Planet Earthly: Net zero in the built environment

Lorenzo Curci

Lorenzo Curci

14 Feb, 2023

Planet Earthly: Net zero in the built environment

Take a look around you… depending on where you’re sitting right now, it’s likely that you are looking at either part of the problem or part of the solution. Our built environment, where we live, work, manufacture and play, is key to the success of a net zero future, accounting directly for

25% of the UK’s emissions

Government plans

aim for the construction industry to operate at net zero for emissions and for buildings to be almost completely decarbonised by 2050. Responsible developers are already embracing their role and making sustainability a priority.

To explore the pathway towards net zero in the built environment, Earthly brought together three leading experts across ESG, digital, sustainability and investment sectors to analyse the issues.

Meet the experts

Lucy Winterburn

is a Director at Savills Investment Management and has a background as a chartered surveyor and a wealth of experience overseeing development projects, incorporating best-in-class ESG initiatives to achieve a Net Zero ambition. 

Johnathan Munkley

is Technical Director of

WSP’s Digital Services team, Co-Founder of ZERO Construct and Founder of the Digital Twin Fan Club Podcast. He is passionate about leading business transformation and the adoption of future technologies.

Richard Ford

is a Partner at Vision Zero, sustainability consultants with an impressive reputation in delivering successful ESG and carbon-reduction initiatives across market sectors and geographical locations. 

Net Zero in the Built environment


The three key challenges of moving towards a net zero built environment

  • Demystifying the industry

Winterburn is clear that one of the key challenges is the need to demystify and debunk; “This is a complex, technical area, and we need to distil what we are trying to achieve amongst so much noise. We’ve found that people can easily get lost.” Clarity around the targets is needed, but standardisation also relies on the next, underpinning issue. 

  • The lack of data

Inconsistent or non-existent measurement approaches can make it hard to ascertain baselines, and accessing data is challenging in some situations. Munkley states that, “Measurement is always the first task. When we understand the real picture, it becomes much easier to implement efficiency.” Winterburn adds that this includes measuring success; “There is a need for a clear, transparent form of certification for net zero that goes beyond current basic regulations and helps avoid the risk of greenwashing.”

  • The bottom line

Steel and concrete are still the standard and cheapest options for construction. Ford has noticed that in terms of procurement strategies for a build or a refurb, cost remains the priority consideration; “This means that materials from overseas might be imported, regardless of the carbon emissions, if it is cheaper than identical local options. There’s not enough emphasis on embodied carbon and its impact on the final ESG profile.” 

Moving towards net zero

To overcome these challenges in difficult financial times, the industry will need to adapt fast. Ford explains, “The rising cost of energy and material shortages brings opportunity. It means businesses won’t be able to afford


to do it. There are compelling circumstances driving an increase in both generating and storing energy.”

“This is a time of fast-paced changes,” adds Ford. “We’re seeing an evolution in materials and new technologies. Just take lighting as an example, we’re seeing lighting systems that are replacing LED lighting, put in three years ago, and bringing 17-18% enhanced savings.” 

A waiting game?

The Government’s Energy Security Strategy commits to 95% of grid electricity coming from low-carbon sources by 2030. Is it a prudent solution just to wait until that happens? Ford doesn’t think so; “Compared to my neighbour’s greener property, my asset then doesn’t look as attractive. Those who don’t step up soon will be left behind.”

The role of digitisation

The lack of measurement information can be addressed by digital twinning. A digital twin is a digital replica of a building or even a city that enables performance analysis under different scenarios.  For Munkley, it’s a vital part of the process; “Without digitising the way you design, you can't measure anything. Therefore, you wouldn't really know what your design does.” 

Just understanding how a building is performing is often revelatory, “You can often achieve a 50% reduction just by first measuring the function of a smart building,” says Munkley. “For example, in a project I worked on, a school’s system was cranking up the heat in the night only to reduce it down by morning – this knowledge created such an easy-win carbon saving. And in the case of mega or giga infrastructure projects, even a 1-2% change is highly significant.” 

The built environment is working towards Net Zero


Building a business case for net zero

For those who need to justify the upfront expense of constructing a net zero building, or refurbishing an existing one, it pays to remember that the long-term asset value of the building will likely be higher with a net zero approach. 

Winterburn says, “With decarbonisation, I can find it hard to prove a direct financial benefit. But it’s vital to note that if people aren’t doing this, it can certainly be negative for business. Tenants increasingly want to know about environmental aspects of a building and with current energy prices, have concerns about running costs too.”

An effective business plan needs to examine future risk too. The prospect of carbon credit costing along a ‘polluter pays’ type model further supports the investment case for eliminating carbon impact.

Carbon offsetting

The role of the offset market is interesting. Winterburn raises a note of caution about offsets not always turning out as you expect or providing a long-term solution. However, a truly thoughtful, 360-degree approach recognises that building anything, even when the supply chain and design consider both embodied carbon and future carbon emissions, will have an environmental impact, because it typically requires some use of natural resources. Offset can provide a solution for the residual carbon impact that in many cases cannot be avoided.

Beyond carbon

Does a focus on net zero mean we miss out on other environmental and societal aspects, such as biodiversity and community impacts? Munkley believes any solutions need to be truly sustainable to have genuine impact; “We’re talking about creating better places for people to live and work and that must come down to considering these additional aspects alongside carbon. It is all connected. It will help enhance our resilience to extreme weather events in the future.” 

The longer-term picture

All of our experts agreed that working towards a net zero future for the built environment is critical. It mitigates future risk, improves the value of assets, and brings competitive advantage to be ahead of the direction the industry must take. 

The fast pace of change means that the tools to achieve this, such as digitisation, new systems, new materials, investor willingness and nature-based solutions are providing ever more exciting ways of reaching this goal.   

To listen to our webinar on this topic,

click here