Is True Zero Carbon actually possible?

Sophie Hill
September 30, 2022

Zero carbon buildings are more than a pipe dream. They're an integral part of our future. Using current construction methods and materials, we can actually achieve zero carbon and make it happen at scale. But what does zero carbon mean? What is necessary for achieving it? And how do we get there in a cost-effective way? In this article, we’ll answer all these questions and more by breaking down essential strategies that contribute to achieving zero carbon and how smart design decisions can help you achieve a zero carbon outcome without costing the earth!

A low carbon building is one with a footprint between 5kg and 50kg CO2/m²/year. This means that it produces less than half as much greenhouse gas emissions (or causes less than half as much environmental damage) compared to the average building of its type in its region. What exactly is zero carbon? Zero carbon buildings are those that have reduced their carbon footprint to zero. They do this through a number of techniques, including:

  • Using low carbon or carbon neutral building materials & reducing the overall amount of materials used.
  • Increasing efficiency of energy use on-site through better design and materials, for example.
  • Offsetting the amount of embodied and operational energy by using renewable energy sources such as solar panels or wind turbines.
By offsetting energy use with energy production, zero carbon and carbon positive homes can reduce greenhouse gas emissionsSource: YourHome, on behalf of Felicity Woodhams, adapted from Scott Dwyer.

Is it actually achievable? It is possible for buildings to achieve zero carbon. It's possible in a cost-effective way and in a way that is easy to manage. In fact, it's already happening. There are many organisations that have achieved net-zero energy or zero carbon and there's more on the horizon. We recently took part in the Design Matters True Zero Carbon Challenge, which aims to push designers to create a truly zero-carbon house. Our team worked hard at meeting the brief - a beautiful home, high-performing and completely carbon neutral… more on that soon.

While it is possible to build zero carbon, the exact cost will depend on several factors. If a building is efficient on space and energy efficient (i.e., passive), it may be possible to achieve zero carbon without adding any additional materials or infrastructure. However, if your building is large and less energy efficient (i.e., active), then you are going to need to invest more resources into achieving this goal which can become a self-defeating process!

It's also important for occupants to consider how the operation of their building affects its environmental impact—for example, how often they actively heat or cool spaces on their property and whether or not they use renewable power sources like solar panels. This is the most important thing to consider when designing any building.

Thermal mass is a material that stores heat energy. When the sun’s rays hit a building, it absorbs the heat and converts it into thermal energy. This process is known as solar gain. The material then releases this stored energy at night or when there is no direct sunlight to absorb, effectively regulating the temperature inside your home or office all day long. If you have ever wondered why some buildings stay warm on cold days while others feel freezing cold despite having the same insulation quality, it all comes down to how well they can retain this stored heat and release it when needed most - during colder weather conditions.

Insulation levels are crucial for eliminating heat loss, and you'll need a good thermal mass system to regulate temperature day and night. The amount of insulation used will depend on the building type, climate and local energy regulations. The higher the insulation level, the more expensive it will be to install but the increased energy efficiency can result in lower running costs over time.

Insulation is not just about keeping the heat in - it's also about keeping heat out! While we should all be trying hard not to burn fossil fuels, we cannot ignore that carbon emissions from heating our homes do contribute significantly to global warming. Insulating buildings makes them much more efficient at retaining their own warmth rather than importing it from elsewhere via windows or doors which are often poorly insulated anyway due to cost-cutting measures taken by developers when they were built years ago before anyone knew anything about global warming (or indeed even knew what "global" meant). This means less reliance on fossil fuels for heating which means less CO2 being emitted into our atmosphere - so it's a win-win really!

“Making smart use of space and reducing the footprint of your home is the easiest way to reduce carbon and cost.”
- Ben Keane, Building Designer

Did you know that smaller spaces reduce your carbon footprint? It makes sense, huh! Less space, less impact on the planet. Working out how to better apply the principles of space management to your building can result in significant savings on energy bills, as well as reducing CO2 emissions.

High-performance buildings are essential for achieving zero carbon and for doing so in a cost-effective way. They can be designed to use less energy, save money on utility bills, provide more comfortable indoor environments with better air quality and lower levels of noise, and make occupants healthier by reducing the risks of respiratory ailments. In order to achieve these benefits, high-performance buildings require a careful balance between passive and active systems that allow them to respond appropriately to changes in weather conditions without compromising their sustainability credentials. Our 10 Star Home is a great example of this! We also have a number of cost-effective and high-performing designs in the works… so stay tuned!

So, is zero carbon possible? Yes, absolutely. The key is to use the right materials and smart design for a building that uses less energy and creates as little carbon as possible. With careful planning, it’s easier to achieve this goal.

For more resources on Zero Carbon buildings, visit the links below.

YourHome | Zero Energy & Zero Carbon Homes

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Sophie Hill
Office Manager