There are many obstacles to creating a net zero carbon building, so how can we overcome them? asks Jerry Tate

Creating net zero carbon buildings is quickly moving from pipe-dream to reality. The climate emergency, new regulations and changing client attitudes will reshape the built environment, but achieving this standard is really hard and, as a profession, we need to be honest with ourselves about what is needed to meet the challenge.

The first obstacle is to reduce the operational carbon in our buildings. We became frustrated with Part L SAP calculations that suggest offsetting using renewables, and failures to understand the performance gaps from workmanship on site. The Passivhaus Planning Package (PHPP) works better as an accurate energy predictor, which helps you to think about efficiencies ahead of trying to ‘game’ your carbon output. However, architects should note that this system has a real impact on the design of a building from the start – you cannot achieve the standard with a complex and inefficient building form.

The embodied carbon of a building becomes your next hurdle and it seems almost inevitable that soon there will be a statutory test for these measurements. Tackling this will have a real impact on how we design our buildings. This will involve using natural materials and products and drastically reducing reliance on concrete, both aesthetically and to solve fire and acoustic issues.

As pointed out by the AJ RetroFirst campaign, we must also retain and re-use existing buildings, even though demolition seems to be the default attitude, with tax breaks to boot. The profession is already starting to recognise the importance of retrofit but to do this for zero carbon we will need to embrace a new skill-set and design sensibility very fast, striking a balance between heritage and energy efficiency.

Sustainability is such a wide-ranging issue and we cannot forget nature, ecology, landscape, water, lifestyle, waste, drainage and transport to create a beneficial holistic system. Most importantly we should aim to create buildings that people will love, and allow communities to thrive, creating a positive addition to our urban and rural environments.
















Our journey towards net zero carbon has presented many challenges but here are five simple steps to tackle them head-on:

  1. Think about it early Considering the building physics at the start of the design process can create a much more efficient building. There are some great courses that can introduce you to this, such as the Passivhaus Trust’s Getting to Zero Carbon course.
  2. Use the PHPP calculation software Even if you do not go for certification, this is a much more accurate predictive tool for building performance.
  3. Strategise the costs Ideally, work with a sympathetic QS who can help you present any uplift in capital costs against whole-life cost reductions, or isolate the costs to have a realistic discussion about a better market value for a better product.
  4. Consider it in your design fee You need to allow time in your design fee for considering building performance. As legislation such as the London Plan brings financial penalties into play, it could be that getting to zero carbon can also be a performance-related fee (similar to planning bonus fees).
  5. Do not forget the other stuff Do not get blinkered in your pursuit of zero carbon. Make sure you create a broadly sustainable solution and, of course, a great building that people will love.




















I am sure as a profession we are up to this challenge; it is the key problem of our age and should define the nature of our architectural output. With a large proportion of carbon emissions coming from the built environment, these difficulties could be seen as a real opportunity for architects to prove their worth and demonstrate that design can play a huge role in tackling the climate emergency.



Jerry Tate is a co-founder and partner of London based architect Tate Harmer

written by Jerry Tate