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Marjolijn Versteegden

Global Solutions Director, Net Zero Facilities & Sustainable Communities

The targets are set and the clock is ticking – but what do we actually mean when we talk about net zero carbon? Complex challenges and continuing uncertainty make it difficult to visualize and even more so to achieve in new build or retrofit projects. Marjolijn Versteegden is on hand to shed some light, show how net zero fits into the bigger picture of sustainability, and provide a few pointers for staying on track.


Net Zero Carbon is not the whole story

A net zero carbon (NZC) building is one which is extremely energy efficient, such that it uses renewable energy for most or all of its needs, and any minimal carbon which it produces is offset in other ways. To calculate a building’s carbon impact, the embodied carbon (the total footprint of the material used to construct the building), is taken together with the operational carbon, which is the carbon footprint when it is up and running. It’s a complex picture, with a vast number of elements to consider under each of these categories.

But NZC fits into another complex picture: overall sustainability. Environmental, social and governance (ESG) strategy covers a huge range of issues such as resilience and adaptability, right through to the health and wellbeing of a building’s occupants. Focusing on NZC to the detriment of other issues might result in a low carbon building, but not a sustainable one because it may not have the longevity of a building that concentrates on the diverse requirements of the people who use it.

Narrowing in too quickly on NZC might even be counterproductive. For example, a high tech solution for lowering energy consumption might need high carbon materials, so it’s critical to carefully consider which solutions and innovations are appropriate for your project. Where are the materials coming from? Is there a local option or anything you can reuse? Will the design work in harmony with the surrounding environment?

Questions like these bring us to the circular economy – a way of thinking that prioritizes using or reusing what’s readily available in the local area, and paying attention to the entire lifecycle of the building, including demolition. Sometimes this involves taking risks on materials, but the result is a building that sits better in its surroundings. We should also be looking to nature itself for inspiration for design challenges, which can result in stunningly elegant and simple solutions. The recently completed Holland Casino (for which Arcadis provided sustainability consultancy) blends seamlessly with its environment, thanks to everything from its flowing shape which fits the local topography, to integrated bat corridors to make sure wildlife was not impacted.

This kind of thinking can drive the creation of entire cities. Take Wanshan Lake Ecological Technology City in Wuxi, China. Here we are helping to create a new ecological technological city and science hub which embraces the natural environment that supports it. The project promotes innovation through science, and the impact this can have on urban development in order to provide a liveable, sustainable home for the people that will drive it.

Regulation and innovation – it’s hard to keep up!

In much of Europe, targets are for NZC in new buildings by 2030, and for all existing buildings to be retrofitted to be NZC by 2050. The challenges for both are very different (and tackling historic monuments is particularly fraught because of their cultural and symbolic value), but the targets and rules are not consistent globally, which can be a headache for clients operating internationally. They are moving at speed though, particularly in areas that have previously been behind the curve such as China.

Translating ambitions into workable regulations can be challenging for many city authorities, but NZC is still a key element of the drive to make cities liveable and prosperous, and many are blazing a trail for urban sustainability. Our Sustainable Cities Report details some of the most successful.

Add to regulation-related confusion the incredible rate at which new design ideas and innovative materials are emerging, it can feel like the goalposts are constantly moving. Scarcity of materials (which inspires yet more innovation), and continuing political upheaval only add to the uncertainty. In these circumstances it might seem overwhelming to attempt to make the best decisions for NZC – what if something better emerges in the next 12 months? What if it turns out the carbon credentials are not as good as they seem? Taking a step back, building time into programs to allow flexibility of timing for these decisions and, once again, focusing on overarching sustainability, not just NZC, can ease some of this anxiety.

How do we move forward?

Considering all of this, you might be wondering how to tackle the challenges that lie ahead. Here are five pointers for getting your strategy right:

1. Act now. New buildings we are designing today need to be NZC to meet the targets.

2. Act together – this is not something any of us can achieve without a commitment to collaboration and sharing information.

3. Know your starting point. Where robust data is lacking concerning existing buildings, thorough assessments can fill in the gaps.

4. Be people-centric. A NZC building that doesn’t fit into the community it serves and the environment that surrounds it isn’t sustainable.

5. Keep focusing on the circular economy. NZC isn’t worth it if you aren’t carefully considering how to achieve it with minimal long-term impact.

The Joan Building, which our sustainability team also consulted on, is a great example of this holistic thinking. The multi-company office complex achieved a very low carbon footprint but is also packed with features that maximize the comfort and wellbeing of its occupants – from smart heating and lighting that automatically adapts to users, to meticulously planned integration with public transport, cycle networks and road links.

We should all be taking bold strides towards our NZC goals, but success really comes down to understanding that sustainability is a broad and complicated issue, of which NZC is just one strand, albeit a pivotal one. If we put communities at the heart of decision making, the result can be NZC buildings that will stand for centuries.

Contact Marjolijn at