Hamilton Blake explores green innovation in the built environment

The 2015 Paris Agreement represents a turning point in the fight against climate change. Countries around the world committed to stop the rate of global warming exceeding 1.5 C (considered the temperature threshold to catastrophic global warming).

To meet those targets, the UK is legally bound to achieve an 80% carbon reduction by 2050. In fact, the plan now seems to be for the UK to achieve net-zero carbon by 2050 (although this is not yet legally binding). If the UK is to meet its own targets, we all need to play our part in becoming a greener society. Businesses of all sectors need to innovate new ways to minimise their impact on the planet.

Architects, engineers, and construction firms have a particularly important role to play. According to the UK Green Buildings Council, the built environment (AKA manmade structures) contribute around 40% of the UK’s total carbon footprint. To cap global warming at 1.5C, it’s estimated that we must cut carbon emissions associated with the built environment by 80-90%. This will require a huge shift in our expectations of the built environment. Not only must we change the way we light, heat, and insulate our homes, but we also need to choose alternative energy sources and reduce the carbon emissions associated with construction and associated manufacturing.

Fortunately, in our extensive work with the architecture and engineering sector, we’ve seen many exciting examples of innovation aiming to tackle climate change. We’ll explore some of these innovations in this article, including how to decarbonise existing buildings and green the built environment, and how the alternative use of natural materials may benefit the planet.

Decarbonising existing buildings

Building new carbon-neutral buildings is a challenge, but entirely possible. However, it is much more difficult to make an existing building carbon neutral. Decarbonising buildings requires a mixed approach, using several innovative technologies.

According to Bloomberg, the energy usage of the average building must be cut from 50-85% for it to meet net-zero. The building’s heating, lighting, cooling, and hot water must all become more energy efficient. The use of renewable energy (solar, ground and air source heat pumps) can help here, especially when combined with smart meters and energy monitoring systems.

The use of solar PV is one of the simplest actions for decarbonising a building, as it requires no changes to the existing structure. Once installed, the building immediately benefits from its own supply of clean energy. However, there are more innovative options available. An American engineering firm has created transparent solar panels that may be used as windows. The SolarWindow can even generate energy from artificial light. A Dutch designer, Marjan van Aubel has taken this technology one step further, creating beautiful ‘stained glass’ solar skylights.

The right insulation is essential for improving the energy efficiency of buildings. While there are plenty of insulation options available, producing materials such as foam or fibreglass insulation is often polluting or carbon-intensive. Engineers in New Zealand have used lambswool as insulation for some time, but this natural and readily available material is now becoming more popular across the world. Better insulation means less energy spent heating a building: essential for reducing a building’s carbon footprint.

Greening the built environment

One of our favourite green innovations is the use of vertical gardens. Plenty of research has shown that green spaces in the built environment are beneficial for people’s mental and physical health, as well as improving air quality and reducing traffic noise.

However, in city environments, space constraints often don’t allow for the inclusion of green spaces. While rooftop terraces are an option, these aren’t appropriate for all buildings and won’t work if space is already used for plant or solar panels. A more innovative solution is the creation of vertical gardens. Here, planters are incorporated into the structure of external walls so that plants may grow from the walls of a building.

As well as improving air quality and the health of city-dwellers, such vertical gardens also play a role in fighting climate change. Urban areas are often several degrees warmer than rural ones due to the urban heat island effect. Adding more plants reduces this heat build-up by creating a cooler microclimate around buildings.

Even more excitingly, architects are currently developing buildings that incorporate vertical growing facilities for agriculture. Due to over-farming, the world’s soil is degrading. It’s not as fertile as it used to be, and we risk becoming unable to feed the world’s growing population. Unlike traditional farming, vertical growing requires little (if any) soil, so won’t contribute to the threat of soil degradation.

Prioritising natural materials

To reduce the carbon footprint of the built environment as much as possible, we must also reduce emissions associated with construction. Choosing construction materials created from natural substances is a simple green swap. Natural products often have a lower carbon footprint than manmade alternatives. With the right offset measures, these materials may even be considered net-zero carbon. Additionally, natural building materials tend to be cleaner, less polluting, and biodegradable at the end of their usable lifetime.

Although wood is perhaps considered a very ‘traditional’ material, architects and engineers are using it in new and innovative ways. For example, the wooden framed football stadium created by Zaha Hadid Architects. We’re also seeing a lot more architects choosing bamboo: a very sustainable wood due to its fast growth. We love these inflatable origami-like greenhouses created from bamboo paper and shellac.

Thatching is another traditional method making a comeback due to its environmental credentials. This biodegradable material is cheap, easy to source (often locally), and biodegradable. Done right, it can even be carbon neutral. Now, thatch is used not just as a roof material but for walls and as a design feature, too.

For urban environments, designers have created a green alternative to concrete. Sea Stone is an experimental new material made from discarded shells: a natural by-product of the seafood industry. These ground shells are mixed with natural binders to create a concrete-like substance. Although not ready for use in construction just yet, this project demonstrates how architecture can fit into the ‘circular economy’: nothing is thrown away, only transformed and reused.

R&D in green innovation

Innovation to reduce the carbon footprint of the built environment requires a lot of research and development. Fortunately, the UK government rewards businesses for this sort of innovative risk taking through the R&D tax relief scheme. While businesses of all sectors are eligible for this incentive, HMRC is particularly keen to reward companies innovating in sustainability.

If you work with a firm completing innovative green work in the built environment, your company could be eligible for a reduction in its corporation tax.

Get in touch with a member of the Hamilton Blake Consulting team to find out more.

Get in contact with us to see how we can help you apply for your R&D Tax Credits