auditor, Etude.

Continuous improvement

For us, this achievement is the result of over 10 years of investment in both architectural and building services improvements to reduce our offices’ energy demands, improve metering, and add renewable electricity generation. We also appointed a team of Energy Champions to monitor, manage and minimise our energy use. These investments resulted in our office portfolio having a measured energy demand 40% less than the typical office benchmark, as well as specific office achievements such as our Cambridge office improving from an EPC G to an EPC A.

For the remaining operational emissions, we undertook comprehensive research into responsible offsetting and decided to purchase carbon credits (at £100/tonne, 20 times the market rate) to offset our emissions. The details of our choice of offsetting, our reasoning for setting a higher voluntary price, and our medium-term plans for reducing our need for offsetting can be found on our website in an article titled “Carbon Offsetting – friend or foe?”.

We’re proud to have achieved net zero carbon for our offices, demonstrating to our clients and the wider industry our ability to deliver net zero buildings. The work we’ve carried out has helped put us at the forefront of the net zero carbon revolution by providing valuable insight into how net zero carbon buildings can be designed and operated, and will contribute to further development of UKGBC’s framework.

All this is true and yet we assert that it’s not good enough; in order to end the UK’s contribution to global warming, further effort and a revised strategy for net zero carbon buildings are needed. Not just for our offices, but for all buildings in the UK.

More to come

While we are pleased with our own achievement for 2018-19, we believe that the strategies used on our own offices are not enough for a net zero carbon future. In subsequent years we need to do more to reduce our energy demands, install lower carbon heating systems, and increase our renewable energy generation. We’re exploring options and developing a 10-year net zero carbon strategy that considers heat pumps, mechanical ventilation with heat recovery (MVHR), triple glazing and enhanced insulation to bring our offices closer to net zero.

This will not be easy or cheap, particularly as three of our five offices are within Grade II listed buildings and we are only tenants, not owners. These challenges may mean it is not possible to meet the UKGBC’s energy demand targets, but we believe we must do all we can to reduce our energy demand and limit our offices’ environmental impact.

From words to action

We encourage all building owners, tenants, managers, designers or other stakeholders (such as the 800+ Architects Declare signatories) wanting to take steps towards net zero carbon to prioritise investing in their own offices through energy efficiency improvements, low carbon heating systems and renewable energy generation, before thinking about offsetting. Signing up to WorldGBC’s Net Zero Carbon Buildings Commitment is one way to help create the critical mass needed for net zero carbon buildings to become the market norm.

It is known that these market shifts are both challenging and take time to deliver and fund, so making use of carbon offsetting (and renewable energy utility tariffs) in conjunction with a medium-term plan to implement building improvements is an environmentally responsible strategy. For buildings, carbon offsetting is a short-term fix not a long-term solution.

We would like to thank UKGBC for their support with our verification, and Etude for their valuable contributions and in-depth audit.

More details about our route to Net Zero Carbon can be found here, along with our full operational energy data and carbon emissions analysis for 2018-19 and Etude’s audit.