Diluted Part L lacks ambition

Published:  05 March, 2014

Building Regulations, Part L, B&ES
Bob Towse

The new version of Part L of the Building Regulations was a missed opportunity to deliver the improved building performance the country needs, says Bob Towse of the Building & Engineering Services Association.

There was a generally lukewarm reaction from the building-services sector to the revisions to Part L of the Building Regulations, which come into effect in April [2014]. Most people feel the Government got away with implementing the least-ambitious measures it could without breaching its legal obligations.

In general, energy-reduction targets have been increased by 6% for new residential buildings and 9% for commercial, which doesn’t get us very far — and there is still no action on the major issue of how to upgrade and improve the existing building stock. For example, the Government ran away from the concept of consequential improvements.

The coalition recently restated its commitment to the ‘roadmap’ that leads to zero-carbon new-build housing by 2016 and commercial buildings by 2019. However, with such small steps taken this year, the Government is leaving the industry a lot to do to make up the difference as those deadlines approach.

There is a greater focus on improving building-fabric standards, which could promote the wider use of passive design solutions and reduce reliance on renewables. However, if building clients want to cut their running costs meaningfully and reduce their impact on the environment they will have to aim a lot higher than the lowest common denominator standard set by Part L.

Steep learning curve

Hilson Moran’s director of sustainability, Chris Birch, summed it up nicely when he said the revised regulations left the building services industry with a very steep learning curve.

‘We are disappointed with the lack of ambition in the new regulations — particularly in relation to lack of new standards for refurbishments and existing homes, which represent the majority of UK emissions,’ he said.

Unfortunately, he was right to add that the Government was gaining a reputation for ‘setting headline-grabbing green targets and then watering down definitions when actions are needed.

In the next two years we will lose 11% of our power-generating infrastructure as more coal- and old-style gas-fired power stations are closed down by European emissions rules and our legally binding commitments to cut CO2 emissions.

This Government has a clear vision of a low-carbon replacement by 2030, which looks achievable. However, in the meantime we are going to struggle. Renewables currently account for less than 10% of our needs, and we have just one new gas-fired power station under construction; and even that is not due on stream until 2017.

Our growing reliance on imported gas is driving up costs, so we need to get really serious about the demand side and start using considerably less energy. That applies whether the shale-gas industry becomes established in the UK or not.

Overall, the Part L revisions were a missed opportunity to embed higher standards, particularly into our house-building industry at a time when the construction sector is starting to take off again. In fact, this looks like a nail in the coffin for regulations in general. The current Government has made no secret of its lack of belief in regulation and is even about to scrap the Code for Sustainable Homes.

On the plus side, ‘light-touch’ regulation does give engineers greater flexibility in how they achieve the most energy-efficient solution. It is not healthy to have engineers designing just to meet legislation — they need to have the flexibility to select the technical option that will give the best energy performance for the project in hand.

Gas-fired technology has become more and more energy efficient in the past 20 years and can deliver many of the energy-efficiency improvements the legislators are looking for. This means there is reduced pressure on engineers to specify renewables to meet higher targets, so, therefore, there should be less inappropriate use of certain technologies.

Targets

If buildings are constructed using advanced sustainable techniques, such as PassivHaus, energy-saving targets can be met using conventional high-efficiency gas-fired technologies. That could have been a starting point from which we could have achieved so much more if the Government had been more courageous and set higher and more stringently enforced energy-saving targets.

The watering down of the regulations means that market forces and consumer choice will be the ultimate drivers for energy saving. Rising energy costs are the most effective way to focus an end user’s mind on improving the design of their building, but Part L should still have a role to play. It is influential and deserves to be better enforced by local authorities; it also puts energy efficiency in a wider context and gives a legal framework to the industry’s attempts to improve standards.

However, the lack of ambition shown in the latest revisions means it remains nothing more than a basic benchmark and takes us only a few short steps closer to our eventual goal of a truly sustainable built environment.

Bob Towse is head of technical and safety at the Building & Engineering Services Association (B&ES).



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