We are far from designing and building with zero impact. Better to start clarifying the new vocabularies of sustainability to understand the problem

Walking on eggshells is easier than talking about Net Zero architecture. There is a lot of confusion, starting from the terms. The data is many, confusing and not always consistent with each other. And the most complex aspect is the general perception of the implicit promise of simplicity when talking about sustainable architecture. Let's put our souls at rest: it's not like that.

The road to the architectural and urban transition is very long, complex and frankly less heavenly than we imagine.

Clarity on words: what does Net Zero mean?

Net Zero in the building sector is a chimera. A word that pleases and consoles, but takes the conversation about how to construct and restore buildings to reduce the impact nowhere. Mario Cucinella explains it very well here. This is reiterated here Cino Zucchi.

Net Zero is a chimera because it is very difficult, almost impossible, to evaluate the real impact of the life cycle of any construction, old or new. According to the blog BIMhow (where BIM stands for Building Information Modeling, the digital and engineering basis of contemporary architecture) the construction sector contributes to 23% of air pollution, 50% of the climate crisis, to 50% of waste in landfill, therefore not recycled.

These are worse figures than those communicated by other bodies, but they are plausible. The use of BIM in architectural works allows you to control the actual dispersion of resources with high precision. But it's not enough. Because the calculation does not take into account (it never does, in reality) the end of life.

So does it make sense to talk about Net Zero architecture?

The idea of Nearly Zero Energy Buildings is more precise and corresponds to a viable reality. A NZEB building, pre-existing or newly built, is designed not to consume energy and to power its functions with renewable sources. It is not simple, but it is now required by law in EU countries.

The ball then returns to the field of architecture and, above all, urban planning. Because the U.S Green Building Council's projections say that by 2030 the commercial building sector will be 1.8% more energy intensive. This is not good news and only careful planning of urban master plans can address the issue of the climate crisis in an impactful way.

BIG LEAP: the architectural standard is no longer the golden section

Bjarke Ingels and his studio BIG LEAP (which stands for Landscape, Engineering , Architecture Planning and Products) presented the master plan of Gelephu, the new economic and institutional center of Bhutan, at the end of 2023.

A tiny territory governed by a severe king who managed, thanks to an ad hoc legislative apparatus and pre-existing geographical and social characteristics, to make Bhutan the only officially carbon positive country in the world.

Defined as the Mindfulness City, Gelephu will be based on the concept of Gross National Happiness. A term coined to describe Bhutan's spiritual commitment even in its most institutional part, which materializes in a vision of extreme respect for nature, among other things. “The standard for a contemporary architect”, explains Bjarke Ingels, “is no longer the golden section but the 17 principles of sustainable development of the UN”.

The lost paradise of Bhutan

It goes without saying that the new city, on whose project Arup and Cistri also collaborated, is inspired by traditional Bhutanese architecture. However, it will integrate carbon positivity objectives. Overall, the 'Mindfulness City' aims to promote the biodiversity of its many landscapes. It will be a system of vibrant neighborhoods designed to resemble rice paddies and arranged around rivers.

Making use of current agricultural infrastructure, it will develop into eleven distinct neighborhoods with progressively changing densities, all based on the construction principles of the mandala.

The fascinating and visionary Gelephu was born to be, it is better to remember, an opportunity for economic and social development within a substantially happy, but medieval-style territory.

An (almost) net zero flagship store

If Gelephu is not an idea that can scale to any megalopolis, it is however the spearhead of a global trend. Even in the design of commercial buildings. The Ecoalf store in Madrid, inaugurated in 2022 and designed by MVN Arquitectos, is one of the new NZEB retail which has set itself the objective of carbon neutral energy efficiency. The client, a sustainable fashion and lifestyle brand, wanted a venue that expressed the no impact philosophy at the basis of all its activities.

From MVN Arquitectos they explain: “A total of 15 solar panels were installed, to minimize the electricity consumption of the general network. Their life cycle is on average 25 years and they prevent 2.95 tons of CO2 from entering the atmosphere every year. Made of silicone, they are almost completely recyclable."

During the design, a life cycle analysis of the materials was carried out, then dynamically incorporated into the selection of those capable of achieving the balance of CO2 emissions in the store.

Cover photo: Mindfulness city, BIG Architects