Birmingham works towards net-zero goals with a Passivhaus skyscraper

Posted by Derek Mason

31st August 2021

The first ever mixed-use, net-zero, tall-building development in the world will go up in Birmingham, here in the UK.

Curzon Wharf includes four buildings, with the tallest one – a 165m, 53-storey apartment block – firmly in the category of skyscraper. The second tallest tower is a 41-storey student accommodation building, and there’s a smaller co-living block and an office building as part of the same development.

It is good to see that we are pushing forward with the net-zero carbon agenda in this country, and what’s exciting about this scheme is that the buildings will be built in line with Passivhaus principles.

Interestingly – and perhaps unsurprisingly for those of us used to working in this sector – the construction of the development itself will not hit net-zero targets.

It will, however, include sky terraces, winter gardens and tree-lined plazas, and there has been collaboration with Birmingham City Council to make sure the development fits in with the city’s masterplan of cycle routes, pathways and public spaces.

Clearly the net-zero carbon agenda will evolve over time. It’s good to see progress, but we can’t aim for perfection, and to some extent there is no point trying to run before we can walk. For example, a construction site could switch to electric vehicles, but if the electricity supply comes from coal-fired power stations, the benefits aren’t there.

Despite that, reducing carbon emissions in the construction sector won’t be an optional part of planning a development for much longer. From 30th September this year (2021), all construction businesses bidding for public contracts will need to include plans to reduce their carbon emissions, specifying carbon-reduction schemes for any project worth more than £5m.

Businesses tendering for new contracts will also need to commit to reaching net-zero carbon by 2050 – in line with the UK’s pledge.

What’s not clear is how this will be funded – because this is a plan that will cost a lot of money in advance of us seeing any benefits. It’s a positive move for us to attempt to hit zero-carbon, and we’ll all need to be au fait with this – but we need to be clear that it’s an expensive plan.

For example, when I attended a symposium on the reuse of existing buildings recently, It was explained that one of the biggest challenges is that you often don’t have a lot of information about a building. If you can’t find the required information with appropriate research and archive information, as this is often not available, you need to try alternative investigations. This means you need to undertake  intrusive site investigations that people might not want to pay for. This is a problem that we often encounter.

It’s good news that we have plans for a net-zero skyscraper here in the UK, but we need to be looking at reducing carbon during the build process as well as during the building’s lifespan, and we’re quite a way from this becoming standard. It’s going to be a big learning curve, and there will be issues and complications along the way, but I think we can expect to see this movement gathering pace over the next few years.

As always, if you have any comments about this email or you need assistance with the structural elements of an upcoming project, please do get in touch.

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