By Lee Chambers, Chief Commercial Officer, Active Building Centre

Following the ambitious targets the government set at COP26 last year, decarbonising buildings will be central to meeting our Net Zero goals.

There are over 27 million homes in the UK, and 60% of their energy is used for heating. With demand for housing showing no sign of falling, it is therefore not surprising that last year’s Heat and Buildings Strategy was premised on major change being needed in the industry. 

However, it seems to many in the net-zero space that the decarbonisation drive is yet to capture the imagination of senior decision makers in the UK’s major housebuilders, with some all-too familiar refrains being heard in response to recent clamouring.

Key concerns

Our industry is risk-averse by nature. Working every day with housebuilders and the public sector, the three most common concerns we hear about reaching net zero are all rooted in this simple fact.

When discussing the 19 million UK properties which will need retrofitting even to reach a ‘C’ EPC rating, the improvements are inevitably described as prohibitively expensive. Likewise, we often hear concerns about the feasibility of mass-producing new zero-carbon homes with the new technologies advocated by some experts. Finally, across greening both newbuilds and retrofitting, there is the familiar refrain that consumers won’t want futuristic, strange-looking houses.

Busting myths

These concerns, while understandable, are ultimately misplaced.

With regard to cost, we can build significantly more climate-friendly homes for the same price as the current EPC-compliant buildings, going further than the bare minimum for the same expense. For instance, we recently advised on the Connah’s Quay development in Flintshire, working with the local council to create affordable, energy positive, Zero Carbon, zero bill high density social housing. By optimising the site layout using enhanced location specific dynamic simulation modelling combined with ABC’s unique “net zero blueprint” approach we have maximised the generation capability, upgraded the fabric for ultra-low heat demand and created opportunities to charge electric vehicles.

And, while there are initial uplift costs associated with building a new home to net-zero standards, ultimately the cost of inaction is far greater. The financial and ecological costs of carrying on with business as usual has been made even clearer in recent months. We simply cannot afford not to be building truly net zero homes. Every day we don’t, we are adding to our retrofit problem.

On the issue of feasibility, technological advancements in this space have revolutionised our ability to mass-produce net-zero homes. Look across the North Sea, to our peers in Norway, and you will find an industry which is leading the way, pioneering new building techniques with modular technology on a large scale and making use of innovative manufacturing methods. Closer to home, the ABC is working with Hill Marshall LLP as part of its Marleigh development in Cambridgeshire, one of the UK’s largest energy-efficient housing developments, giving advice on heat pumps, EV chargers, and batteries, to help make the first 239 of what will become a 1300-home development more active, more energy efficient and closer to net zero.

Mass production of net zero homes might present challenges, but it can be done, and it is being done. All it takes is the willingness to try these new technologies, and train those who will use them. We may be lacking the new technicians required to build them, but this is an argument for more training and looking to the future, investing in upskilling our workforce and levelling up our communities.

The final objection we hear frequently is that net-zero homes are somehow less aesthetically pleasing, or that consumers don’t want homes which can save them money. From the design to construction stage, there is absolutely no reason that either retrofitted houses or net-zero new builds, need to look significantly different to existing ones. Quite frankly, we are yet to meet the consumer who, in this climate, does not want a home which saves them money.

Furthermore, when working with councils across England and Wales in Stroud, Wokingham, Flintshire and Neath Port Talbot, we help the architects re-orientate the buildings to maximise light exposure for energy generation and of course natural light within the homes – improving, not lessening, the aesthetic value but also considering at early stage the potential for overheating.

Building bridges

The ABC was founded to bridge the divide between public demand for greener building methods and the construction industry’s reluctance in adopting them. Because of the groundswell in popular support, on the one hand, and the hard evidence that we’ve gathered for what does and doesn’t work, on the other, that gulf has never felt narrower than it is now.

We’ve seen that some of the industry’s common misconceptions about reaching net zero are exactly that. We’ve been working closely with major builders recently to demonstrate this but, as the Government spelled out last year, there is still a huge amount to be done. Now is the time for housebuilders to take the long view, and work with the ABC to build the homes of the future. We are here to help!

This article originally appeared on housebuilder.co.uk on the 25/3/2022

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