Is zero carbon building agenda setting expectations too high?

The chief executive of a leading consultancy has told edie that the quest for zero carbon buildings is good for political grandstanding and headlines - but little else.

Dr David Strong, who heads up Inbuilt, will be delivering a presentation on Zero Carbon Buildings at the Nemex trade show next week.

He told edie that while the quest to reduce the carbon footprint of the built environment is admirable, and necessary, pushing for zero carbon buildings could be counterproductive.

“It’s great for political grand standing and headlines, but nothing else,” he said.

“I’m a great fan of ultra-low carbon buildings but I wonder whether in this case it’s a question of the best being the enemy of the good.

“I think it’s time for a fairly radical rethink. If we do choose to follow this zero carbon agenda we’re going to have to be acutely aware of the dangers and pitfalls.”

He said his presentation would challenge the idea that a zero carbon building should always be the highest ambition and would focus on three distinct sets of issues.

Dr Strong said: “The first is the law of diminishing returns – are zero carbon buildings the best way of delivering the biggest carbon bang for your buck?”

He pointed out that while certain energy efficiency measures were a clear win-win, getting to the artificial goal of zero carbon was not always cost effective – or even the best bet for the environment when savings could be made far easier elsewhere.

He said the second problem area revolved around the law of unintended consequences.

“In the headlong rush for zero carbon buildings we may end up with all sorts of unexpected problems,” said Dr Strong, pointing out examples such as summer overheating from super-insulation or a school with impeccable eco-credentials but where the buildings were so well sealed from drafts that indoor air quality plummeted and children were falling asleep at their desks.

“There’s nothing less sustainable than a school where the learning is completely compromised,” he said.

Murphy’s Law – the concept that if things can go wrong, they will – formed the basis for Dr Strong’s final set of concerns.

Over-complicated technical solutions that seem right at the time can have a habit of throwing up surprises further down the line, he said.

“An over-reliance on bolt-on technologies generally isn’t the way to deliver low carbon, energy efficient buildings,” Dr Strong told edie.

“It’s a fact of life in the construction sector that simplicity tends to work while complexity tends to fail.”

He held up the German Passivhaus movement as an example of good practice in the sector, saying that it was producing affordable, liveable housing that, while not zero carbon, had a far lower environmental impact than previous developments.

“I’m certainly in favour of ultra-energy efficient buildings,” he said.

“But when you aim for zero carbon it might actually be far more cost efficient to make those savings elsewhere.”

  • Dr David Strong will be speaking at Nemex, part of SustainabilityLive! on Thursday, May 21
  • Sam Bond

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