Author: David Heil

As we hit the peak of summer, construction is booming in the UK. In contrast with the uncertainty of the last few years, a strong pipeline of work has formed – driven by private housing and infrastructure – with key concerns now centring on lack of materials and staffing. At the same time, the floods seen in Europe and China in recent days have underlined the need for urgent action on emissions from both construction work and our buildings. With just over 3 months to go until the start of COP 26, we take a look at some of the key challenges facing the construction industry.

Spotlight on Delays to the Heat & Buildings Strategy

This July should have seen the publication of the Heat & Buildings Strategy (H&BS) for England. This document is expected to set-out a roadmap of policies for the next few years designed to cut operational emissions from buildings. Unfortunately, a day after the EU published a raft of draft policies to tackle its own emissions, it was revealed that apparent disagreements over how to fill the tax-gap left by the switch to electric cars mean its publication will now be delayed until September.

This hold-up exemplifies the issues which have plagued building decarbonisation policy in recent years, with measures often held-up or watered-down as a result of budgetary pressures or other inter-governmental disagreements.

If we’re going to reach our net zero targets, it is essential to learn lessons from the failure of schemes such as the Green Homes Grant. The industry needs long-term clarity and assurance of funding to allow it to make the necessary investments in skills and training to deliver any future schemes. This is key both to address the frustrations homeowners faced trying to find suitably qualified installers under the Green Homes Grant scheme and to ensure a high standard of workmanship to close the performance gap between the expected and actual improvements delivered.

Some of the key announcements expected in the final strategy include:

  • Details on the Clean Homes Grant scheme – This is due to replace the Renewable Heat Incentive next April. It is anticipated that this will provide grants of £4,000 for homeowners to install low carbon heating, such as heat pumps. The H&BS should provide some clarity on both the range of measures supported, and qualifying requirements such as the levels of home insulation needed (it is anticipated that homes will need both loft insulation and solid or cavity wall insulation as a prerequisite).
  • Changes to energy bills and taxes – It is also anticipated that government will look to tweak the levees it currently places on different energy sources. With heating expected to become increasingly electrified as the National Grid is decarbonised, the government is expected to reduce levies on electricity and raise them on gas. The key challenge will be to ensure these changes don’t force households into fuel poverty. One route suggested to deliver this is through annual payments to households which essentially offset the additional cost of gas. This means those who continue to use gas heating should be no worse off in the immediate term whilst those who transition should achieve pay-back more rapidly.
  • A possible replacement for the Green Homes Grant – Improvements to the fabric performance of buildings will be essential for low carbon heating technologies to function effectively and affordably and keep homes warm. With this in mind, there is desperate need for a long-term replacement for the Green Homes Grant, setting out guaranteed funding levels over a number of years to give firms a reason to buy into the cost of TrustMark certification.

Hopefully all will be revealed this September!

Slow uptake on RIBA climate initiative raises questions

The move towards net-zero carbon buildings presents opportunities for all sectors within construction. At the same time, key questions remain about who should drive this change.

This has been underlined by the recent announcement that just 6% of Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) members have signed up for its 2030 Carbon Challenge. The Challenge asks signatories to attempt to meet key targets on building emissions, water use and embodied carbon on all their new and major refurbishment projects. The precise targets are broken down by building sector but include:

  • Reducing operational energy demand by at least 60% compared with a baseline (prior to offsetting);
  • Reducing embodied carbon and portable water use by at least 40% compared with the baseline (prior to offsetting); and
  • Meeting core health and wellbeing metrics.

Coverage of the lukewarm uptake prompted some healthy debate within the comments section of Dezeen with some pointing out that whilst architects can advocate for a net zero construction, ultimately it is up to the client to decide the targets for a project and many will reject it out of hand due to cost. Others suggested that architects can be too resistant to structural changes which can significantly reduce carbon emissions as they feel they undermine their design visions.

Ultimately, there is responsibility on all sides and a successful shift towards Net Zero will require a collaborative approach and shared accountability. Whilst responses to recent consultations such as Part L showed that many architects are supportive of raising building standards and carbon emissions targets more rapidly, clearly more discussion is needed on how to encourage developers to reach for these goals.

BB100 consultation deadline approaches

Finally, another key consultation is due to close in the coming weeks. Building Bulletin 100 (BB100) is a non-statutory document providing guidance on fire safety in schools. As the existing document is now 14 years old, the Department for Education (DoE) is now looking to update its requirements.

Following a previous consultation and call for evidence earlier in the year, the DoE has now produced a draft document which asks for industry input on key changes in a number of areas. These include:

  • Recommendations on the building types where automatic fire suppression systems should be required;
  • Provision of fire escapes and evacuation lifts within new multi-storey school buildings;
  • Changes to the maximum fire compartmentation size for non-sprinklered schools; and
  • New requirements from the fire performance of cladding systems on different school building designs and types.

The consultation is set to close on the 18th August so if you intend to provide input, you’ll need to act quickly by visiting the consultation portal.

 

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Industry Insights – July 2021: Facing Net Zero Realities

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