In December 2019, Space Group made a commitment to be a net-zero carbon business by 2023; a deliberately tight timescale to focus our efforts.
We have been committed to sustainability for many years and are ISO14001 accredited, however we felt the accreditation does not go far enough. It provides a good framework for measurement but not necessarily reduction.
For quite a few years, we have been advocating low-energy design to our clients – for example, designing a Passivhus School a number of years ago. However, as a business, we needed to demonstrate that we practice what we preach.
After only a few months into our journey, our research has thrown up some really interesting findings.
Since we set up the working group in January we had started to build up some momentum but then the Coronavirus hit. As it has turned out, the pandemic has helped us in our research whilst also demonstrating the value of reducing the use of carbon across the business.
The first step was to put a plan in place for Space Group to become net-zero carbon whilst reviewing how we can reduce the use of carbon in all of our projects beyond what we’re already doing.
We started by reviewing how much carbon we already use, which turned out to not be as easy as you may think. Our plan is split across three areas of focus: energy use, purchasing and waste and travel.
Our utility bills tell us how much energy we have used but we didn’t know how or where it was being used.. Even with this information, we didn’t know how efficient we were being.
Our headquarters, Spaceworks, was built in 1997 and is a 30,000 square foot building in the North East of England. It is a detached two-storey steel frame building with an insulated panel façade which is no more than 75mm thick. It is a south-facing with a large, glazed atrium and a relatively new VRF heating and cooling system.
We started measuring energy performance using Twinview.. The platform allowed us to measure the temperature in all spaces as well as where we were using energy and to connect to the fan coil units and the lighting electrical circuits via APIs.
Once we had detailed data, we could start to do some calculations. We looked at the energy we were using for heating, cooling, lighting, computers etc. We then benchmarked this against similar office buildings in the UK.
Our research suggested that the typical carbon use for a building of this type is 73 KgCo2/m2 - good practice is 43 KgCo2/m2. Our lightweight, south-facing office building uses 38 KgCo2/m2. This goes against all of the science. Spaceworks is a lightweight building with poor insulation levels, not particularly air tight with a low thermal mass.
We have studied the data from Twinview, which is showing that the building heats up quickly, maintains a steady temperature and then cools quickly once the building is empty. The building appears to benefit from passive solar heating through the atrium and the south-facing façade. The VRF heats the building quickly in the morning and then is not required throughout the day, when there are people and computers providing heat.
In the summer, the large atrium helps to cool the building using the stack effect which means that the VRF doesn’t need to provide much cooling.
All of this is subjective and we plan to use the data we have collected to do some further research with the Urban Observatory at Newcastle University.
There is minimal insulation in the metal roof, so insulation above the suspended ceiling would be an option. Our concern however is that, if we insulate, it might improve things in the winter but increase the cooling load in the summer and the data is telling us it is cooling which impacts upon our use of carbon the most.
The data showed that lighting used a lot of energy. To address this, we fitted movement sensors around the building to switch off the lights when they are not in use.
We then decided to invest in the replacement of all of the original lighting as we were spending a lot of money on not only running the fluorescent lighting but also replacing lamps and the ballasts.
The capital investment to replace all of the lighting was £30,000 with a payback of only two years when the maintenance cost was also included. We also received a £7,000 grant from the council, which helped.
Once we had looked at heating, cooling and lighting we focussed on small things. We decommissioned our zip boilers and replaced them with kettles. When white good need to be replace we are fitting energy efficient models and we have replaced all of the hand dryers with low-energy versions.
We still believe that there’s more we can do but accept that any reductions will be marginal unless we fit a more up-to-date VRF system or research the benefits of increasing insulation.
We only use a very small amount of gas for hot water so the next priority was our electricity. We spent time researching suppliers. To cut quite a long story short, we ended up staying with our existing supplier and using a Renewable Energy Guarantee, meaning that all of our electricity comes from renewable sources. We signed our new agreement last month and our annual energy costs year-on-year are 8% lower using renewable electricity - how does that work?
Once we finalise our overall carbon calculation, we can assess the offsetting we need to commit to if we are to become net-zero carbon..
One consideration which has come to light over the course of this pandemic is how we use the office space. All of our calculations are based on using 30,000 square foot of space. Working from home and connecting digitally has worked very well. Productivity has not been effected, if anything, it has improved. This suggests that working from home may be an option in the future. Instead of needing 30,000 square foot, we may only need 15,000 square foot reducing carbon use by potentially 50%.
However, the mental and social implications are important so we don’t ever see not having an office – but it may look very different and our work patterns are likely to be more flexible.
So, the next area to look at was waste and purchasing. We have always recycled and record every piece of paper we use,even reporting this in a league table for the biggest individual user at our monthly Pizza Friday. As an architectural practice, it is difficult to push down the amount of paper but we’re gong to keep chipping away.
About three years ago, we had three 1100-litre outdoor bins for recycled waste and another three for general waste. We now only have one of each. The target is to have none. We have achieved this in the last few weeks but the approach is a bit extreme.
Regarding purchasing, one person is responsible for all of materials which come into the building to be sure it is monitored. The goal is to have as little coming in as possible, so there is less to get rid of. We still have challenges with post and marketing brochures and it’s a constant battle for us to be removed from mailing lists.
The final area is transport which is probably the most challenging area and where we use a lot of carbon. However, the Coronavirus crisis has shown what is possible. It has been proven that we don’t need to travel as much as we did and that many meetings can be held online. Hopefully, we will see a change when the lockdown ends. If we can work from home more, we will also reduce the mileage to and from work whilst reducing stress levels.
One of our team did some calculations which showed that 18.71% of his time in 2019 was spent travelling, which equated to 3.7 tons of carbon.
The best way to reduce carbon from travelling is to travel less - but we will still need to get around the country at times. As our lease cars are coming up for renewal, we are replacing them with electric vehicles and are installing electric chargers at Spaceworks.
We are also close to the local Metro station and are encouraging people to leave cars at home – we’ve been doing this for some time but more to reduce the pressure on car parking. We are also looking at car sharing incentives and cycle to work schemes but haven’t found the right answer yet.
As we gather new data from Twinview over the months ahead , we will be able to calculate our total carbon use. We will keep squeezing energy use and looking at small opportunities around the edges but, being realistic, we don’t believe that we can get much lower than a further 10-20% with our current infrastructure meaning that the next step is offsetting.
We have started discussions with a number of companies who specialise in this area and in particular the planting of trees. However, we feel that having our own forest is far more fun so we are looking into how we can do that but it will mean we have to plan thousands of trees.
So, why is this article called ‘The Business of Carbon Reduction?’
Well, when you review everything that we’ve done, it’s nothing more than good business practice. We measure our costs continually and look at how we can reduce our costs without impacting on outcomes.
Aiming to be net-zero carbon will actually save us money – we need to invest capital in the short term but the payback will only take a few years. Why wouldn’t you?
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