How the push towards net zero is raising the bar for warehouses

The first net zero warehouses are opening for business as the industrial and logistics sector ramps up its sustainability efforts

October 14, 2020

Developers behind a new generation of net-zero warehouses are looking beyond renewable power and energy efficiency measures to take the whole lifecycle of the building into account.

Driven by the growing corporate commitment to decarbonise supply chains and cut emissions from real estate, developers are paying greater attention to both the construction phase – in particular the materials used - and the demolition phase many years from now.   

Building materials and construction are responsible for 11 percent of overall carbon emissions, according to a World Green Building Council report. In recent times, there’s been a wider acceptance that minimising carbon emissions begins during construction – not after, says Jon Sleeman, EMEA Logistics & Industrial research director at JLL.

“More consideration is being given to construction methods, with a greater focus on embodied carbon,” he says. “Although sustainability has been growing in importance in recent years with the rise of the BREEAM and other standards and ESG credentials among investors and occupiers, this marks a step-change in thinking across the sector.” 

Welcoming net zero warehouses

In 2020, GLP achieved the world’s first carbon net zero warehouse at its 300,000 sq ft Magna Park scheme in Milton Keynes. Nick Cook, president of GLP Europe, says focusing on the construction phase was particularly important.

“Installing the features that make a warehouse energy efficient in operation is great, but if you haven’t built it in a sustainable and responsible manner, then you’re starting from a bad place,” he explains.

What’s more, some of the adjustments made from previous projects were “relatively simple”. “Using a different cement mix for concrete had an overall significant impact on cutting embodied carbon,” Cook adds.

Peel Logistics and Macquarie Capital’s PLP platform, meanwhile, is assessing carbon emissions from materials and products used throughout a building’s lifecycle, opting for lower-carbon alternatives where possible and funding carbon offset projects where not.

It’s now aiming to deliver all of its future speculative builds to the UK Green Building Council’s Net Zero Carbon Ready standard. The firm this year built its first net zero carbon-ready development near Sheffield.

Industry-wide collaboration around tracking embodied carbon levels in construction could help in future developments. Earlier this year, firms from the architecture, engineering and construction industries created a free digital embodied carbon calculator which helps in comparing potential building materials and choosing more sustainable options.

The construction industry, Cook says, is a “willing partner with owners, developers and investors to take on these challenges” in the development phase.

Keeping operations green

Sustainable construction is nevertheless the first step in net zero warehousing – and green operations still require renewable energy and energy efficiency measures.

Developed by Prologis, cosmetics firm L'Oréal's logistics centre in Muggensturm, Germany, is completely carbon-neutral, with more than 7,000 solar panels powering the facility and rainwater used to irrigate green spaces and clean the interiors.

Over in the Netherlands, the HQ and distribution centre of logistics firm Rhenus has over 13,000 solar panels that feeds excess energy into the grid. Glass windows cut the electricity required to light the warehouse by 70 percent while LED lighting has both motion and daylight sensors, measures which helped it achieve the highest rating ever for a distribution centre from BREEAM last year.

For now, such high-spec buildings are the exception in Europe – with many developers put off by what they think will be higher costs.  However, Cook says the reality is that the cost is “incrementally small” and can be offset by operational savings that energy efficiency investment initiatives can generate.

“Overall, valuation is what will remove any notion that cost is a barrier. If buildings with sustainability credentials start to attract a premium, then that cost question quickly goes away.”

With the appetite for net zero carbon only set to increase in coming years, smart developers are acting sooner rather than later in building in sustainability features.

“Future-proofing among warehouse investors and developers can and will only grow in importance,” Sleeman concludes.