It’s time to change

The government as a whole is in a right old mess but before they went completely to pot they did manage to announce the UK’s first ‘green’ budget and include in that a target of making all buildings zero carbon by 2019.  Is this something we can be thankful for or is it another example of all mouth and no trousers? 

Funnily enough, this had to be re-written due to major changes in the announcements of what will be consulted on in relation to Part L of the Building Regulations.  It’s the building managers and engineers that will find themselves right at the forefront of these revolutionary changes in attitude and legislation and will no doubt voice an opinion pretty quickly on how realistic and achievable these changes are.

A starting point

The sensible starting point would be to look at the definition of zero carbon but as it happens it is difficult to define exactly what this is when it comes to commercial buildings.  This in turn makes it very hard to achieve.  The rigidity of the initial guidelines set out in the Code for Sustainable Homes (effective since April 2007) meant that the government’s target of making all buildings zero carbon by 2019 almost impossible.  The Code only allowed energy needed to power the home to be provided via a private wire which prompted complaints of inflexibility from the industry who said that in many situations supplying the power can be very expensive.  In turn the zero carbon target is made almost impossible by the need to provide power for energy-intensive processes in many buildings.

But all that is set to change with consultations underway on the definition of zero carbon and realistic methods of getting closer to it and (hopefully) achieving it.  Next year will see the latest version of Part L of the building regulations released.  Part L deals with energy use, insulation values, lighting, heating and hot water efficiency, and it has not had a complication-free history.  It is divided into two parts, L1 and L2 with the former specific to dwellings and the latter to all other buildings.  The last two revisions of it in 2002 and 2006 caused widespread confusion and upset in the industry both in terms of the calculation methodology and the breakdowns in terminology. 

There are already themes emerging that hint at what might come out of the latest revision of both subdivisions of Part L in 2010.  It is likely that we will see a calculation method which gives more credit to thermal mass and takes more account of seasonal changes which affect energy use for example, in other words a method that relates to the actual building challenges we face in the UK and not just what is down on paper. 

The onus will be on commercial buildings but with the government focus on existing stock the trigger point for retro improvements will naturally have to extend to dwellings.  Initially consultation was to take place around the expectation on homeowners to spend 10% of any extension cost on upgrading the energy performance of the existing home under the controversial consequential improvements section which will be included to encourage improvements in the existing stock.  But when this was quietly dropped at the last minute it was certainly not quietly received.  Many people saw this as the single most effective measure to help reach the Government’s targets of reducing carbon emissions from existing stock and the recent announcements have seen people turn on those in charge once again. 

Spread the word

But it is the commercial sector which will have the biggest shake up as no one is quite sure just how widespread the knowledge of the issues involved in the current requirements actually is.  When looking at public sector buildings it would seem not very – a recent report found that a third of government buildings are in the worst category for energy performance under new energy performance accreditations. The size, age and diversity of the government portfolio have to be taken into account but are these really valid excuses when those in charge of their maintenance are the ones setting the guidelines?  Whatever happened to leading by example? 

The government has sort of got the message though with these consultations – inefficient existing stock is the biggest part of the problem – but with income and profit at an all time low for most of the UK it will be a struggle to find spare cash to pour into expensive retro-fits.  There is no other way short of demolishing the lowest performing buildings and starting from scratch which is hardly a small, inexpensive or satisfactory alternative.  One problem is that at the moment there isn’t one single source of information for practical advice on how to make an existing building more energy efficient and eventually zero carbon. 

There are lots of codes, assessment methods and certifications but what is really needed is a comprehensive but user-friendly set of guidelines saying what the law is and how to implement it.  Whilst bigger businesses in the private and public sectors will be able to employ a professional to work all this out for them, there are plenty of one-man-bands, small businesses and homeowners that won’t be able to afford that and so probably won’t bother until the friendly energy bobby on the beat comes a-knocking and points them in the right direction.

A glimmer of hope

However, the fact that we’re talking about this issue at all gives us a glimmer of hope that things are moving in the right direction – forwards, at a decent pace.  Legislation is moving at a rate to drive change, energy performance certifications (EPCs) are widely understood but apparently also largely ignored.  88 out of 108 agents contacted by the EPC accreditation body National Energy Services (NES) between 27 April and 22 May failed to produce an EPC.  The NES contacted agents on the pretext of acting for clients interested in buying or renting office or retail space.  Almost half said the certificate was not necessary or could not offer an explanation as to why no certificate was available. 

It is all very well putting regulations in place but obviously pointless if there are none (or very few) measures in place to ensure compliance.  Regulatory bodies such as BREEAM have been very recently updated and continue to be reviewed so let’s hope they fair better under scrutiny.  BREEAM is an easy way for suppliers, developers, designers, managers and property agencies to comply with standards in sustainable design and environmental building performance.  

Looking for the BREEAM assessment should ensure that the building you are about to occupy or supplier you are about to use is helping you to do more than just your bit for the environment, they are putting you ahead of the game and setting you up correctly for when the revised building regulations come into play and the government starts to seriously enforce its zero carbon targets.  Any head start is a bonus; after all there are only just over nine years to achieve a zero carbon UK and not a lot of money floating around to achieve it with.

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