Patrick Cunningham, our Director of Building Control, explains why the UK needs more low-carbon homes to reach its net zero emissions target, and how stronger building regulations can help.
We are, without doubt, at a tipping point in human existence. The consequences of our indulgent habits appear to have caught up with us, with the effects of climate change now truly global. Furthermore, the coronavirus pandemic has shown us how our once protected and relatively stable ways of life can be suddenly uprooted and affected in ways that we can’t control.
Countries around the world are making efforts to mitigate climate change and, here in the UK, the Government has set an ambitious target of reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050. But it will be difficult to meet that target without eliminating greenhouse gas emissions from our buildings.
We need more low-emission green homes. The good news is that the technology and knowledge to create high quality, low-carbon and resilient homes are available. The bad news is that current policies and standards aren’t driving either the scale or the pace of change that’s needed. A report by the Committee on Climate Change in 2019 found that home insulation installations of green energy systems had stalled, and key policies like the Zero Carbon Homes Scheme (first mooted by the Government in 2012) had been delayed or withdrawn(1).
The built environment contributes around 40% of the UK’s total carbon footprint(2). In September 2020 the Government announced a £2bn green homes grant as part of its pledge to “build back better” after the coronavirus pandemic. The scheme includes £500m for local authorities and £1.5bn for homeowners, to subsidise up to two-thirds of the cost of new insulation, heat pumps and other low-carbon improvements. But after delays in the grants reaching householders and paying installers, the scheme achieved just 8% of its target to help 600,000 households switch to renewable energy by the end of March 2021(3). Funding has since been reduced and only £320m will be available for the scheme in the 2021 / 22 financial year.
This falls short of the huge changes that we need to make to UK homes. According to the UK Green Building Council, almost all the country’s 29m homes need to be improved to meet the near-zero emission target(4). This means retrofitting 1.8 homes every minute between now and 2050. Yet, the Committee on Climate Change report found that the way we build new homes, and retrofit existing ones, falls short of design standards. This will lead to higher costs in the future. It’s only by improving standards now that we can prevent households from paying higher energy bills and protect them from future fuel poverty.
The Committee on Climate Change is right to state that we need extensive inspection regimes and enforcement of building standards, with stiffer penalties for non-compliance. We should also incentivise owners, developers, suppliers, manufacturers and contractors to adopt new technologies and products.
Preparing homes for the consequences of climate change
While we must do everything we can to reduce greenhouse emissions, our homes also need to protect us against the extreme weather caused by climate change. Around 4.5m homes overheat, even in cool summers, and we must do more to prevent that(5). Yet, policies to encourage window shading, property flood protection and water efficiency devices are weak or non-existent in practise.
That’s why we welcome the Government’s consultation on changes to the building regulations through the Future Buildings Standard on changes to Part L (conservation of fuel and power) and Part F (ventilation) of the building regulations for non-domestic buildings and dwellings, and the new Part X to limit overheating in new residential buildings, which tries to help reach near-zero carbon emission targets. It’s the second stage of a two-part consultation on proposed changes and closes in April 2021. The Government has said that an interim change (in the Building Regulations Energy Standards) will start on 1st June 2022, and will be fully introduced in 2025(6).
The Government’s transitional measures for the energy standards’ ‘uplift’ will be far stricter, and all existing prior approvals for older, less energy-efficient houses will automatically lapse on 1st June 2022, unless a plot is physically under construction. During the decade since these near-zero emissions building standards were first proposed, the National Grid has de-carbonised, with the amount of renewable energy (wind, off-shore-wind, solar and bio-gas) feeding it growing from just 7% in 2010 to 70% (with 54% from wind alone) in 2019(7). The UK’s last coal burning-electric power station is now scheduled for closure by owner EDF(8).
The new energy standards therefore promote the greater adoption of heat pump technology, co-generation and / or using local heat networks (district heating and cooling). This reinforces the work already being done by building regulations, which, as we know, are intended to protect people’s health, safety and welfare and to set good standards for accessibility and security. They also seek to promote better energy conservation and use of affordable fuel and power, and to reduce water wastage. It's anticipated that the new green agenda will be finally realised through the Future Homes Standard in 2025.
We need more cost-effective measures to build and adapt UK homes and buildings, and building control can, and should be, at the heart of making this happen.
We’ll play our part by continuing to support local authorities, making sure they’re fully prepared and equipped to take the fast and decisive action that’s required to meet our climate change targets.