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The role of construction in our greener future

We all have a part to play in our greener future. From small-scale recycling to reducing our daily use of plastics and disposables, the everyday Joe can make a credible contribution to a better way of life. A shared mission has helped already, and it will continue to make an impact. Of course, the industry has a huge responsibility. Vehicle manufacturers and regulators also have a big job on their hands. Airlines and aircraft manufacturers must address their huge carbon footprint, no doubt. Another important sphere for energy efficiency is the construction industry.

Here I explore how the construction industry can (and must) assist our path to a greener future. In particular, the article will look at how legislation has forced the construction industry to adapt and analyse the rules for new build properties today. These insights are derived from my own experience, having worked with builders, architects, and property developers on heat pump installation projects throughout the UK.

So, what role does the construction industry play in a low carbon future?

IN THE PHOTO: Building a kitchen in a refugee camp in Uganda. PHOTO CREDIT: Alex Radelich on Unsplash 

Energy use and legislation for new builds

As outlined in a comprehensive Mitsubishi report, the number of households in the UK has grown by 44 percent since 1970. At the same time, energy used for heating has only risen by 10 percent. As the report argues, legislation does work and will remain critical to broader goals.

Buildings account for around 44 percent of all CO2 emissions in the UK, which is more than industry or transport. Approximately 75 percent of the energy consumed in British homes is for space heating and hot water. It is clear that property energy efficiency is a key battleground in the fight against carbon emissions, and we should target this area to make a difference.

In summary, the Building Regulations Part L (2013) legislation improved upon previous laws to demand a 6 percent reduction in CO2 emissions from new homes, and a 9 percent reduction for new non-residential buildings. It introduced a new Fabric Energy Efficiency Standard for new dwellings, and retained existing rules on window glazing. These regulations also state that alternative energy must be considered before building starts.

The full legislation is intricate and detailed; far too lengthy to include here. A complete report is available on the Designing Buildings Wiki, if you’d like to read the small print.

In terms of energy efficiency, the Standard Assessment Procedure (SAP) rating of a new property is critical. This is the measure for efficiency. An accredited assessor will complete a report at the design stage. The new home will need to pass the SAP rating, or the property cannot be inhabited, sold, or let. The higher the SAP rating (100 as the maximum), the better.

In a nutshell, there are now stricter standards for constructors to meet in order to comply with rules for planning permission. The strict enforcement of these standards will ensure the construction industry adheres. Moreover, if homeowners and self-builders are aware of the severe penalties for non-compliance, they will also put pressure on contractors.

The legislation sets a landscape whereby the construction industry “ecosystem” is pulling in one direction, and these standards are understood as par for the course. Of course, inconveniences and errors will occur along the way, but overall the construction industry has adapted well. As a result, we will eventually reach zero carbon new build homes – albeit slower than predicted.

IN THE PHOTO: This photo was shoot during a visit to the reconstruction of the Othon building in the center of São Paulo, where now it is going to be the Finance Secretary. PHOTO CREDIT: Guilherme Cunha on Unsplash

Big challenges

The biggest challenge is that Britain needs to build more homes, whilst simultaneously reducing carbon emissions. An official 2004 report concluded that 250,000 new homes are needed each year to meet the demand for affordable housing. This, obviously, has not been achieved. The recession hit construction hard, and even if this hadn’t been the case, the UK would have fallen well short of this target. So, the fact remains that more homes are needed.

Furthermore, there are challenges for increasing the uptake of renewable energy technologies. In my recent article for Impakter, I analysed the state of government incentive schemes. A barrier to uptake is the high initial capital outlay for heat pumps, solar panels, and other tech. These products cost a lot of money, and the benefits are only experienced over the long-term.

The construction industry will react to client demands, market conditions, and government regulations. If government regulations demand an energy efficient approach, and homeowners are warm to the idea of renewable energy tech, a greener approach will take hold. If there is a lack of support for key stakeholders, and the cost of installing renewable systems is prohibitively high, we are fighting an uphill battle.

In terms of energy efficiency, there is a big problem with older properties. Legislation has now forced landlords to meet Minimum Efficiency Standards, with a £4,000 fine for non-compliance. However, homeowner residents aren’t under the same pressure.

What does a good property look like?

What does a good modern home look like in terms of being energy efficient?

Firstly, it would have high-quality building fabric. It also needs to have low “u-values”, meaning that materials have good insulation quality. Furthermore, it needs to have minimal “thermal bridging”, meaning that it doesn’t lose a lot of heat through junctions with external walls. The property needs to be airtight, and it needs to have passed an air permeability test – something which contributes to overall SAP ratings. These are the standards that need to be met.

IN THE PHOTO: Canary Wharf, London, United Kingdom. PHOTO CREDIT: Domenico Gentile on Unsplash

In addition, a property should incorporate low-carbon systems for heating, hot water, and electricity. For buildings off the gas grid, this is particularly appealing as an alternative to LPG and oil. Air source heat pumps, ground source heat pumps, biomass boilers, or solar thermal panels can take care of the heating and hot water. Used in conjunction with solar PV and battery storage, a home can be totally green and self-sustainable. Furthermore, the UK is working to decarbonise the national electrical grid, a scheme which is making solid progress. Green electricity combined with renewable heating means zero carbon utilities.

The use of renewable energy technologies makes compliance with building regulations easier, and contributes to higher SAP ratings. The regulations state that this technology must be considered prior to construction, but we’re not yet in a state where they are mandatory. At some point, this will happen. A preferable scenario is that renewable energy becomes the norm.

Summary

The UK has set ambitious targets for a low carbon future. Legislation plays a crucial role in reducing the negative impact of new build properties. The construction industry is integral to meeting low carbon goals, and legislation has nudged stakeholders onto the correct path.

However, there are difficult challenges to overcome. Legacy buildings are very inefficient, and there will be challenges in enforcing the Minimum Efficiency Standards for landlords. In terms of new builds, renewable energy technology is still expensive but we have seen good results for reducing heat loss and improving efficiency. The trend must be continued (and boosted) if there’s any hope of reaching national and international targets.

At the heart of every construction project there must be a mission to limit heat loss, provide top-quality insulation, and have effective controls on building services. This will only happen with a collective buy-in from homeowners, construction folk, and policymakers.


Editors Note: The opinions expressed here by Impakter.com columnists are their own, not those of Impakter.com

FEATURED PHOTO: London, UK. PHOTO CREDIT: Christopher Burns on Unsplash

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