Ensuring sustainability is the foundation of structural designs

By Bram Groeneveld, Structural Engineer, Superstructures

“The UK government has set the ambitious target of the UK becoming net zero by 2050, and as important as the construction industry is to our economy, we must be aware that it is a major contributor to carbon emissions throughout the world.

It’s a fact that has been acknowledged by many areas of the industry, including organisations, such as the Royal Institute of British Architects and the Institution of Structural Engineers, who have both declared a climate emergency.

Yet, what does net zero actually mean?

As a graduate structural engineer at Superstructures, I have had first-hand experience of self-building a house to near Passivhaus standards, and I am proud, and excited, to be heading up the sustainability drive in the business.

In general, net zero is accepted as completely negating the amount of greenhouse gases produced by human activity.  Carbon is a term frequently mentioned, but it is often used to group together a multitude of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, methane and Nitrous Oxide, which all collectively contribute to global warming.

I know a tremendous amount of work has been done to quantify carbon emissions over the lifespan of a building, focusing on aspects such as heating, lighting and water consumption. However, only up until recently has the construction industry been able to precisely quantify the embodied carbon – the total carbon used to manufacture, transport, construct and deconstruct each individual building material, or element.

This means that, together with accurate bills of quantity, the embodied carbon of a complete structure or building element, can be calculated at the design stage, and can be amended before the ground is even broken.

Why is this important? Because as a general rule, embodied carbon accounts for half the total carbon emissions of a building over its life span, with operational carbon making up the other half.

Therefore, by evaluating and understanding both, we can use considered choices and clever design, to make significant carbon savings at the earliest stages of a project; all with the result of getting us closer to achieving the government’s target of net zero by 2050.

How will this make a difference? Because minimising the embodied carbon of a structure at the design stage can be seen as an instant carbon reduction, rather than the gradual reductions that can be made with operational carbon during the lifespan of the structure.

Sustainability is not new to the team of design-led consulting engineers I work alongside at Superstructures.

Throughout our history, we have strived to deliver a quality of service, which incorporates the careful detailing and design of structurally efficient buildings, which are low users of operational energy. However, we aren’t complacent, and we all acknowledge our personal and professional responsibility to push harder towards the net zero goal.

We are a forward-thinking company that embraces change, new philosophies and new technology. And at the start of 2022, we produced a masterplan, and since then have been working through a stepped action plan.

The first step was to ensure the team understood what we were going to do and why; this was achieved by holding a workshop session.

The next step was to invest in training for all our designers via the Institution of Structural Engineers, which has armed us all with the knowledge and skills to start reducing embodied carbon in all our designs. We are now looking forward to working closely with existing and new clients, to design structures which meet all their requirements, whilst also reducing operational and embodied carbon.

The crucial ingredient needed to help us achieve this though, is a collaborative working relationship. So, we want to encourage our clients to involve us as early as possible, ideally at the concept stage, where easy design changes will have less impact on the design process.  Simple decisions such as spans, material choices and construction methods, can create significant reductions to the carbon content of the structure, whilst still enabling us to uphold the original design concept and building performance.

We are not standing still and intend to continue the momentum at Superstructures. We plan to hold design workshops with key clients, architects, contractors and anybody else who wishes to understand what we have to offer as a company, in designing sustainable structures  And for companies that are already on the journey towards net zero, or who want to start, we welcome the opportunity to share our knowledge and experience with them through our design workshops.

Above all else, we understand that this could be a new, and possibly difficult, direction for some, but we welcome the challenge and opportunity to work on these innovative projects together.

We also plan to provide a ‘Carbon Reduction Wishlist’ for appropriate projects when they land on our desks. This will be fed back to the wider design team, to see if changes can be made.

Overall, it’s our hope that over time, these methods work their way subconsciously into our processes with our wider teams, with sustainable design becoming the new normal.

If you want to get in touch to have a chat about how we can help, drop me an email at