The Truth About Net Zero Buildings

The Truth About Net Zero Buildings

By Steven Meleca 

Angus Thompson’s article detailing Sydney’s ambitious plan for net zero buildings” has been of great interest here at EP&T Global since its mid-March publishing. In new requirements released by the City of Sydney, all development applications for office buildings, hotels and high-rise apartment blocks will have to comply with minimum energy ratings from January 2023. From 2026 they will have to achieve net-zero output. 

This is a great leap forward. It’s ambitious. Mitigating the strain that the built environment places on natural resources and emission targets needs bravery like this. We welcome it. But it’s only part of the picture. We need a much more comprehensive action plan that encourages building energy efficiency across the entire sector. This should be driven by the wider business community – us.

Here’s the thing: Well over half of Sydney’s building stock (much of it is B and C Grade) will be left out of this scheme. Encouraging building energy efficiency in all large buildings, regardless of age, would achieve even greater emission reductions.

The cynics out there might say, “Well of course you’d say that! You’re an energy efficiency SaaS company.” And you’d be right. But consider this  putting aside cost, heritage value and logistics for just a second – the embodied carbon in buildings accounts for 11% of global emissions every year. Pulling down all the old buildings in Sydney and redeveloping them again is not the solution either. 

Sydney Lord Mayor, Councillor Clover Moore outlined that the standards would encourage energy-efficient building design, the use of on-site renewable generation (wind, solar) and off-site options from green energy generation. While the idea of a building generating its own electricity sounds fantastic and is achievable in some cases, in the high-rise jungle, there’s precious little space to put the equipment required to do so and direct sunlight is hard to find. Realistically, any on-site generation will be significantly limited in Sydney’s CBD (or any other CBD for that matter).  

You may have heard the phrase, “The greenest energy is the energy that you don’t use.” Apple recently said it in its 2020 Environmental Progress Report so it must be true! In all seriousness, EP&T believes this statement sits at the heart of sustainable energy use and business growth. It could easily be the mantra for cities around the world, and to make it a reality requires a comprehensive approach that applies to all buildings – old, new, and yet to be realised. 

We’ve brainstormed other key ingredients that will contribute to a Net Zero reality. Here are seven of the best. 

  • Take embodied carbon seriously. There are decades of operational carbon emissions embedded in a building’s structure. Consider retrofitting rather than redeveloping. 
  • A state or federal approach to sustainable operational practice of existing building stock (along with new builds) would be the most effective approach. 
  • Promote permanent building design, encouraging large developments to be built for 100++ years of operational duration, not a 30-50 year lifespan. 
  • Promote timber framed buildings as these are sustainable and are an effective form of sequestering carbon. Concrete has an enormous carbon footprint. If the global concrete industry were its own country, it would be the world’s third-largest greenhouse gas emitter, behind China and the United States. 
  • Reduce embodied carbon in existing building stock. During building retrofits mandate or regulate a minimum amount of recycled materials to be used (e.g. recycled concrete and steel) 
  • Mandate that all building stock employ operational energy and water efficiency programs, just as the council does for the maintenance of cooling tower systems 
  • Specify improved material standards so that there is an improved life cycle on newly installed equipment   

Building optimisation is what we do. EP&T Global’s EDGE Intelligent System and our big data analytics ensure existing building stock operates as efficiently as it can. We’re thrilled to make smart buildings part of the journey to Net Zero. We’re energised by the clients, organisations and governments who want to go on that same journey with us.