New London Architecture

Net Zero experts reveal barriers - and signs of progress

Friday 18 September 2020

David Taylor

David Taylor

Editor, NLQ

Developers are starting to take action, some local authorities are leading the way and things like the Passivhaus Goldsmith Street in Norwich winning the Stirling Prize last year show that the tide is beginning to turn away from pure aesthetics to function – and Net Zero principles. But there are still problems over skills and a major performance gap, a lack of architectural education, consistency in definitions and monitoring mechanisms as well as financial barriers to its widespread adoption.

Those were just some of the points raised by Zero Carbon London: what are the key barriers?an extensive NLA Think Tank held this week which looked at issues from a technical, financial and policy, regulations and leadership basis. The session, involving architects, engineers, local authority representatives and other green thinkers, was kicked off by PDP London partner Marion Baeli. Baeli isolated the problem of ‘carbon literacy’ and the need to get public engagement on climate change issues, a worrying performance gap and low level of enforcement of building regulations and relative lack of green finance mechanisms or other ways to incentivise home owners and developers to make a difference.

PTE’s head of sustainable design Tom Dollard suggested there were also cultural aspects to take note of, ranging from the extent to which the media recognises sustainability in competitions, but acknowledged that the performance gap was indeed acute. ‘Yes, we can deliver zero carbon homes in theory’, he said, ‘but there’s very few if any that are actually delivering as-built performance at a building level, let alone a city level. This is probably the number one barrier to policy’.

Goldsmith Street, Mikhail Riches © Tim Crocker
Other contributors suggested there were issues concerning monitoring through the lifetime of assets and a lack of consistency and reliability of modelling tools in this area that have ‘baffled’ developers, along with net zero meaning different things to different people in existing buildings and operational performance. There was also, said Simon Sturgis, Managing Director, Targeting Zero, a perception and uncertainty amongst clients that ‘sustainability is an expensive business and is probably also irritating because of the boxes to tick’. But redeploying materials in a sensible way with a better understanding of how the supply chain works and making better decisions ‘can bring significant reductions with not a great deal of effort.’ 

On the brighter side, however, there were also positive examples to get across from other ongoing work from session partners in Net Zero projects. 

Cllr Andrew Achilleos, Member Champion for Climate Change, LB Barking & Dagenham said the Barking Riverside project will trial the ENVAC system to reduce the amount of heavy, polluting refuse vehicles on site and Barking was working to make a lot of its other developments car-free, increasing cycle infrastructure alongside that an lobbying TfL to run low-emission vehicles in the borough. Louisa Bowles, Partner and Head of Sustainability, Hawkins\Brown said she was working on a design guide for Camden that requires housing to measure in whole-life carbon, Sturgess adding that people were starting to ‘take action’ and some of the bigger developers requiring project teams to undertake whole life carbon assessments, albeit mainly on office schemes. ‘I think this is a filter-down process’, he said. 

But cultural aspects have also been challenged successfully in places, said Dollard. ‘Goldsmith Street winning the Stirling Prize last year – that was a Passivhaus scheme and certainly challenged the design culture around form over function and around Modernism being the key aesthetic. So, tackling aesthetics over the function is starting to happen, or at least balancing out those two’. Local authorities, he added, were also leading the way, evidenced by design guides which mandate zero carbon from 2025 and Passivhaus for ‘several thousand’ social housing projects.


David Taylor

David Taylor

Editor, NLQ


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