By Dan Cook, Chief Executive of the Active Building Centre.
As one year ends and another one begins, it’s always a good moment to reflect and take stock.
I joined the Active Building Centre as its CEO in the spring to help it conclude its work under the Transforming Construction Challenge – the big outcome is our ABC Blueprint which sets out an approach to achieving net zero in the built environment. It’s a collective contribution to help industry, society and governments alike. It draws together theory and practical examples from our team’s work in creating lab-based demonstrations and embedding active energy systems in a range of building types since 2019, more on the blueprint later.
I came into this role with a good knowledge of both the built and natural environment from my time at RICS and LI but having seen what the team has done and by helping to disseminate its work I’ve become even more acutely aware of the need for real, tangible, change that turns ambitions and resolutions into transformational actions.
Put simply the challenge facing the UK’s built environment is huge, there is still much to do to transform the construction sector as it lags behind on research and innovation. Far too often it continues its business-as-usual approach and when it does act, its too slow and not adventurous enough. The most recent Committee on Climate Change Report highlights the building sector as off track to meet net zero by 2050 in the UK :
‘There has been no sustained reduction in emissions from buildings in the last decade’.
There are major benefits for people to help reduce energy costs, but we also know that as we electrify other sectors like transport our built environment sector needs to provide access to even more energy supply in the decade to come.
In many parts of the UK we have constrained zones that have electricity supply challenges today, so its vital that we see homes, buildings and public spaces as places that must play a role in generation, storage and much more efficient management of energy going forward.
We also need a greater focus on our existing buildings where the bulk of energy, and by consequence carbon continues to be consumed at increasing levels, this is one of the biggest gaps in current government policy.
Given the backdrop of rising inflation, rising costs of energy and rising fuel poverty what is needed is for government policy to address this by addressing energy use which will help in turn by relieving cost of living pressures whilst delivering energy security as well as producing jobs in every part of the country and stimulating the green economy.
For me personally there are a number of areas that need attention in the UK to help lift our ambition as well as meeting it.
1) A focus on delivering retrofit of our existing buildings
There is no currently no coordinated national strategy to decarbonise all our 29 million homes and the policy to decarbonise non-domestic buildings has stalled. Coupled with the fact that draft policy for new homes and buildings standards from 2025 falls way short of what is actually required.
Whilst there are some pots of money for initiatives for those in fuel poverty, they only reach a small fraction of the homes that need attention. There are almost no policies to encourage and support owner occupiers (the vast majority of the UK’s domestic properties) to decarbonise their homes.
So what is vital to help the country decarbonise our current homes and buildings is new funding, new policy & new regulation as the market alone will not achieve this and with only 2% of new buildings being built each year we need to start to accelerate how we deal with the existing stock.
The below graph shows the challenge and how in many respects we’ve regressed in recent years.
When you look at the challenge of retrofit to ensure success and also get the best cost, it needs to be done at scale. I agree with our Board Member Lynne Sullivan who has called for a “War like effort” to tackle the issue of retrofitting our buildings.
Suggestions in way this could be done include:
- A targeted whole suburbs/neighbourhood approach akin to the roll out of old gas infrastructures.
- Targeting based on common building types ( as advocated by RIBA)
- Starting with focussing on retrofitting in locations areas where we already know the current electricity grid is constrained.
Clearly financial models are needed that support a wider range of tenure types especially for both homeowners and renters of property that can hold up over the payback periods of key renewable technology.
We need government to adopt a more “technology appropriate” approach matching instead the right technology for the right location and building types instead of a one size fits all approach. That is why at ABC we’ve supported the work of the Sustainable Energy Association (SEA Technology Agnostic Event (October 2022) – Sustainable Energy Association) on their report with the final version due out in the new year which will be presented to government.
2) Building capacity for the low carbon & renewable energy supply chain both in terms of skills and production
This has to be one of the biggest barriers we are seeing and in every event I have been to this year whether it was a ABC hosted event or external event the overwhelming view has been that the supply chain needs support. Whilst at ABC we’ve been lucky to work with lots of SMEs in this space, there is not currently the capacity to deliver anything near the scale of ambition and need to get the buildings sector to net zero operational energy. Consensus again from those in the sector is that the markets alone cannot deal with this and it will need some form of incentivisation and government input to scale it up.
Support is needed when it comes to the integration of different technologies from a fragmented supply chain with a need for standards and regulation added to a need for increased manufacturing capacity to meet the demand.
