Why all buildings (old or new) can become sustainable without resorting to demolition


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Reports that the UK might miss out on net zero carbon targets has served as an alert for all industries to do better – including the commercial property industry. An initial thought would be to simply build more ‘green’ buildings, but that wouldn’t exactly help, as it’s our existing buildings that need to change if we want to make a difference now.

Here’s why – 

At the moment, buildings are currently responsible for 39% of global energy-related carbon emissions: 28% from operational emissions, and the remaining 11% from materials and construction, according to the World Green Building Council. This means that the ‘non-sustainable’ infrastructures that we have in place today, which are the largest majority after all, still have a major role to play in our net zero emissions quest.

But that doesn’t mean achieving green labeling requirements will solve everything. In fact, it’s the commercial buildings with these standards that have the largest room for improvement, according to Better Building Partnerships. On its latest call to action report, the leading collaboration of property owners, managers, and key influencers issued a statement saying that green standards were in fact so flawed across the UK, that it was the coveted sustainable buildings with the highest rating in the UK —  the ones with an A Energy Performance Certificate — that regularly used more energy, more than the ones rated C, D, E or even F.

Renovating existing buildings in our country is certainly more important than designing new, sustainable ones, but don’t worry: there are two simple, but effective changes that can be introduced that will help us collectively reach the net zero goals without taking away any of our office comforts

Continuous HVAC commissioning

Chances are that your building was designed around this expected energy-use method. But here’s the problem with this approach: the design of buildings around an expected energy use has set our structures up for inaccuracy. With most existing buildings planned around an expected future performance, it’s critical today to start carrying out HVAC commissioning on a consistent basis to check that heating, ventilation, and air conditioning are in fact running at peak performance levels and providing tenant comfort. The only way to truly ensure this optimal performance is through ongoing evaluations.

Besides, there are other advantages to regular commissioning, such as the ability to identify and solve operating problems early, which translates into a significant extension of the equipment’s life, not to mention the annual savings this generates to the business’ bottom line and the insights it gives facility managers on how to optimise energy use in the building.

Assessing your actual energy use

The ‘expected future energy use’ approach fails to take into account how buildings will actually be used: all it takes is someone turning systems over to manual and installing air conditioners for emissions to drastically change.

As for the tools that are often used to improve performance, there has been a tendency to pick traditionally cost-effective solutions such as energy efficiency measures. But now is the time to follow other industries’ steps and explore alternative, intelligent technologies that can truly guide us to net zero.

Demand side response (DSR) should certainly be at the top of the list. The technology has been historically used by industrial facilities to improve energy efficiency, and its principles can easily be transferred to the commercial building industry. Thanks to this, many owners of commercial buildings across the country have identified their non-critical electricity and intelligently reduced it for short periods, seeing their carbon emissions reduced to groundbreaking levels without even needing to put capital investment forward. Moreover, they’ve raised their infrastructure’s BREEAM ratings and got financially rewarded for contributing to the National Grid.

And the best part is that they haven’t affected the performance of the building or tenants’ comfort.

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