New Zealand’s buildings sector has an essential role to play in driving climate change action, to meet our targets in the Government’s second emissions budget and achieve a more sustainable, climate-resilient future. The second emissions budget (for 2026-2030) has been set, and between April and June this year He Pou a Rangi – Climate Change Commission sought feedback on their independent, draft advice to Government on the strategic direction of the second emissions reduction plan – the policies and strategies for meeting the budget.

We provided feedback to the Commission from across the spectrum of sustainability focus areas at Beca and shared our support for many of the key themes and focus areas. However, we also noted that more clarity is needed on the specific actions and policies to encourage and support businesses to make the changes needed to meet the budget.

In this article, Richard Forbes, Senior Mechanical Engineer in our Sustainable Buildings team at Beca, details steps for building owners and developers to take now, to truly accelerate decarbonisation.

Urgency of action

Building developers and owners need to take a proactive approach and stay ahead of the curve instead of waiting for change to be enforced upon them from regulatory authorities. By taking the initiative, they can future proof their buildings, mitigate risks and capitalise on opportunities arising from the ever-evolving landscape of sustainability, climate resilience and decarbonisation.

The built environment sector is a unique sector. It is a consumptive sector, meaning it relies on the decarbonisation of other sectors, but it is also an enabler of systems change. Building design helps unlock decarbonisation pathways for transport and other infrastructure. It is also on the front line of physical climate impacts.

Efforts to reduce emissions and improve resilience in this sector ideally consider how buildings sit in a wider system. But we cannot wait for a perfect balance to be struck before making meaningful changes. The decisions we make on building designs today are locked in for the long term.

To accelerate decarbonisation in the built environment, a more agile approach to regulatory change is necessary. Specific design and construction requirements should be established to prohibit or limit fossil fuel use for heating, increase energy efficiency, prioritise the reuse of existing assets and embed physical resilience. These requirements can be enacted swiftly and unlock system-wide carbon reduction opportunities in the medium- and long-term.

Many of these requirements are also "low regret" in nature, meaning they can be implemented immediately without extensive analysis of unintended consequences.

At the same time, new regulations that move us away from low emissions solutions should be challenged. Government and industry sectoral bodies need to have the difficult and important conversation with the public about how we direct investment towards the climate emergency. This should acknowledge that there are trade-offs between reducing carbon emissions and maintaining our current requirements for durability and safety.

Enabling emissions reduction

When considering the opportunity to decarbonise the building sector, it is important to consider both the macro- and the micro-perspective.

For example, taking a system-wide approach to overall building design is crucial – this means thinking about portfolios and stock as opposed to individual buildings, and what we can do as a sector to both support decarbonisation in other sectors (through demand and investment) and leverage the changes being made by others (such as grid decarbonisation and supply chain fossil fuel exit).

The task of decarbonising certain types of buildings, such as apartments or developments for high density living, that contribute to improved transportation efficiencies, or hospitals that perform an essential health and well-being function for society at large, presents a unique challenge.

And yet, while it is important to consider investments in carbon reduction and outcomes on a broader scale, such as at the portfolio or community level, we also shouldn’t overlook the opportunity to implement low-regret solutions within individual buildings. By focusing on low-carbon initiatives at the building level, we can make significant progress towards a sustainable future, more quickly.

A prime example is the recent adaptive reuse of 22 The Terrace in Wellington. Sustainable features for this office refurbishment included rainwater harvesting, high-performance film on the existing glazing, insulated envelope, upcycling of the building’s existing fabric, replacing the gas boiler with an efficient heat pump plant and deployment of Beca’s B-Tune service to identify further energy reductions.

Integrating design features that enable emissions reductions through changes in occupant behaviour is another effective approach to promoting sustainable practices in buildings. Examples include end of trip facilities to encourage cycling and other modes of micro-mobility, energy monitoring systems, efficient water-use fixtures, and more sustainable waste management systems – all of which contribute to a more sustainable, safer, and efficient use of space.

Proactive steps

Immediate action is crucial, as we cannot afford to delay. We need to take proactive steps now to address the carbon footprint of our buildings and implement changes that will have an immediate positive impact.

While not exhaustive, examples of proactive steps include:

  • Declare energy performance: begin by assessing and declaring your building’s current energy performance. This information can be shared through platforms like the NZGBC ‘Building Performance Tracker’.
  • Optimise your building controls for efficient operation, particularly during periods of partial occupancy. Many buildings are rarely fully occupied, so adjusting the controls to operate at part load can significantly reduce energy waste. This may involve fine-tuning HVAC systems, lighting controls, and other automated systems such as B-Tune.
  • Collaborate with tenants and occupants to encourage them to reduce energy demand. Establish incentives or funding mechanisms to reward their efforts in implementing energy-saving practices. 
  • Replace fossil fuel boilers with electric heat pumps – see the NZGBC ‘Guide to Electrification
  • Upgrade glazing and fabric performance: simple and cost-effective measures like installing glazing films can improve insulation, reduce heat loss or gain and enhance energy efficiency. 

Where to from here

As a business and sector, we have a profound responsibility and an exciting opportunity to drive significant and lasting change for Aotearoa New Zealand.

We eagerly await the outcome of the Commission’s consultation and are continuing to work closely with our clients across our regions to play our part in delivering a clear vision for a fully decarbonised and climate-resilient buildings sector - both for the present, and future generations.

Find out more about our work to deliver a more sustainable, climate-resilient future alongside our clients and communities, or email us.

About the Author
Richard Forbes

Senior Mechanical Engineer

View on LinkedIn
Email Richard Forbes