Green is here to stay, but is it putting down roots?

Thinking ahead — Keith Melton
Keith Melton reflects on the thinking that is needed to deliver sustainable buildings.The regulations are in place, the targets are set, the emissions are being measured and the pilot trials have been tested. Sustainable building is definitely happening, but how far have we got? With the transitional stage now over for Part L of the UK’s Building Regulations, how much has changed? Two major factors are the key to how fast the industry will move to embrace the sustainable revolution — implementation, and consumer demand. The fact that ‘green’ is in fashion at the moment is working wonders for raising consumer awareness of carbon emissions and energy saving. The commercial world has recognised that sales figures benefit when products are green, or promoted as green. Now utilities and power companies are gearing up for fully fledged green marketing to join the ‘green revolution’. However, the average end user is not yet opting for green over traditional. Until the consumer expects and demands low carbon in the built environment, it will remain a matter of choice rather than necessity.

Even if it is not yet appropriate to incorporate on-site renewable energy into new buildings, they should be designed and oriented for such technology to be added in the future.

New initiatives such as the code for sustainable homes and energy performance certificates are the start of changing people’s attitudes in a radical way. Encouraging the consumer to expect more prudent energy usage within a building will shift sustainability from an ethical choice to a practical necessity. Energy Performance Certificates, though originally packaged within the rather disastrous Home Information Packs, are a key part of the UK’s strategy for energy efficiency and carbon emissions and will work to drive competition within the building industry. Energy Saving Certificates could work to push the entire manufacturing industry into ‘green’ league tables. This will be a great way of pushing the building industry into thinking about sustainability as a route to profitability, and the consumer into thinking of ‘green’ as a necessity. Since April 2007, any developer has had the option of having their building assessed under the Code for Sustainable Homes to gain additional recognition for their commitment to sustainability. The code will help to draw the building industry into the higher rankings of the Part L building requirements, so that the industry will be ready to go zero carbon in 2016. We can expect the Building Regulations to gradually tighten up to meet with the higher levels of the code. Other incentives to encourage the uptake of renewables have been discussed, such as lower council tax or less stamp duty for houses with renewables — but so far the Treasury remains quiet. Whilst the code for sustainable homes and energy-saving certificates will be fundamental in bringing about the changes, other incentives and support for implementation, for both end-users and the building supply chain, need to be introduced. Local governments have been quick to take the initiative in their regional spatial strategies in addressing UK sustainable building policy. In reality, however, implementation is proving challenging. With planners and inspectors faced with new calculation methodologies to assess whether a building meets the regulations, it is difficult in practice to ensure the standards are always being adhered to. Without stringent enforcement, the buildings industry will not be well prepared to adapt to future regulation upgrades.

While the cost of solar photo-voltaics may mean it is not economic to install, designing roofs so that they are pitched and positioned correctly will enable this technology to be exploited when the price does fall.

More details need to be given to dictate to the industry in general how these regulations should be met in practical terms. It is essential that suitable advice and guidance is provided for local authorities and their supplying developers and architects. A simple toolkit could be devised, which helps developers to select the appropriate renewables and technologies to use in a particular situation, combined with other energy-saving measures. Designing out energy The building industry, on a whole, is still thinking in terms of traditional building designs, and materials — no doubt because this is what end users expect. To meet new regulations, retrospective measures are taken whereby energy efficiency and micro-renewables are applied to try to reduce the energy demands of the building once it has been designed. In reality, the best way to meet low-energy regulations is to require less energy in the first place. By reducing the energy requirements of a building at the outset, by incorporating energy conserving principles at the early-stages, the target figures for energy efficiency and sustainable energy become so much more achievable. If the right design principles are applied, the regulations will continue to be achievable even if the targets continue to increase, because they are addressed at the beginning of the construction process — rather than the end. Simple factors such as building orientation and window location can make all the difference. Even if the completed building does not incorporate, or indeed need, renewable technologies, designing it with such factors in mind will pave the way for future retrofitting when the Building Regulations tighten their grip. When the unit cost of photo-voltaics falls, building owners will be able to take advantage of them because the roof is pitched and positioned in the right way. Options With more and more energy-efficient, energy-saving and renewable products, materials and technologies emerging into the building industry all the time, low-carbon building will certainly not be hampered by a lack of choice. However, there is still an absence of a widely understood accreditation system for products and system installation. With all sorts of different technologies available, industry-wide standards need to be applied. Having a uniform range of products will, in turn, help building assessors to accurately calculate energy usage in a building. Without an industry-wide accreditation system in place to regulate technology quality, effectiveness and performance, the industry could be in danger of losing public support for energy efficient and micro-renewable technologies, just as enthusiasm is beginning to blossom in favour of on-site generation. The next generation of buildings will set the standard in sustainable development, but retrofitting will have to play a major role for 2016 zero carbon to be achievable. In 2050, only 30% of the existing housing stock will have been built from 2005 onwards. Most of the housing that will be in use in 2016 has already been built. The balance between new-build and retrofit sustainable building will follow much the same implementation pattern as double glazing and cavity insulation did several years ago. Originally, it was only in best practices in the new-build market that double glazing and insulation began to emerge. Gradually these became the standard for all new buildings, and it was what end users came to expect as part of the package. As a result, existing buildings followed suit because double glazing and insulation had a direct impact on comfort and standard of living. However, this is where the comparison with sustainable building ends, since owning a house with a wind turbine on the roof has, at present, no impact on the standard of living of the occupiers. There is a moral and ethical motivation, but no necessity. Only when market forces mean sustainable buildings will save the occupiers money, will the industry truly change — and this will not happen until energy bills significantly rise. What next? Organisations need to think objectively and originally about how to implement new strategies to succeed in a zero-carbon world. Those who act now to wholeheartedly embrace the existing regulations and anticipate those to come will emerge as leaders when zero carbon becomes a requirement in the not-too-distant future. Evidently, the UK Government’s ambitious targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 60% by 2050 means that Building Regulators will continue to raise the bar higher and higher in terms of energy efficiency, carbon footprints, and sustainable electricity generation, and the building industry needs to be well prepared to adapt. Keith Melton is Director of Technology and Innovation at the New and Renewable Energy Centre (NaREC). ------------ NaREC’s renewables toolkit In partnership with the Building Research Establishment, NaREC has recently launched a pioneering toolkit to enable planners, developers and home builders to meet sustainable energy targets. Commissioned by the North East Assembly, the toolkit is an innovative resource which gives planners and developers a common basis for assessing how to include renewables in proposed new developments. The toolkit incorporates clever computer software which helps users to determine how a development can incorporate 10% of its energy generation using renewable technologies. The software calculates the energy requirements for different types of buildings and shows how carbon dioxide is reduced as the different technologies are added.
Related links:

modbs tv logo

Smart Buildings Show announces full conference programme for 2021

Smart Buildings Show, the UK’s leading, dedicated smart buildings event, has unveiled its 2021 conference programme. The event, supported by headline sponsor Bluetooth, will take place at ExCeL London on 6-7 October 2021, featuring industry-leading speaker sessions from some of the sector’s most renowned brands, including Bluetooth, Johnson Controls, Microsoft, Schneider Electric,  Siemens Smart Infrastructure and Vodafone.

Actuate UK issues climate warning to world leaders ahead of COP26 and urges action “before it is too late”

With six weeks to go until COP26, engineering alliance Actuate UK has issued a stark message to world leaders gathering in Glasgow, urging them to tackle the climate crisis now “before it is too late”.