A fast track reality to net zero carbon tall buildings

The government mandated instruction to work from home has forced a mass social experiment, which would never have been possible in pre pandemic times. Whilst hope for a suitable vaccine is the much anticipated key to unlock workplaces back to full capacity, the taste of a tempting alternative work pattern has already started to build into something which is likely to be a more permanent situation.

In the early months of lockdown, London’s dense city space took on a surreal calm environment, devoid of traffic, city workers, tourists and people going about their daily business. The urban environment was eerily silent and the air looked and felt cleaner. The quietness punctuated by the occasional noise echoing around the hard urban surfaces was particularly noticeable in the City of London’s tall building eastern cluster district.

Has this unusual circumstance given us a glimpse of what a net zero carbon future could actually feel like? The anticipated transport revolution, powered by electricity and hydrogen fuel cell technology and switch to mass cycling will have a profound impact on London’s dense urban environment. The city’s soundscape will drastically alter and this will also have a direct correlation to cleaner air.

At the same time the rapid decarbonisation of the national grid has triggered the biggest office building engineering design change not seen for at least 50 years since the oil crisis in the 1970s, now powering heating and cooling systems with fossil free fuel electricity, displacing air polluting natural gas.

Technological change driven by the digital fourth industrial revolution has also seen small power loads in offices reduce from 25 W/m2 to 15 W/m2, with the recently launched London Energy Transformation Initiative (LETI) Climate Emergency Design Guide promoting a target of a further significant reduction to just 8 W/m2. This will have a drastic impact on air conditioning reliance in tall buildings.

Is this the moment architects and environmental engineering designers should seize and implement a radical change in the design approach of commercial offices? Can tall buildings lead the way?

There is no doubt we are witnessing a perfect storm. The emerging landscape of a quieter urban environment, cleaner air, clean energy supplies and a significant reduction in office internal heat gains, accentuated by a workforce flipping their time between remote digital working and social interaction in offices, can lead us to a net zero carbon future much sooner than the current UKGBCled commitment, to achieve net zero in operation of buildings by 2030.

By virtue of their stature and prominence in the urban habitat, the design of tall buildings have an opportunity to lead by example. A natural ventilation strategy applied in tall buildings has the biggest potential operational carbon impact. This can offer a triple win result; providing health & wellness benefits to the occupants, a significant reduction in the building’s energy consumption and a major contribution to achieving a net zero operational carbon emissions sooner than 2030.

If there is one positive outcome out of this tragic world health pandemic, it is the improved environmental change in the urban habitat witnessed during lockdown, must encourage tall building design to radically change and lead the way to a net zero carbon future, sooner rather than later.

Vince Ugarow is a Design Director at Hilson Moran

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