Now, when it comes to skills, there has been some good work done by IET and other professional and trade bodies to start to broaden the types of apprenticeships available. We need apprenticeships that bring together electrical, plumbing and refrigeration skills for renewables in our homes and workplaces. I look back at some of my work in Australia where any new government policies are backed up with a separate skills agenda, this is something the UK desperately needs if we are going to get the right skillsets for the growing demand.
This also applies to professional services roles. At ABC we’ve recruited in the last 6 months a number of building physics engineers to help us on projects, a skillset which is really valuable if you want low carbon buildings, but without exception all of our recruits have been from outside the UK, because the supply of home grown talent cannot keep up with demand.
And finally when it comes to capacity a big shift is another hard one and that is a major mindset shift with the need for a focus on behavioural change across the construction sector.
3) Local authority action
It is heartening to see in recent years the debate shift from discussing the science behind whether climate change is happening to accepting it is and now trying to do something about it being the discussion ground.
The how is the difficult part. But with at least 75% of local authorities having declared climate emergencies there is the willingness to do something, but that something is the place where help is needed.
The reason it is welcomed is that we need this level of government involvement, setting renewable energy generation and energy efficiency measures in local plans and requiring minimum levels in all new developments including retrofits will be a real game changer. But it needs to be backed up with legislation and powers for councils to insist it happens.
The Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill which is currently progressing through Parliament and the forthcoming changes to the National Planning Policy Framework can help and they must be used to ensure new developments and infrastructure are fit for purpose with climate and nature improvement at their core.
I have been encouraged recently by a number of new initiatives across the world, which could easily be replicated here in the UK:
Sydney, NSW, Australia – Renewable energy targets for new development
California –Various schemes linked to circularity of materials and stopping demolition at end of life of buildings
4) Being open about progress through consistent measurement
With so much discussion in this space, there needs to be a lot more commonality – Standards !
We need common approaches, we need to explain what Net Zero means and whether we are talking operational, embodied and whether this is applied on a whole life basis of buildings. We also need consistency in calculations and science based targets to underpin our efforts. This needs co-ordination and cannot be just an add on to other work. This requires funding and cross sector buy in to make any new netzero standard something we can all sign up to but also have to implement.
5) For our industry
Sadly most of the homes and buildings being built today are not net zero, whilst the introduction of the Future Homes and Buildings Standard in 2025 will help a bit, it doesn’t go far enough. There is a big opportunity to put that right, I hope ABC’s work and approach can be used to help both new build and existing buildings sectors to consider comfort, carbon and cost as they seek to move to net zero. Our 3C’s is something I am immensely proud of and think it should be integral to decision making when it comes to building the right homes and offices of the future.
The ABC Blueprint is a collective contribution, a live ever evolving document which we’ve involved a range of industry leaders to help shape it going forward, because it’s based on a number of detailed case studies spanning projects we have worked on across the education, industrial and housing sectors so its informed in real life rather than hypothetical.
Cost is always the card played as a reason for not doing things differently. But, the economic opportunities associated with investing in making the built environment netzero are so significant and will ultimately pay for themselves over the long-term. With the UK’s interim net zero target of 78% reduction in carbon by 2035 just 12 years away, every year of delay drives up the costs of reaching net zero and misses significant opportunities to grow our green economy. Some nice stats from our colleagues at UKGBC to back this up:
- An annual household saving of over £700 on energy bills
- A jobs boom in the built environment sector at a time when unemployment rates are set to soar, which could see an additional 500,000 skilled local jobs over 10 years
- Saving the NHS £1.4bn in annual treatment bills for conditions related to cold homes and potentially saving 10,000 lives a year
- Preventing 10,000s of homeowners being locked into new-build homes every year that waste energy, are at risk to flooding and overheating, and will require costly upgrades
- A reformed planning system which encourages the re-use of existing buildings and delivers high quality new development that promotes sustainable lifestyles
With the built environment being the UK’s second largest source of climate emissions (after surface transport), if we want to achieve net zero, and indeed achieve climate positive outcomes we need to be bolder. 2023 needs to be the year of action and not just ambitions.
Start asking yourself and your peers and your leaders and boards in your organsiation, business or public sector body. What action will you actually be taking and building into your next business or operations plan to deliver improvements in Comfort, Carbon and Cost ?