Enforceability will deliver sustainability
Building Regulations will not stimulate sustainability and the lower energy consumption of buildings unless they are properly enforced, says David Frise.
The Building Regulations are often described as a ‘blunt instrument’ better suited to ensuring buildings meet structural and fire safety standards than delivering sustainability. And, despite the ambitious energy, water and material waste targets set in recent revisions, there is little evidence to suggest they have had much impact so far on creating a sustainable built environment.
It has become increasingly apparent that local-authority building control officers (BCOs) are not at all comfortable about enforcing specialist elements like those covered by Part L because they require far greater technical understanding than the ‘bricks-and-mortar’ sections. No-one has ever been prosecuted for failing to comply with Part L — or Part F, for that matter — but subsequent energy audits of recently completed buildings clearly show that many do not comply.
There is a lot of cheating going on. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with the regulations themselves, which are challenging the construction industry to improve in almost every aspect of sustainability.
With the 2010 revisions, legislators are now asking the construction industry to put up new buildings that are 55% more energy efficient than those they were erecting in 1995.
And that’s just Part L.
Part G sets stricter rules about the control of legionella bacteria because of the increasing specification of low-temperature hot-water systems and also focuses on the efficient use of water.
Part F has even more stringent rules for whole-building ventilation to reduce the threat of airborne bacteria and mould build-up in buildings that are being more heavily insulated and sealed to meet the energy-saving requirements of Part L. It is now a legal requirement for mechanical ventilation systems to be tested and properly commissioned to meet the mandatory airflow rates.
Part J turns the focus onto the exhaustion of flue gases and preventing carbon-monoxide poisoning.
Many of these changes demonstrate that health and safety is as much a part of the exercise as energy and carbon reduction. This should, therefore, encourage BCOs to take a more rigorous approach to the building-services elements that are key to creating more sustainable buildings.
There is more joined-up thinking behind the various parts of the regulations, which makes them capable of helping to deliver a more sustainable built environment — but they are still powerless unless the Communities & Local Government Minister Andrew Stunnell makes good on his pronouncement that ‘enforcement, enforcement, enforcement’ would be a key priority for his department. He also suggested that the 2013 revisions to the Building Regulations could be brought forward by a year, but there is no point if the present version is not enforced first.
Andrew Stunnell needs to enlist the support of his Government colleagues Vince Cable (Secretary of State for Business, Innovation & Skills) and Chris Huhne (Secretary of State for Energy & Climate Change) because together they have a great chance of making a major impact on building performance without having to introduce any new rules — they simply have to enforce what is already there.
Clients are, in the main, indifferent to the regulations and remain focused on price. If a non-compliant solution is cheaper than a compliant one, there is a very good chance many will select on price alone if there is no threat of any comeback from legislators.
‘We are repeatedly told to back off when we suggest ideas for how the client could save money for just a small additional outlay,’ says controls integrator Ged Tyrrell. ‘It is not uncommon for us to be slapped down by the M&E contractor when we suggest even simple things like adding controls to a domestic-hot-water system that has been specified to run 24 hours a day. It is not the decision maker in the construction phase who pays the ultimate price; it is the end user who pays the energy and CRC bills — not to mention the cost to the environment. We are just ordered to ‘do what you are told’.
‘In a recent project for 20 public sector-buildings, we found the VRV systems only had manual controls fitted, so we offered to integrate them with the intruder alarm system with a simple interface to the VRVs that would put them into setback mode when the rooms they serve were not in use. On another project for a different client, this had saved £20 000 per year in running costs for an outlay of as little as £1000 per building — but we were told it was too expensive and we should take it out to keep the initial cost down.’
Mr Tyrrell, managing director of Tyrrell Systems, described the situation as ‘unbelievably stupid’. ‘Even things that will pay back easily, say in one or two years are being cut. It is really depressing to see how many buildings have absolutely no measuring or monitoring of energy usage, which is a requirement under Part L, and the amount of building-services equipment that is basically uncontrolled.’
He only hopes that the Carbon Reduction Commitment Energy Efficiency Scheme that is gradually coming into force could change things, as finance directors may get involved when they see how much energy wastage is costing them and learn that they could be ‘named and shamed’ under the scheme.
‘However, it would be far better if the regulations were enforced properly, as clients are losing out big time,’ says Mr Tyrrell. ‘Perhaps we need some kind of CarbonStoppers anonymous helpline where we can guide regulators towards non-compliant or ill-thought-through projects as they come to completion.’
The HVCA has urged its members to join competent-person schemes so they can self-certify their Building Regulations work. Many have done so, investing considerable time and money in the training, but many report similar experiences to Mr Tyrrell and have lost out on tenders because the client sees no value in the additional investment needed to meet the regulations. There is a culture of non-compliance out there that will only be broken if the enforcers enforce.
Yet this is not just a case of bullying people into complying with legislation. Building owners are almost certainly paying higher energy bills by failing to meet efficiency targets enshrined in Part L, for example. Financial language could be very helpful in persuading building owners to challenge their suppliers to give them compliant products and services. Carbon saving is important, but cutting a business or consumer’s operating costs probably means more to them at a time like this.
So improved client awareness is needed, and that is something our industry can help to deliver alongside local and central government. However, the new Government must also abandon the woeful ‘light-touch’ approach favoured by the previous administration that resulted in reams of expensive regulation being produced which can be ignored with impunity.
The Comprehensive Spending Review, announced in October, prioritises doing more with less. Surely, simply enforcing existing legislation that can deliver massive energy savings at minimal cost is an obvious place to start.
*David Frise is head of sustainability at the Heating & Ventilating Contractors’ Association.