Waging War on Carbon

Article on Zero-Carbon New Buildings for ‘Smart Energy Management’ supplement, published in The Times, 15 September, 2009

In terms of property-related impacts and emissions, Great Britain is effectively at war with Carbon. The offensive started in earnest back in July 2007, with the announcement of a Government proposal for all new homes to be required to be ‘Zero Carbon’ from 2016. Following on from this initial assault on housing, co-ordinated campaigns have been launched to target non-residential buildings with zero-carbon compliance by 2019, plus an accelerated programme for both Education (2016) and public-sector property (2018).

As the target compliance dates for all building types fall within the Government’s critical first period to 2020 of its climate change strategy for overall emissions reduction, the spotlight will undoubtedly focus on success or failure in these areas.

So what exactly is the construction and property sector tasked with doing and what has been the response to the challenge?

Not surprisingly, much of the debate has centred around the precise definition of net zero-carbon emissions. In order to balance the zero-sum books, what exactly is allowable in the ‘credit’ column, to offset the ‘debit’ figure generated by the calculated carbon emissions of a property. In response, policy documents have set out a three-part hierarchy of achievement needs for zero-carbon design and development:

• In first place are the requirements for very high standards of energy efficiency in design, specification and construction;

• Secondly, carrying the most concern regarding cost implications, comes the call for carbon compliance in terms of on-site generation of renewable energy;

• Thirdly, provoking perhaps the most discussion, appears the potential for provision of other off-site measures and allowable solutions – only permitted almost as an conditional option of last resort, on the basis of credits earned in respect of achievement in the other two areas of primary and secondary need.

The key associated piece of building regulation is the Code for Sustainable Homes (CSH), now a mandatory requirement for all new housing in England and adopted into minimum standards in both Wales and Northern Ireland. Sustainability is assessed across nine design categories, resulting in Code star ratings ranging from the lowest Level 1, through to the highest Level 6 for Zero Carbon.

In response, there have undoubtedly been dissenting voices, with architects, housing developers and engineers in some quarters branding the proposals high risk and unrealistic. Some have accused the government of expecting too much too soon, in hoping for widespread achievement of CSH Level 6. Others have complained of there being too little in the pot, in terms of investment in both technology and skills. Doubts about financial viability have inevitably been raised in more minds as a result of the recent deterioration in economic conditions.

Overall, there remains though a strong body of industry support amongst leading players who welcome the policy framework and regulatory roadmap that have been born out of the vision of de-carbonising Britain. The agenda is gaining not only acceptance, but real momentum, albeit with some reservations, as Chief Executive of leading built environment consultancy Inbuilt, Professor David Strong explains:

“The drive towards zero carbon is very important – it has had a powerful effect in galvanising the UK housebuilding and property development community and in stimulating innovation. This may not have happened without such a strong legislative and policy initiative. A growing number of major housebuilders have a broad plan of how they are going to meet the Government’s zero-carbon targets and the intermediate stages planned for the 2010 and 2013 Building Regulations. The housebuilding industry is generally now more positive about delivering higher environmental standards than it was in the past. However, many are concerned about the cost of compliance and the potential liabilities and risks associated with the new standards.”

Zero-carbon aspirations are also considered both a driver and a differentiator of design excellence, with some architectural practices keen not to see the bar lowered too hastily, nor to have the issues taken out of their proper context of sustainable design. Alan Shingler, of Sheppard Robson, Architects of the UK’s first net zero-carbon home built to Level 6, The Lighthouse, advocates staying faithful to a big-picture vision of Sustainability:

“The Code for Sustainable Homes is likely to allow some off-site renewable power generation. Whilst we welcome the overall approach, we believe that the proposed legislative framework should not be allowed to confuse or dilute true zero-carbon development which takes a holistic approach to sustainability including embodied energy, social and economic longevity, as well as environment and carbon reduction.”

Nobody is pretending it will be easy and for developers and investors working with relatively long lead-in times and extended project calendars, it is vital that government provides both the strategic vision and leadership needed, but also builds in sufficient flexibility and room for manoeuvre.

As a key member of the newly-formed Carbon Consensus group, Claudine Blamey, Head of Sustainability at property investment and development company Segro, calls for more joined-up working between government and business:

“The government has to see their role as strategic planners in order to set the scene for business to deliver a zero-carbon economy in the most efficient way possible. The property industry then needs to be given flexibility to utilise the full-range of renewable energy solutions (i.e. on-site, near-site and off-site) in order to maximise carbon-emissions reductions. Furthermore, the capacity of renewable to deliver savings will change over time, as technologies become more viable.”

Sustainable development by definition calls for adaptability and whilst zero carbon might be the agreed target destination, the route map is being re-drawn on a regular basis. The challenge for both the property market and the construction industry is to continue to deliver on contractual project objectives, whilst operating within this evolving policy and regulatory framework. Living with this state of flux is the zero-carbon business challenge.

To view the full Supplement online, please click here.

Author: Jim McClelland