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Zero: Scaling Net Zero Buildings

Shortlisted for the ESG Innovation Award

In 2021, we at Arup took our commitment to decarbonisation one step further and announced that we will not only continue considering our own carbon footprint, but also decarbonise the work we do with and for our clients by applying a whole lifecycle carbon approach to our building designs.

The project being discussed in this nomination has the potential to accelerate the delivery of ESG goals by creating the international, comparable dataset we need to scale net zero buildings and decarbonize global property. The global built environment is the source of more than a third of total greenhouse gas emissions. 


Why we need whole life carbon data


Removing carbon from existing and new buildings requires us to know when and where emissions are generated, and at what volume. That is what 'whole life carbon’ (WLC) data offers. Yet, it is estimated that there are currently less than 1% of buildings projects being evaluated in a way that quantifies the scale and source of carbon emissions generated during their lifespans, even though this is an essential step if the most effective decarbonisation actions are to be identified.


Whole life carbon data for buildings remains extremely limited, highly variable in quality, and collected in ways that don't allow comparison. This is what prevents building designers, planners, construction firms and asset owners from implementing net zero plans rapidly and at scale. Large, comparable datasets are the key to enabling net zero carbon buildings to become a reality. Without them, there will be no scaling of net zero buildings. Whole life carbon data will allow us to deliver embodied and in-use carbon efficiencies. These goals remain of top priority if the global property sector wants to keep their commitment set out in the Paris agreement to halve emissions from the build environment by 2030.


Improving carbon data gathering and accessibility


To help reach this goal surrounding lifecycle carbon, Arup developed a whole life carbon data collection and analysis platform called ‘Zero’. The software platform aims to provide answers to the key questions that we all should be asking, such as where in a building the emissions are generated, when in a building’s full lifespan emission are created, and what the emission quantities generated by each system within a building are. We need to know where, when, and at what volume carbon emissions are generated to remove them from existing buildings and new developments (See Diagram on page 8 of Whole Life Carbon Zero PDF in Supplementary Information). The ambition is for Zero to be where project teams understand, manage and report their carbon emissions.

Exceptional platform design


The Zero platform infrastructure is made up of three different elements. Zero main, which acts as the user interface for carbon data for building projects and where the organisation of assets, users and assessments is handled. Veracity, which stores non-project related data used as part of whole life carbon assessment (such as benchmarks, high-level assessment assemblies, and material factors, etc.), and Digital Design Brief, which stores all project asset information (such as detailed assessment output, benchmark output, system meta-data).  


Since our commitment at COP26 in November 2021 through to November 2022, Zero has enabled the collection and analysis of whole life carbon data from over 950 assets in 30 countries, across five continents, covering 650m2 gross floor area across 16 building typologies from commercial and residential property through to data centres, industrial and transport infrastructure. More than 1100 engineers and design team members at Arup have participated in the data collection. 


Zero is already improving accuracy, accessibility, transparency and comparability on the source and scale of carbon emissions across the lifespan of buildings. It is enabling us to plot carbon trend lines and will allow engineers to see if their design is above or below a validated trend line for comparable buildings. The whole life carbon data will allow designers to identify low carbon best practice and to pick out high carbon-intensity 'outliers'. 


Zero also allows users to upload results of detailed lifecycle assessments from later stages of the project design phase. This is crucial to building more accurate carbon benchmarks for the brief stage of future projects. It will also enable better decision making at early design stages where there is more opportunity to optimise the design for net zero outcomes.

Deepening understanding, accelerating action


Data from Zero has brought many insights including: 


Insight 1: A clearer understanding of the scale of carbon emissions related to the building design work Arup undertakes on behalf of clients. These emissions are not classified as part of the daily operations of our business and therefore our organisational footprint, but rather as our carbon ‘handprint’. The ‘carbon handprint’ for the firm’s building design work is estimated to be 350 times greater than its organisational carbon footprint (Scopes 1, 2 and 3). The scale of carbon emissions associated with the delivery of Arup’s building design expertise has reinforced the firm’s commitment to continue to collect and analyse whole life carbon data. 


At COP27, Arup announced its ambition to use WLC to accelerate decarbonisation of its building design work and to pursue achievement of the goals of the UN High Level Climate Champions’ 2030 Breakthrough Outcome for the Built Environment. The Breakthrough Outcome calls for all new and refurbished buildings to be net zero in operation and to achieve at least a 40% reduction in embodied carbon by 2030. 


Insight 2: Future embodied carbon reductions are not yet able to be estimated with accuracy. 


Insight 3: Carbon emissions increase through the design and construction cycle. Buildings' whole life carbon is lowest at concept stage and then creeps up.  


Insight 4: We need more industry data. Design choices can lock carbon emissions in via existing cost models so early design decisions need to be informed by aggregated data derived from construction stage emissions.


There are two observations around which we are focusing our future research. Firstly, Zero showed that relative proportions of embodied carbon are split by sub-systems of buildings. Secondly, Zero demonstrated that poor visibility of MEP (mechanical, electrical, plant) material data is limiting decarbonisation innovation. Further research is needed in these areas.   


For the next steps surrounding Zero, we are making refinements to the platform to improve user experience, such as making it easier to enter data. We are also working with infrastructure disciplines and our Net Zero Carbon infrastructure group to expand the tool to support data collection for infrastructure assets. Our aim is to integrate Zero more deeply with other internal Arup platforms, and to run a second year of data collection in 2023 to make the data even richer. 


Industry wide accessibility, transparency, comparability


Whole life carbon data allows us to deliver embodied as well as in-use carbon efficiencies. Zero allows for identification and comparison of options for carbon emission reduction across the building lifespan and has revealed new detail about embodied carbon profile across building sub-systems, which will unlock further opportunity to reduce emissions in the built environment. The data which is collected and analysed using Zero already presents an opportunity for better decision making by property investors, building owners, designers, construction firms, as well as regulators. The solution comes with designing, constructing, and operating new and existing buildings in a way that cuts emissions substantially.  


Early analysis of Zero data indicates an urgent need for accurate carbon benchmarks to guide low carbon design, particularly for the earliest ‘brief’ stage of the building design cycle. However, such benchmarks will be established much more quickly if more whole life carbon data is collected and shared in comparable and open formats. By joining forces to create large, comparable, and open datasets, the global property sector and its value chain can begin to scale net zero buildings at pace.  


The Net Zero Carbon Building Team at Arup is currently not aware of any other tool or platform that operates in the same way as Zero, making it unique and innovative. Carbon calculation tools created by other firms have made progress, but our multiple levels of assessment and international engagement is what makes Zero stand out. In regard to the wider industry, Zero has received positive feedback from various organisations that were invited to provide peer reviews such as the Institution of Structural Engineers, University of Cambridge, the Carbon Leadership Forum, and Autodesk amongst others. This type of engagement helps Arup build relationships to further explore the development of a globally applicable, industry-wide standard data structure for capturing carbon emissions by subsystem.

Innovative tools like Zero bring us another step closer to improving transparency and comparability of carbon emission generation. We are calling on other actors in the construction, building design, and global property sector to work together to do the same. The development of whole life carbon data as a primary metric driving the decarbonisation of buildings is an urgent requirement and has the potential to play a crucial role in the global property sector’s ability to achieve its net zero commitments. 


Supplementary Information

Download the Whole Life Carbon Zero PDF

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