Zero carbon hotels – fantasy or necessity?

The experimental retrofit, Zero Carbon House

The experimental retrofit, Zero Carbon House

Professor of Zero Carbon Design at Birmingham University, Lubo Jankovic, talks to Green Hotelier about raising the profile and benefits of zero carbon design

It has been announced that the 2016 Building Regulations in England and Wales will require all new houses to be zero carbon, followed with the same requirement for all new non-residential buildings in 2019. Therefore, no new hotel will be built from 2019 onwards, unless it produces net zero carbon dioxide emissions.

As general building design practice needs to go through a huge culture change in order to implement zero carbon design on a regular basis, the time to plan and effectively implement a transition to the 2019 Building Regulations is already now.

In my book ‘Designing Zero Carbon Buildings Using Dynamic Simulation Methods’, published by Routledge in 2012, I explain the three core principles of zero carbon design. Firstly, a zero carbon design needs to satisfy the technical requirements for net zero carbon emissions. Secondly, it needs to be thermally comfortable. And thirdly, it needs to create a net economic benefit for the owner. The first core principle is achieved on the basis of the ‘fabric first’ approach, which maximises building energy efficiency by passive means, though optimising the building envelope, and subsequently by implementing on-site renewable energy systems. All of the three core principles need to be integrated and iterated through detailed computer modelling, until a zero carbon design, that is technically, socially and economically viable, is achieved.

Part of my work at Birmingham City University’s School of Architecture involves experimental research on the Birmingham Zero Carbon House. Originally a 170-year-old redbrick Victorian house, the house was converted through retrofit into a ground-breaking zero carbon building. I have demonstrated through extensive analysis, which involved detailed instrumental monitoring; calibration of computer simulation models and subsequent scenario simulations; economic analysis; and occupant questionnaires and interviews; that the house is truly zero carbon, thermally comfortable for the occupants, and that it will achieve return on investment of 193% at the end of a 25 year period, breaking even in just over 8 years.

The house owners simply do not have any energy bills to pay, but receive payments from the utility company for the generated and exported electricity. This has been achieved with imaginative use of the building structure and materials to optimise energy efficiency; with adequate application of renewable energy systems; and with adaptive behaviour of the occupants. Most importantly, this has all been achieved with existing technology.

About two years ago I worked on a computer simulation for improving energy efficiency of a new hotel building for a well-known chain. Although the brief was not for a zero carbon building, the writing of this article inspired me to revisit that project and conduct a new set of simulations. After half a day of simulation design work, I managed to get this 60-bedroom hotel down to carbon emissions well below zero. Although further work is needed for design optimization and maximization of the return on investment in this particular case, the message is clear: it can be done now, and we should be doing a lot more of it. Even existing hotels can be retrofitted into zero carbon hotels with lucrative returns on investment.

Unfortunately we cannot say that zero carbon design is gaining popularity and momentum, due to the lack of public awareness.  A general perception still exists that this is a difficult and expensive problem to solve, and that the solution is not required immediately. However, I am confident that the benefits of zero carbon design will help to raise  public awareness, and stimulate the demand. If we know how much we are missing out financially, if not environmentally, by not converting our buildings into zero carbon buildings, we will surely be compelled to do something about it.

In order to replicate the knowledge and make a wider impact, we have developed a new MA course on Zero Carbon Architecture and Retrofit Design at Birmingham City University. The course will start in September 2013 and it will create a new type of professional that will have a unique set of multidisciplinary skills for zero carbon design and retrofit of buildings. This will not only enable them to fulfil the future legislation requirements, but it will also make them the champions of change from carbon-intensive to carbon-neutral architecture, and designers for the future world.

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