Defining Net Zero

For those who are unfamiliar with Net Zero, it’s easy to get lost in the other litany of green movements on the market. To the general public it’s seen as a push toward minimizing energy consumption. And while this is a big part of the exercise, it’s not the whole picture. Net Zero refers to zero carbon, not zero energy as people sometimes think. However, energy production is one of the biggest generators of carbon. So, by finding alternative sources and lowering consumption, companies can seriously reduce the overall carbon footprint.

Net Zero often gets subdivided into three main areas of carbon production, Net Zero Operation, Net Zero Construction and Net Zero Life. Here are the key aspects to consider for each Net Zero area.

Net Zero Operation

Operations typically dominate the conversation about energy consumption, so this is likely to be the most familiar to all. Operational carbon refers to the use of the building, such as air conditioning, lights, speaker systems, etc. Since most individuals interact with these elements of carbon generation on a daily basis, they are easy visible targets for reducing the footprint. Reducing operational carbon starts early in the process and affects all aspects of the design. From the overall shape, to the finishes and materials, to the systems in the design. For example, if large amounts of glazing are added to a building, the air conditioning load must be increased which would increase the carbon operation output. Balance is key to reducing the operating outputs.

Net Zero Construction

Before operating a Net Zero building it needs to be constructed, which tends to be a carbon intensive process. Construction carbon refers to the entire supply chain leading up to the grand opening. That Italian marble countertop generates large amounts of carbon not only during the extraction phase, but also the transit. Bamboo on the other hand would have much lower weight, and thus lower carbon from transportation. As with the movement towards local food consumption, it stems from the same driver: in order to reduce the embodied carbon, the travel time must also be reduced.

Net Zero Life

Once the construction carbon has been reduced and the operational energy consumption decreased, there is still one more factor to consider to achieve Net Zero. Life carbon refers to the lifetime of the building, including overall maintenance and necessary repairs. For example, if the acoustical ceiling tile (ACT) installed called for replacement every five years, the amount of carbon used will increase each time. Or say the ultra-durable brass window frames installed will last 100 years, but the cleaning process requires a special machine and a special chemical, that adds a little carbon each time. Net Zero life is truly the endgame where you strive for true zero. Many folks also include the decommissioning of buildings in the lifetime carbon footprint. That new futuristic polymer might be ultra-cheap to produce, but if it will outlive the building by 1000 years, it may not be the best choice for Net Zero.

These different ways of looking at the carbon footprint of the building and construction industry help us realize that carbon exists at every step of the process. To make a true impact, all three categories need to be targeted and considered instead of focusing on just the operations of the building. And while reducing energy consumption, along with alternative sources are a huge part of the effort, carbon and energy are not synonymous.

About the author:

Ben Oas, AIA, graduated from Kansas State University with a Master of Architecture degree. He works in our Philadelphia office as a Project Manager and has been with BRR since 2015. Ben works with a variety of national clients in both the grocery and retail markets. His passion for organization and technology have helped provide structure for new and growing teams at BRR. Email him.