#Special Focus* Carbon neutral offices – the way forward

CARBON neutral offices (CNO) are office buildings that have nett carbon emissions of zero on an annual basis.

DWP regional managing director Dr Saeed Zaki has always been a firm supporter of sustainable efforts. He believes that Malaysia is ready to take sustainability to the next level by completely eliminating carbon emissions from its office buildings.

"We are focusing on carbon neutrality in the office space because commercial buildings are typically more energy and carbon intensive, and have a bigger impact in terms of its carbon footprint, when compared to residential developments," he says.

However, carbon neutrality is not limited to carbon dioxide. It is measured in COe, which is the concentration of CO at the same level as greenhouse gases. These gases include methane, perfluorocarbons and nitrous oxide.

According to Saeed, CNOs can be created in new commercial developments, as well as existing office buildings.

For new developments, however, site selection is important. "Ideally, you should select a brownfield site that has already been contaminated with carbon emissions from existing constructions, so you can mitigate or treat the carbon contamination in the area," he explains.

He adds that the architectural design, engineering plans and interior design of a building play a role in reducing or balancing the carbon footprint, along with the selection of material and day-to-day operations of the building.

"How the building operates over the span of 50 years will determine whether the building is carbon neutral or not."

There are many passive steps that can be taken to balance carbon emissions within a building. Saeed explains that the orientation of a building can promote natural lighting and minimise heat absorption, which in turn reduces the need for artificial lighting and air conditioning.

There are also products catered for sustainability such as low carbon glazing, chill beams, LED lights, photovoltaic cells and bioclimatic façades. These innovative green products reduce the cost of energy by 50%, while making the environment more comfortable and healthy.

Ventilation should also be taken into consideration when designing an office. "Fresh air will reduce the need for air conditioning and it is healthier, as the air is not recycled over and over again," Saeed says.

He also touched on unusual steps such as growing algae on the side of buildings. As crazy as it may sound, BIQ House, an office building in Hamburg, Germany, has a bio-adaptive algae façade that serves as a bed of sustainable energy production for the building.

The building's two south-facing facades are covered in a shell of bioreactors — clear containers that create a controlled environment for an algae farm. When exposed to sunlight, the algae photosynthesises, encouraging growth. Algae is collected periodically, fermented in a nearby biomass plant and then burned to produce electricity.

Soil can also be used to sequester carbon emissions and store gases for long periods of time. It has been known to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 20% annually. However, developers are likely to think twice before layering modified dirt on the sides of their buildings.

What they can choose to do is to adopt a greener alternative for their construction materials — steel, prefabricated walls and laminated timber — which is currently being experimented on in Singapore. These materials are recyclable.

Saeed says focus should also be on existing buildings, as new office space makes up only 10% of the existing buildings in the country.

However, a building must be audited first to determine its carbon footprint and to identify what is contributing to carbon emissions.

"It could be the wrong use of glazing or something else," explains Saeed. "You can't change the orientation and design of the building, but you can install low emissivity glass or LED lighting to reduce the consumption of electricity.

"This is an opportunity you can take when renovating an existing building or office space to make it carbon neutral. To transform existing buildings into carbon neutral offices, one must first have courage and commitment.

Saeed lists Sime Darby Property Bhd as a company that has demonstrated its commitment to sustainability. "It talks about sustainability as a future. It is the forefront effort of the company, and everything it does focuses on a sustainable future."

He has worked with Sime Darby on two of its developments, one of which was awarded the gold Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating, while the other was awarded silver.

"Sime Darby is making an effort and installing new features within each new project. All the buildings it has built or is building are aimed at achieving a high rating, which shows real commitment. Sime Darby hopes to achieve LEED platinum rating on all its future developments," Saeed says.

However, despite Sime Darby's efforts, promoting CNOs will undoubtedly be a very gradual process, he adds.

"People always ask if the features are going to cost more money. I personally believe that it won't, because the technology is becoming more economical. Photovoltaic cells cost a fraction of what it did 20 years ago. However, the cost of energy is always increasing."

DWP is collaborating with Mecomb Malaysia Sdn Bhd (an entity within Mecomb Group), Sime Darby's energy and utilities division and Blue Snow Consulting and Engineering Sdn Bhd, for the creation of CNOs in Malaysia. Blue Snow designs sustainable heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC).

Their strategy at present is to introduce green products and sustainable features gradually, until people start believing in them.

Saeed says people are reluctant to adopt CNO efforts because they want to wait for the success of others before trying it out themselves. "If I was a developer, I would want to see if it proves to be successful, before trying it myself too."

"You also need people who have knowledge about CNOs. This is another hurdle that Malaysia faces. The next generation of designers and engineers must be knowledgeable, if they are to design something that is carbon neutral."

Saeed says there are probably less than 10 CNO offices in the world, but this should not stop Malaysia from adding to the list.

This story first appeared in The Edge weekly edition of Aug 19-25, 2013.

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