With the built environment contributing around 40% of the world’s total carbon footprint (World Green Building Council), developers and property owners must not be daunted by the Net Zero challenge, but should take proactive, systematic steps towards targeting carbon reduction for all buildings. Developers and property owners need to move beyond simply greenwashing and reduce the carbon emissions of real estate before costly regulation and enforcement takes over.

Considering carbon-positive and cost-effective solutions at the outset of a project, as part of an objective and considered briefing stage, will enable significant progress to be made, taking in to account the wider lifecycle benefits arising from both construction and in-use operation. This can create a more resilient, and therefore more valuable, asset in the longer term with more evidence now supporting this.

There must be a shift towards a more proactive mindset, along with a re-evaluation of the success of projects, with added data and scrutiny on how a building performs over its lifecycle. But it doesn’t have to cause paralysing levels of bureaucracy or procrastination. At Workman, we collaborate with clients to create and implement bespoke Net Zero Asset Plans to meet the corporate carbon emission targets and those set by government. Each Net Zero pathway is a unique journey to creating zero-carbon buildings, providing recommendations and direction, while also collating existing data or identifying gaps to create the starting point for the Net Zero pathway.

Here are 14 practical steps to take when moving towards carbon reduction in buildings, both embodied and operational.

Embodied carbon*

*carbon dioxide emissions associated with making a building – as distinct from using it – are referred to as embodied carbon. This covers greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from the energy and industrial processes used in the processing, manufacture and delivery of the materials, products and components required to construct a building.

1.Refurbish and re-use

By element, the largest contributor to embodied carbon is the substructure and superstructure. This accounts for 65% of a typical office, according to the London Energy Transformation Initiative. So, when considering redevelopment options, a comprehensive understanding of these aspects is needed in order to understand whether new designs can be worked up from the existing frame. This avoids demolition waste and introduction of carbon into new structures, as well as the carbon impacts from transport, in addition to the further benefit of shortening construction programmes. These aspects need to be weighed up against existing design life and condition, warranty position and dimensional requirements. However, the potential carbon impact of reuse and refurbishment could prove significant.

2. Keep supply chains short

Transport accounts for almost 25% of Europe’s greenhouse gas emissions, and is the main cause of air pollution in cities, according to the European Commission. Reduce transport carbon by considering how materials are procured and focusing on local supply chains to the construction site. Transportation of materials from the manufacturing facility to the building site adds to the account of your building. By buying from local sources, the emissions produced during transportation are reduced, and the local economy is supported. However, reducing transport distance alone is not always enough to cut embodied carbon. The mode of transport is also important, since transport by road is far more carbon intensive than transport by rail, and in turn rail is more carbon intensive than transport by sea.

3. Harness the circular economy

Select suppliers who operate cradle-to-cradle operations, taking back existing material for re-use into a new product. It’s recognised that 40% of global carbon emissions are produced by the built environment, but less well-known that a significant percentage of those emissions are generated at the very beginning of a building’s life, at the development stage. According to a 2014 paper from UK Green Building Council, the processing of materials needed for construction can account for anywhere between 30% and 70% of a building’s lifetime emissions, depending on its type. So, if a developer wants its warehouse, office or residential scheme to be truly carbon neutral, it needs to become part of the circular economy. When possible, the building should be designed to be easily taken apart in sections, reducing the impact on other elements when extracting the building component, and avoiding additional wastage.

4. Here’s one we made earlier

It’s possible to reduce waste on site by using off-site manufacturing. Since the embodied carbon within any building element includes its material footprint and the waste generated during its construction, prefabrication under controlled conditions allows reduction of waste and its associated carbon emissions. Similarly, modular elements permit the efficient use of materials and facilitate the off-site manufacture of these elements. The hotel, residential and student sectors use modular off site constructed bathroom pods routinely now. However, the transport factor may detract from carbon reductions made, as prefabricated elements could be made in off-shore locations.

5. Find flexible finishes

Finishes have many purposes: not only helping with the acoustics and thermal conditions inside living spaces, but also providing an important aesthetic function, that can affect users’ overall wellbeing. However, they are among the elements that have the shortest lifespans in commercial buildings. Internal spaces can be reconfigured frequently, removing or re-introducing partitions and flooring, and changing the ceiling layout. The aggregated impact of replacing these elements several times during the lifecycle of a building can have a significant overall impact on waste and carbon footprint. So, finishes should include low-carbon materials, and allow for the easy recovery of those materials for recycling or reuse. It’s important to grasp the requirement for finishes; for example, opting for an exposed services approach allows the omission of suspended ceilings, thereby reducing the initial carbon impact as well as throughout the life cycle during maintenance and refurbishment work.  This also makes services more accessible for maintenance and alteration.

