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The built environment needs to play a significant role in meeting the 2050 Paris climate goals.

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02 March 2020 | Facilitate Team

It’s become a cliche in recent years, but only because it’s an inescapable fact: Around 80 per cent of the building stock that will be in use by the year 2050 has already been built. It is also commonly recognised that a majority of those buildings currently fall well short of the performance level required to meet net zero objectives. The upshot? A major national target that leaves the country’s building owners and operators with a significant retrofit challenge in the years ahead.

Consider that, using 2017 figures, the building environment contributed 40 per cent of the UK’s total carbon footprint. Construction materials, products and processes, along with the generation of heat in buildings are responsible for most of these emissions, with cooling, lighting, and ventilation also contributing to the overall impact. 

In an effort to encourage and enable the built environment sector to help meet the government’s 2050 climate goals, industry-based lobby group the UK Green Building Council (UKGBC) has created a framework to direct building performance. The group has released two important documents so far.

The first, entitled Net-Zero Carbon Buildings: A Framework Definition, was published last year. This sets out guidance for those seeking to achieve net zero for the construction and operational energy impact of their buildings. 

The second document, Energy Targets, provides a set of energy performance targets. In this case the guidance is aimed solely at commercial office space, but later performance targets will also be issued for other types of building.

The aim behind this framework is to make the country’s existing and future building stock ‘Paris proof’ – i.e., having net zero carbon emissions by 2050, in line with Paris climate goals.

The guidance document is a collaborative effort, created in partnership with the consultancy Verco, the Better Buildings Partnership and the Better Buildings Partnership (BPF), with additional support from Arup, Carbon Intelligence, LaSalle Investment Management and Transport for London.

The hope is that these recent UKGBC documents will prove useful for the delegates at the 2020 UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow in November as they combine their efforts to tackle climate change.

It’s clear that reducing the energy demand and further decarbonising building construction and operation processes will be necessary in achieving the UKGBC Energy Targets. But newly constructed buildings are not meeting the high standards needed for a future net zero economy. Last year, a worrying 1 per cent of new dwellings were constructed to an Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) A-rating and, even more disturbingly, more than 16 per cent of dwellings were being built to a C-rating or worse.

The UKGBC framework

Nevertheless, the UKGBC’s framework offers some hope. At a minimum, the UKGBC’s framework outlines how extensive the required reductions will be for the built environment sector to contribute to the UK’s wider net zero commitment. And it offers guidance that can be implemented to achieve net zero, either in operation or construction, says Carl Brooks, head of sustainability, UK property management at CBRE.

Discussions of efficiency improvements tend to centre on the financial business case of implementing new plants, equipment and controls, and what is seen to be practical, says Brooks. But the UKGBC framework “moves that discussion from looking at what is practicable to looking at what is necessary,” he explains. “The reductions cited are average reductions too so it raises the imperative to understand an entire portfolio or fund and make sure reductions are being maximised to offset a lack of opportunity elsewhere.”

Last month, the UKGBC provided building owners and managers, along with construction firms, further help, showcasing a number of best practice net zero case studies, demonstrating innovative approaches that align with its net zero carbon buildings framework and target. These can be accessed from the organisations’ website (tinyurl.com/UKGBC-framework).

Problems the framework will solve

The framework breaks the requirement into five key areas: 

  • Establishing the potential for net-zero operations;
  • Reducing the emissions from construction;
  • Reducing the emissions from building operations; 
  • Increasing the supply of renewable energy to buildings;  
  • Offsetting any remaining carbon emissions following these first four steps. 


These five areas vary in their carbon reduction advice, ranging from building nothing to finding carbon-neutral alternatives to optimising building systems.

While use of the framework offers potential value, it is important to point out that it does not currently fit in with any existing workflow documents such as the RIBA Plan of Works.

“This really the first time we have been faced, as an industry, with this reality,” says Brooks, who point out that  commitments have been made to achieve net zero before there is a full understing of what the requirements are.

“As property managers we focus on the carbon emissions during the operational phase of the building, while whole-life carbon relates to the design, construction, commissioning, operation, refurbishment, and ultimately demolition,” says Brooks.

Because a property’s whole-life carbon emissions are concerned with the type and quantity of resources used to construct, manage, support and use a building, the typical whole-life assessment is as much about resource efficiency as it is about carbon emissions. In this way, whole-life assessments link to tackling two key environmental problems: global warming and resource depletion.

Of the 80 per cent of the current built environment set to be still standing in 2050, 50 per cent - and thus 40 per cent of 2050 buildings - will have been constructed before 1970, making a calculation of their embodied carbon a crucial factor.

A neutral focus

“If we are serious about decarbonisation as a nation, we need mandatory operational performance standards, and means of ensuring that property owners must improve energy performance over time by setting minimum energy-efficiency standards based on the actual performance of a building or building unit,” Brooks argues.

Such a mandatory document might contain elements similar to those suggested in the UKGBC framework – but would be fundamentally based on actual energy consumed rather than the proxy of performance illustrated on Energy Performance Certificates.

Already, contractors including Multiplex, Skanska, and Willmott Dixon have urged the UK government to put into law the Committee on Climate Change (CCC)’s recommendation for a UK 2050 net zero greenhouse gas emissions target.

Setting net zero targets in law would be a significant move, not least to the approach to and delivery of facilities management, Brooks argues. 

Firstly, contracts appointing FM companies to install and maintain mechanical and electrical systems would change, making sure buildings are managed to meet performance requirements and medium and long-term milestones are agreed to for the duration of the contract.

Such a contractual shift could force FM service providers to review their business strategies and operations, with an increased focus on ensuring personnel possess the skills to facilitate a transition to net zero buildings. Speaking to the Financial Times, Emily Hamilton, senior sustainability manager at Grosvenor Group, says the company is on track to have reduced carbon emissions on its London estate by 50 per cent between 2013 and 2023, and is now looking, where possible, to switch to on-site energy sources such as solar panels and ground source heat pumps.

Where FMs can have a crucial role is in having a hands-on role in running the technology required to dampen down demand. For example, AXA Investment Managers – Real Assets is currently developing a 1.4 million square feet scheme at 22 Bishopsgate in the City of London where it is using smart technology to reduce its environmental impact. Recent media reports claim that the development’s automated fault detection and diagnosis system can achieve up to 20 per cent energy savings across the scheme, which only uses energy from renewable sources. This kind of cumulative impact from a combined management and strategic perspective will be key to reaching 2050 with the target intact.

“Where new buildings are being conceived, there will be a pressure to make them net positive to counteract the ability of existing stock to reduce as sharply as required,” believes Brooks. “For existing buildings, there may be a requirement for restrictions on users’ consumption of unregulated energy, which falls outside of the landlord’s control.”

Building operators, then, will need to monitor consumption even more closely in the future, seek marginal gains in daily management and make headline savings through property upgrades.

British Land has taken this approach and succeeded in its £60 million refurbishment of  Meadow Hall, the Sheffield shopping centre. The centre achieved an ‘outstanding’ in-use rating by BREEAM, which, Louise Ellison, head of sustainability, says is “the first time a shopping centre in the UK has achieved it”. 

Owners and operators need to be careful not to specify over the short-term as plants, or the equipment and materials that improve the thermal efficiency of the building envelope, all have their own carbon footprint, which is presently externalised in carbon reporting. The industry needs a greater focus on a building’s long-term impact on energy resources and carbon emission generation if the targets are to be met. 

Emma Potter