The Net Zero Numbers: Offices

Tom Spurrier, associate director with the Tetra Tech High Performance Buildings Group in the United Kingdom, examines the UKGBC framework definition of Net Zero Carbon and different cost scenarios for designing Net Zero Carbon buildings in the United Kingdom.

"The transition to a net zero built environment is becoming achievable with effective design changes and adequate investment"

The UKGBC framework definition of Net Zero Carbon in 2019 was a key step on the journey to a net zero built environment with recent studies highlighting that more sustainable buildings will command higher values and reduce costs in the long term.

However, the design measures required and associated capital cost impacts have yet to be fully identified. To provide some answers to these questions, we, along with colleagues from across the industry, took part in a recent study that was coordinated by UKGBC:

Building the Case for Net Zero: A feasibility study into the design, delivery and cost of new net zero carbon buildings” is based on two case study projects, a new commercial office building, and a residential apartment block.

Office Methodology

As a team, we identified the required design interventions needed to achieve Net Zero targets for both operational energy and embodied carbon. Two office scenarios were explored against a baseline design of a typical UK building. The ‘intermediate’ scenario used net zero targets for 2025 to represent buildings that are in, or will soon be in, design, and a ‘stretch’ scenario uses targets for 2030 to represent design changes that will need to become the norm over the next decade.

The office baseline design represented the conventional design of high-rise office buildings and assumed:

  • A steel framed superstructure with composite concrete floors on profiled metal decking and floor-to-ceiling aluminum curtain walling
  • A gas boiler and electric chiller, fan coil units, and constant volume fresh air provided by centralized air handling plant (with heat recovery)
  • A full suspended aluminum ceiling and raised access floor
Intermediate Design

The office intermediate design retains the steel superstructure, but replaced the composite concrete floors with cross-laminated timber (CLT) panels. The design incorporated orientation considerations into the facade with lower glazing ratios of 60% to the east/west and 40% to the south. It featured an all-electric plant solution and utilized a (reversible) air source heat pump for heating and cooling with active chilled beams and demand-controlled ventilation. The suspended ceilings were removed and the raised access floors are recycled, all of which reduce the impact on embodied carbon.

“The cost uplift for the intermediate office design was calculated as 6.2% compared to the baseline scenarios. However, it can be argued that this will be offset to some degree by value benefits, such as increased rental premiums, lower tenancy void periods, and lower operating/ lifecycle costs.”

UKGB schematic for Net Zero offices with features such as chilled beams and mixed mode ventilation
What About the Stretch Design?

The stretch design incorporates a full structural timber frame with CLT floors supported on glue laminated timber (glulam) beams and columns. To achieve further carbon savings, the double height basement is removed and the structure is founded on concrete pile caps and piles with a suspended concrete slab forming the ground floor. The most significant change to the façade is the introduction of mixed-mode ventilation with openings in the façade and glazing ratios are further reduced to 40% all around the building. Off-site cloud computing is adopted by tenants and onsite server room usage is reduced. Less office lighting is needed because of a combination of background and task lighting, reduced lux levels, and emerging technologies. Finishes are further stripped back, moving from a recycled raised access floor to a simple floating timber build-up.

“The cost uplift for the office stretch scenario was found to be between 8-17%. Accounting for timber sequestration, the design approach meets the demanding net zero targets for 2030 and cost estimates reflect that the marketplace is not yet fully geared up to deliver at scale.”

A snapshot of UKGBC findings for upfront embodied carbon, energy performance, and cost change for Net Zero offices
An Investment Worth Making.

Ultimately, the report shows how the transition to a net zero built environment is becoming achievable with effective design changes and adequate investment.

“The tide is turning and it’s clear there are major rationale for absorbing these costs whether that’s ESG drivers or investor pressure (such as the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosure) alongside the ever-growing reputational, health & wellbeing, and operational cost benefits.”

Graphs: UK Green Building Council (UKGBC), “Building the Case for Net Zero,” pages 6,7, and 25.

Tom Spurrier

Tom Spurrier

Tom Spurrier has 15-years’ experience in sustainable building design and consultancy around the globe, across private and public sectors. Based in London, he specializes in building performance simulation and environmental assessment, on a diverse range of projects, with an increasing focus on the delivery of net zero carbon buildings. He currently is seconded to the UKGBC to lead the delivery of their Net Zero Whole Life Carbon Roadmap project.