The architect’s journey to zero energy buildings

Elitsa Yakimov (Marketing Manager, Armacell UK)
Elitsa Yakimov

Elitsa Yakimov, Marketing Manager at Armacell UK, discusses the latest IPCC report amongst others, and comes to the sobering conclusion that it will be impossible for the UK to meet its 2050 Net Zero target without fundamental changes to the ways we build and heat our buildings.

The 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) which took place in October-November 2021 under the UK presidency, delivered the Glasgow climate pact and saw almost 200 countries commit to accelerating their actions on climate during this decade. However, as mentioned it will be impossible for the UK to meet its 2050 net zero target without fundamental changes to the ways we build and heat our buildings.

Buildings - their construction, operation, and heating - account for nearly 40% of global carbon emissions. (COP26 conference day on construction, cities, and the built environment)

The facts place the majority of responsibility for minimising the impacts of climate change in the hands of all construction industry stakeholders. The good news is that we already have the methods and the tools to design more sustainable buildings that will not only help to reduce CO2 emissions, but will also minimise reliance on fossil fuels with all the associated energy costs. Indeed, energy usage in existing homes accounts for 48% of emissions from buildings, mostly through the use of fossil fuel boilers. The heating of buildings, in general, produces 62% of energy usage emissions. (UKGBC). Since buildings consume 40% of all global energy, one goalpost to a greener future is reducing this percentage to zero – net zero or near zero, depending on local legislative goals.

Enter insulation. Long-lasting, effective insulation can significantly lower a building’s emissions, reduce heat loss, and prevent undesirable health effects of overheating, such as condensation, dampness, and house mold.

The difference between net-zero and nearly-zero and what can we achieve here and now

The term net zero refers to a state of equilibrium in which one thing is balanced out by another. The UK is committed to achieving a net-zero emissions target by 2050. For carbon dioxide emissions, that means a stop to global warming. In construction, net zero is often applied to both a building’s emissions and its energy use which, whilst interlinked, describe two different approaches. Net zero emissions mean that the greenhouse gases (GHG) and pollutants that are going into the atmosphere are balanced by their removal from the atmosphere. This would mean that a building can only have zero effect on climate change if it balances its polluting emissions.

Furthermore, applying net zero energy to buildings means that their total annual energy use should equal to the amount of renewable energy generated onsite or sustainably procured. The creation of Net Zero Energy Buildings (NZEB) has been driven by the European Union’s Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD). It requires all new buildings from 2021 (public buildings from 2019) to be nearly (or net) zero-energy buildings. The legislative drive is similar in Ireland, where the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD) mandates that all new buildings from 2021 onward should be NZEB. NZEB there stands for Nearly Zero Energy Buildings, but other than that, the government is equally committed to it via the revised building regulations Part L.

The most practical way to achieve NZEB through design

Whether you are refurbishing an existing building or constructing something new, one efficiency-optimising principle that can always be applied is the fabric-first approach. This popular construction measure can be part and parcel of your NZEB design, regardless of the size or purpose of the building. Reducing or offsetting the energy demands of our homes, as well as businesses, is the one sure way to net zero, as a smartly designed energy supply can decrease the final effects of green house gases on the atmosphere. This approach is not only vital to realising the country’s net zero emissions ambitions, but can offer significant benefits to building developers, owners and operators.

The end goal for architects today is to create highly-insulated building envelopes, at the foundation of which are carefully constructed junctions to minimise air leakage and unnecessary heat loss. Reducing demand in the first instance and delivering energy savings over the long-term with little or no maintenance is achievable through attention to the details, for example, insulation. HVAC, drainage, indoor and outdoor pipe insulation lay the foundation that blocks out moisture and prevents corrosion, whilst preserving the building’s breathability. Moreover, a well-insulated building will help to minimise energy demand, preparing the building for the next key step towards net zero – supplying as much energy as possible through renewable sources, preferably on site. Recently, the options for renewable and low carbon energy generation have grown in variety and efficiency, from photovoltaics to air or ground source heat pumps.

Choose the best building blocks for your NZEB foundation

In large commercial buildings, such as hospitals, data centres, and pharmaceutical manufacturing, thermal insulation solutions can help optimise energy consumption and prevent condensation on vital equipment. Innovations, such as Armacell’s closed-cell technical insulation, provide excellent levels of thermal performance whilst saving installation space, thanks to its exceptional material properties. Easy to manipulate and install, they are rigorously tested cooling and are distribution systems that don’t require external water vapour barrier.

Thanks to a dust-free composition and integrated MicroBan™ properties that prevent the growth of bacteria and molds on surfaces, ArmaFlex Ultima is an ideal insulating solution for hospitals and clean room applications. Specially-developed for data centres, fibre-free and halogen-free NH ArmaFlex Smart prevents overheating, electrical or mechanical failures of components. With Smart and Ultima, you can take the pressure off cooling systems in your data centre and take its energy efficiency to the next level, improving power usage effectiveness and reducing your carbon footprint just through insulation.

Achieving NZEB is easier thank you think

The UK has already begun to reduce its dependence on gas and oil supply and has written up legislation to enshrine net zero energy in law – culminating in a gradual emergence of buildings with improved energy performance, lowered maintenance costs, and a minimal effect on the environment. The Committee on Climate Change has offered that 'net zero is necessary, feasible and cost-effective’ and therefore, it is important to increase our use of new and advanced technologies that reduce construction’s carbon footprint and our reliance on fossil fuel generated energy for keeping our buildings warm and dry. Although it represents only a small expense in the overall construction budget, technical insulation has a significant impact on cooling system efficiency and operating performance.

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