Sustainability First
Net zero Doesn’t Mean Anything

Net zero Doesn’t Mean Anything

Net zero. We hear it everywhere but what does it actually mean? It’s easily described as a mathematical equation for what is probably the world's largest challenge for survival.

Net zero. We hear it everywhere but what does it actually mean? It’s easily described as a mathematical equation for what is probably the world's largest challenge for survival. The abbreviation of the problem to me falls far short of what is ahead of us. Net-zero it holds nothing of terror and the unfathomable cataclysmic problems in front of us. In fact the first publications and calculation on global warming are from 1896 by Arrhenius. That's right! 125 years later its now becoming apparent (finally). BUT we have 5 years left to respond in a meaningful way according to the latest and stay below 1.5 Degrees, WMO global average warming and curb catastrofe..

To develop any building project that matches environment requirements we have to overcome a wide range of complex challenges;.shift in attitude, passive energy design strategies, knowledge of embodied carbon energy, sourcing materials and alternative, availability, seasonality to name a few.

Scientific & Practical 

A brilliant example and metaphor of our thinking and of what net zero to us represents is the igloo from the Inuits. These small dome like shelters made of snow itself are incredibly clever, highly scientific how the blocks stack, insulate, orientate. Equally fascinating  and from a very hot climate on the Southern Arabian Plateau is the city of Shibam made of locally produced clay. Historically there are numerous stunning examples of ingenuity that evolved due to minimum materials and resources. 

Igloos and city of Shibam are not from our time? 

With technological advancements we have been able to skip a necessary locality and level of ingenuity to create critical savings of our environment. Hence our Co2 emissions have continued to spyke. 39% of global emissions come from buildings. We only have one-planet and refining “modern” ways to build as sensible as the Igloo and city of Shibam isn’t going to be easy with all our “comfort”. 

Description: Old Walled City of Shibam (Yemen)

Author: Jean-Jacques Gelbart

Copyright: © Editions Gelbart


This locality is a  vital part towards ‘’net zero”, it's obvious and much discussed already. Local only is not always possible, not everything is available, but that is if you want everything. To be able to build with that's locally available one has to be agile and be ingenious. To design according to what is available locally? To design within close proximity, architects, developers, engineers, urban planners and contractors will have to design with aptness and inventiveness. All these parties need input to have the ability to make informed decisions to drive inventiveness and support it..


Should start at the least with what we now call primary-sustainable-metrics a first line of attack net-zero. And as the design progresses more metrics and use of technology can  improve the entire chain of carbon and designers' ingenuity making a meaningful impact. We have only one-planet.


Great examples are found in new projects around Zero Carbon Neighborhoods. These projects are from Nexity a zero carbon neighborhood in Paris, it's a “first”. The project pays close attention to the origin of materials and equipment, mostly coming out of Paris itself and surrounding. Restoring vegetation, encouraging low carbon mobility and including activities to foster sustainable lifestyles. These metrics are complex to process and when designing a project in a rush with fees under pressure its too easy not to think about. To gather / monitor and trust material contextual data like the buildingtransparancy.org allows to calculate carbon footprint of buildings, complex but possible. This extensive database is limited to the USA and other examples like the MIT carbon calculator developed by UMI. 


Building and the urban environment are far more complex then the Inuits and the structures at Shibaa. We can’t work without data and the Architecture Engineering and Construction industry should take note to embrace data to inform design and use cloud-computing to digest this data. Designers should learn and develop new ways to work this yet to be developed wisdom of locality.  


In order for us to collapse Carbon emissions we will need to for hyper collaborative digital places. Driving a new level of ingenuity with technology and data towards a next generation of architecture, applied to old and new. We witnessed modernism, post-modernism and starchitecture take place. Pooring endless quantities of concrete in straight and curved shapes to develop our cities quickly. The urban result is too often  measured as an economic result using space as the commodity. Regulation is still falling behind and missing data to measure outcomes of a project in more meaningful ways. 

These spaces that form our cities and soon the mojority of global population needs to a big rethink, architects have failed this misserably, its time to bring in new ways of working to define a more complete way of designing spaces and parts of the city.

Have we collaborated well enough to sustain and protect and regenerate our one and only planet? I don’t want to go to Mars do you?

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