Making Net zero energy a reality - let’s start with London

Last month I won the UK-GBC and PRP 2017 Rising Star award. I felt honoured just to be nominated, thrilled to be a finalist, and certainly surprised when the winner was announced, as I had just spent the last half an hour chatting to the other very impressive finalists.

The award process started in December when my colleague, Ed Garrod, mentioned that he was nominating me for the award. After having been nominated, I had to write answers to a few questions about using innovative communication and overcoming barriers to sustainable outcomes. Once through to the shortlist, there was a second round of questions and a video submission, reflecting on what I felt were my most important achievements, and how I am driving things forward as further catalysts for change. Then came the killer question - ‘What do you want to achieve in sustainability in the next 5 years?’

As I am sure all of my friends and colleagues would tell you, I’m seriously passionate about climate change, but I hadn’t really thought about why this was, how I could make the most impact, and  what was it that I wanted to change the most.

I have often been involved in work that drives sustainable outcomes whether this be part of my role at work or other activities. At work I advise architects on optimising facades, design efficient, future-proofed systems for buildings, develop novel tools that help the design team make decisions on how to minimise the carbon emissions in the most effective way and encourage the next generation of engineers by giving talks at schools and universities. Outside work, I volunteer with Greenpeace, for example stopping SHELL drill for oil in the arctic and have constructed and installed wind turbines in Peru with the NGO WindAid.

The Rising Star submission made me really think about what is most important to me. Am I doing everything I can in the area of the sustainable built environment that is most important to me?

For some people, local natural materials ignites their fire, for others its rainwater harvesting. For me its carbon emissions. But why do I care? I reflected on this one for a while.

It’s because I care about people.

This means that I want to do everything I can do to try and reduce catastrophic irreversible climate change, which means we need to meet the COP 21 carbon emissions targets.

In order to meet the targets all new buildings must emit zero net carbon emissions though their construction and operation. This can only be met with fossil-fuel-free Net Zero Energy (NZE) developments which generate 100% of their energy and offset their embodied carbon. This is a large undertaking, and requires a shift in our approach to designing buildings.

So what do I want to achieve in the next 5 years?  Help to shift our definition of success from a building that performs slightly ‘less bad’ to one that regenerates its environment. I would like to see NZE developments become the norm, or at least remove the barriers that exist for NZE developments.

In order to get there I believe that the following is crucial.

I have become increasingly frustrated with the London planning policy. The current London Plan is now a barrier to net zero energy (NZE) development.  Outdated carbon factors are used when carbon emissions are calculated using these planning requirements. 

This has the effect that fossil fuel powered hot water generation, i.e. combined heat and power (CHP), is preferred - appearing to have lower carbon emissions than electricity-driven hot water generation through air source heat pumps (ASHP). This is no longer true as carbon factors associated with grid electricity have fallen drastically over the last 5 years. From 2020 carbon emissions associated with CHP hot water generation will be higher than that of a gas boiler, and are already now higher than well designed ASHP systems.

Additionally, developments are obliged to connect to fossil fuel based district heating schemes because of the position of district heating in the London plan 'energy hierarchy', even if the alternative is 100% renewable.

I have conveyed to local councils that current policies will not achieve real carbon savings, and have submitted an investigation response to the London Mayor outlining the issues above and suggested improvements. This includes; ensuring that all new developments are zero emissions ready, considering embodied carbon, using Total Site Energy Use Intensity and Thermal Energy Demand metrics, as well as carbon emissions and rethinking district heating strategies.

The London Plan is being updated this year- so we, as the built environment community, can make a real impact on the future policy.  To influence policy we need a broader consensus. To that end I am bringing together representatives from across the design, development and construction sectors to identify barriers to low and zero carbon developments to feed in to the public consultation.

This is where I think I can make the most impact, and how I am putting my values to action. If this rings true with you, join me on the 8th of May at Elementa’s cross-sector initiative to develop concrete recommendations for a new Energy and Carbon policy for London. Contribute your perspective and experiences. Help shape a compelling vision for a Zero Emission Capital.

Shifting towards zero emission buildings is crucial. However we must always keep in mind why we are doing this. We do not construct buildings to save carbon emissions, we construct them for people. So for me it is equally important to ensure that we move towards human-centred design, creating culturally rich, socially just and inspiring places that enhance our wellbeing.

Clara Bagenal George is Environmental Design Engineer at Elementa Consulting.

If you are interested in helping to fix the London’s broken Energy policy, please contact Clara on

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Clara Bagenal George

Author: Clara Bagenal George

Added: 19/04/2017

Featuring Member: Elementa (A member of the Integral Group)

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