Ian Loughnane, business unit director of Kingspan Timber Solutions, discusses how the government needs to rebuild the foundations after the Zero Carbon Homes programme was scrapped.
The treasury announced last month that the zero carbon building standards would be scrapped. The statement was presented in detailed documents published as part of George Osborne’s ‘Fixing the Foundations’ economic productivity drive.
The plans have been met with widespread dissatisfaction in the industry. Businesses across the UK have been investing heavily in preparation for these future standards for the better part of a decade. For example, £6.4 million was invested in the AIMC4 project, which developed and applied materials to create low-carbon homes, only to be told that these standards will no longer be implemented.
Following this announcement, the Green Deal cashback scheme was also axed, further undermining the government’s strategy for dealing with high energy bills through home energy efficiency.
Our industry had high growth expectations as a result of the transition strategy to a low-carbon economy. Environmental considerations would aid in changing how buildings are built, what materials are used, and the methods used. I believe we are now on the verge of the predicted “sea-change,” with UK power generation in desperate need of an upgrade. In the long run, the path forward appears clear.
Even the power industry is investing in renewable technology, with start-ups developing innovative ways of using local, renewable microgeneration to deliver more cost-effective energy supply, and who fervently believe that they will eventually change the energy market of the future. For our part, the government and construction industry must continue to embrace innovative timber technology and offsite techniques in order to develop better buildings that reduce the environmental impact of high energy demand while also reducing energy costs for occupants and the increasingly common energy poverty.
It would be very easy to see the recent regulatory changes as a significant blow to the industry, but I don’t believe so. The build-to-rent sector, as well as Housing Associations, continue to prioritise energy efficiency and environmental responsibility. A landlord does not want the rent used to pay the energy bills, and Housing Associations help some very vulnerable low-income families who need their home to be economically viable. These facts exist regardless of government regulation.
Similarly, self-builders always adhere to much higher energy performance standards than required by building code, and we are seeing an increase in interest in Passivhaus standards. Recent housing forum papers have highlighted how important this sector is becoming in the mix of housing shortage solutions.
The zero-carbon homes target is just one of many policies on the government’s promise platter, and the recent reversal of carbon-reduction policy is unhelpful. We are only two years into the government’s 2025 strategy, which states that the construction industry must achieve a 50 percent reduction in carbon emissions by this date; however, this is becoming increasingly out of reach.
This abrupt decision comes at a time when the United Kingdom should be taking strong action on climate change ahead of the UN conference in December of this year. If we are to maintain credibility in that forum, especially in light of recent declarations by President Obama’s administration. Whatever the short-term solution, there is overwhelming evidence from the scientific community that CO2 is a genuine threat to this country and the world. This is not something to be overlooked.
Without delving into the larger scientific issues, the compounded problem of lack of housing stock delivery during the recession must now be reversed, and it is not the volume housebuilders’ problem to solve; their priorities are set by shareholders. Housing provision, like defence of the realm and energy provision, is a fundamental responsibility of government. Significant increases in home construction have always been government-instigated, and this remains true today. By announcing this policy change, the government appears to be saying loud and clear that energy efficiency will not be a priority when it comes to building those new homes, and that production of short-term ‘cheaper’ homes will take its place.
The truth is that a U-turn on energy efficiency may reduce initial construction costs, but only marginally when compared to the long-term costs to society and national energy demand. Indeed, it is precisely these issues that prompted the creation of the green deal to address poor performance in existing housing stock. The holistic approach of building to high standards now and facilitating the upgrade of existing stock through building regulation and financial instruments is the way to go.
Our industry has repeatedly demonstrated that building sustainable homes does not require more time. In fact, it is faster and more efficient to manufacture, deliver, and assemble a high-quality, low-carbon timber frame building than it is to build one onsite with less thermal insulation made from materials that directly contribute to rising carbon emissions. In this regard, timber occupies a unique position in the sustainable material agenda, one that is accessible to both rich and poor economies. It is a global material that is supporting a global solution to a global problem. It is not by chance that the majority of the world’s population lives in wood-frame structures.
Kingspan Timber Solutions will continue to prioritise energy efficiency in all of our projects. We understand the importance of low-energy homes to the British economy and will continue to invest and innovate in this area. One of the reasons for abandoning zero-carbon homes was that it was an unattainable goal that would be costly to the industry. This is something with which I strongly disagree.
As a country, we require affordable, well-designed, and energy-efficient homes that address the serious issues of fuel poverty and climate change, particularly in the social housing sector. This set of requirements plays to the strengths of timber frame and structural insulated panel systems (SIPS), both of which provide a long-term solution. When it comes to housing, we must not make the short-sighted mistake of prioritising ‘cheap’ over ‘cost effective.’ Cost-effective, energy-efficient housing will ultimately save the end user money while also investing money back into the British economy.
Energy efficiency does not imply a flood of high-tech, expensive, and out-of-date eco-bling. The industry has made significant investments in developing building fabric solutions that provide high performance while avoiding the future maintenance costs associated with renewable solutions. This ‘fabric first’ approach, also known as offsite construction, focuses on delivering an airtight building envelope to achieve sustainable and energy efficient new homes, reducing CO2 emissions, energy consumption, and associated costs within wall thicknesses that do not compromise plot sizes.
It is regrettable that the zero-carbon homes policy has been pushed aside, as this will eventually cause problems in a variety of areas. If the government continues to dig holes for future generations to fall into, it will be difficult to ‘fix the foundations.’