6. Careful product selection; naturally

Selecting natural materials, those with low energy manufacturing processes and higher recycled content can make a big difference. Since the carbon impact from raw material extraction is only counted the first time the material is processed, afterwards the recycled material includes only the impacts from its reprocessing. This strategy has the added value of keeping materials inside the economy and lowering the pressure for extracting virgin materials, while also reducing negative financial and environmental factors around waste and landfill.

7. Shout ‘timber’

Developers are starting to recognise the sustainability credentials of timber frames, versus traditional steel and concrete. Although using timber takes careful consideration, some industry experts estimate that its deployment cuts the size of a building’s carbon footprint in half, because wood is the only construction material that sequesters carbon. But it’s worth remembering that adding finishes to protect wood can decrease its overall impact.

However, buildings made from timber can also make for more appealing environments, with a connection to nature. Some studies suggest that exposed interior wood could have psychological benefits, such as a greater sense of wellbeing for building users.

8. Floor it

By choosing to replace damaged raised access flooring with recycled panels, buyers can be encouraged that they are not only getting the best bang for their buck, but also moving towards a more sustainable project path. Panels may not be consistent in their surface finish as they are often sourced and reclaimed from multiple strip out projects nationwide, however they can be purchased under full warrantee and are usually suitable for carpet overlay.

Another approach to flooring, suited to more comprehensive refurbishment projects, is cross-laminated timber (CLT), produced from softwood timber sections laid across each other at right angles, before industrial lamination. Construction is deemed to be quicker and cleaner than traditional builds, with a lower embodied-carbon footprint. It’s also a lighter material, resulting potentially lighter structural frame and foundations.  However, it requires consideration from an acoustics and fire strategy perspective.

Operational carbon*

*the emissions of carbon dioxide and other global warming gases during the in-use operation of a building.

9. Solar PV + a green roof = a perfect symbiosis

While access is available during planned external maintenance work such as roofing, solar PV could be installed, thereby helping to reduce purchased grid energy by using local on-site energy. Car ports could also be considered, although these often have longer payback periods due to the additional support structures required.

When used in combination with green roofs, the efficiency of solar panels can be enhanced, while also improving biodiversity to the site with the PV panels providing different wildlife habitats. By adding areas of shade, the number of species that will colonise the roof increases, since many plants and animals, such as insects, prefer shaded areas. Combining Solar panels with green roofs can therefore increase the biodiversity of the building, whilst providing free electricity.

10. Fabric improvement

For existing properties, planned refurbishment work often presents a valuable opportunity to specify cost effective improvements that increase the thermal insulation of a building, so that fuel and power are conserved. For example, this could be the time to re-assess insulation to walls, roofs, floors, air tightness and the density of the fabric, to help limit heat loss or solar gain. Roof recovering can incorporate additional insulation, and where more extensive façade replacement work is already planned, the performance and extent of glazing could be considered and evaluated within the context of fabric improvement. Challenging project teams to deliver beyond statutory compliance will ensure technology and new skills are quickly developed.

11. Some like it hot

Heating and cooling of a building can be made more efficient by removal of gas fired systems and the introduction of energy efficient plant (air/water source heat pumps), heat recovery to ventilation, natural or mixed mode ventilation, solar thermal hot water for shower facilities, revisiting design standards around acceptable winter and summer internal temperatures. Alternative heating and cooling solutions including air- and water-source heat pumps can contribute significantly to carbon savings, in combination with natural or mixed mode ventilation to reduce the energy used by full mechanical ventilation systems.

12. A light-bulb moment

The environmental and economic savings that come from a total LED switchover are by now well-recognised and commonplace with LED lights often ten times more efficient than the bulbs they replace.  Even further efficiencies can be made by using daylight-dimming options where there is good natural light and smart technology to ensure that only those areas with occupants are active.

13. Get smart

Intelligent buildings monitor energy use and identify where improvements can be made, ensuring energy-use gaps are identified quickly. The forthcoming Workman smart building platform will utilise information gained from existing building services in real time, gathered remotely, and will feed into a dashboard showing the energy usage 24/7/365. It is also key to note that this new product will interface with buildings that do not have a BMS in place, which is unique compared with most other providers. The Workman platform is a cloud- and site-based solution, with simple configuration to: monitor central plant systems, detect failures in M&E systems without the need for on-site investigation, feed data into address Net Zero ratings; reduce energy bills, and reduce the carbon footprint of building.

14. Take the green line

Environmental and economic issues have prompted many to reconsider how they travel to work, so it’s become increasingly important to use refurbishment as an opportunity to consider the addition of amenities to support cycling to work, electric vehicle charging and battery storage. In this way, carbon levels can be reduced, and sustainable commuting options are encouraged.

By Hedley Jones, Head of ESG, Refurbishment and Development

Read more on Venture’s work here > Projects Archive – Venture (

Read more about our intelligent building technology IBOS

Read more about our ESG services and Net Zero Asset Plans

Meet the Venture team here >