Drive for sustainable buildings takes shape

A new drive to improve the sustainability of homes and business premises has been launched by Ministers with the appointment of a Sustainable Buildings Task Group. The Government has also set out some important new thinking in its initial ideas on higher energy efficiency standards for buildings which will take effect in 2005.

The new task group has been set up by three Departments - Environment, Trade and Industry, and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. It stems from their joint work on following up this year's energy White Paper, and from the environmental constraints - particularly water scarcity - which the ODPM has run up against in developing its plans for new communities in south-east England.

Announcing the group at the Better Buildings summit on 21 October, Environment Secretary Margaret Beckett pointed out that buildings contribute 46% of the UK's carbon dioxide emissions. Households alone account for 27% of the nation's CO2 emissions, and also consume 56% of its water supplies.

The energy White Paper flagged up the need for much faster improvements in energy efficiency in the buildings sector if the Government's CO2 targets for 2010 and beyond are to be met (ENDS Report 338, pp 26-32 ). Mrs Beckett said that the new group would be a vital means of rapidly translating today's best practice into tomorrow's norm.

Details of the group's remit and membership followed on 21 November. It has been asked to focus on four areas - energy, water, timber and other construction materials, and waste reduction - in which to identify "cost-effective improvements in the quality and environmental performance of buildings which industry can deliver in both the short and long term, together with further actions that Government could take to facilitate faster progress."

Mechanisms which the group has been asked to consider include incentives for innovation and voluntary agreements to promote best practice.

The group will be co-chaired by Sir John Harman, chairman of the Environment Agency, and Victor Benjamin, deputy chairman of English Partnerships. Its 15 members include high-level representatives of the energy, water, timber, construction products and housebuilding industries. Senior officials from the Treasury and Office of Government Commerce as well as the three sponsor Departments will also be sitting in. The group has been asked to report next February.

Several other initiatives were announced at the Better Buildings summit:

  • Mrs Beckett announced a new training programme to be run by several industry bodies aimed at having 70,000 heating installers trained by 2005, when higher energy efficiency standards for boilers are due to take effect.

  • The Carbon Trust made a call for proposals to research, develop and demonstrate innovative ways of reducing heat losses from solid wall dwellings. There are some seven million such dwellings in the UK but, according to chief executive Tom Delay, "traditional methods of insulation are expensive and disruptive" and "very few" homes are being treated.

  • Industry Secretary Patricia Hewitt announced that minimum sustainability standards will be in place by mid-2004 for all publicly funded, public sector procurement of buildings such as schools, hospitals and offices. The same standards will apply to private finance initiative projects.

  • Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott revealed that water efficiency standards for buildings will be tightened up in 2005 - with savings of 20% or more considered feasible.

    2005 will also see the next significant tightening of the energy efficiency standards laid down in the Building Regulations. The original deadline of 2008 was brought forward by three years by the energy White Paper.

    An ODPM paper published to coincide with the Better Buildings summit set out the Government's current thinking on the revisions.1 A formal consultation will follow next summer.

    The paper signals two important background developments which will work in favour of tighter energy efficiency standards.

    One is a shift to using a 3.5% discount rate when calculating the costs and benefits of proposed new standards, in place of the previous 6% rate. This will mean that the present value of avoiding longer-term environmental impacts will increase in significance by comparison with capital costs. "Higher building performance standards than could previously be justified will therefore prove to be cost-effective," the paper notes.

    A similar shift will occur as a result of the second innovation - the use of a "social cost of carbon" in cost-benefit analysis. This cost - set at £70 per tonne of carbon in 2000, and to be uprated by £1 per year and then by inflation - will arise whenever non-renewable fuels emitting CO2 are used, and will, the paper says, "be taken into account as part of the future basis" of setting energy efficiency standards.

    One of the major issues to be tackled in the revision is the common disparity between the actual energy performance of new buildings and the design standard.

    Two options are put forward for tackling the problem. One would be to increase the frequency of pre-completion testing to ensure that new buildings reach their design standards.

    The second would be to base performance standards on "more realistic assumptions about build quality" - meaning, for instance, that extra insulation would be needed to compensate for construction defects. However, builders who "reasonably demonstrate" superior build quality could use this to justify reducing insulation thickness.

    An important indicator of the level of the Government's ambitions will be the fabric insulation standards it proposes for new homes. Its current thinking is a relatively modest tightening in 2005 based on the values shown in the middle two columns of the table, followed by a larger change in 2010 as shown in the fourth column.

    Similarly, its ideas for improving airtightness standards for buildings are generally around the good practice standards developed by industry in 2000, but fall well short of the best practice standards. Consideration is, however, being given to introducing a legal requirement to conduct pressure testing of most new buildings for airtightness.

    Other innovations under consideration are the introduction of performance standards for appliances, which account for a large proportion of building energy consumption, and new requirements for the size and shape of buildings so as to encourage more compact designs.

    The paper also signals a possible breakthrough for solar renewables in buildings. First, where solar hot water systems are found to be cost-effective, the ODPM's current thinking is that they should be made a requirement, or their omission compensated for by greater energy efficiency measures elsewhere in the design. The solar industry has been invited to discuss the prospects for a "competent persons" scheme for installers.

    For photovoltaic systems, the paper says that, where the economics are favourable, "consideration might be given to requiring some PV provision, or at least making it practical to more easily incorporate PV as a later retrofit."

    The paper covers a series of other issues, including standards for boilers and CHP systems, lighting and air conditioning. However, the Government still appears to be some way from deciding on how to implement the EU Directive on the energy performance of buildings, which has to be implemented by January 2006 (ENDS Report 336, p 51 ).

    The ODPM says that devising ways of encouraging improvements in the energy efficiency of existing buildings is a "vital element" of the review. In the domestic sector, a critical factor will be the outcome of the Treasury's consultation on fiscal measures to encourage investment in energy-saving measures (ENDS Report 343, pp 39-41 ).

    Meanwhile, suppliers of building materials and equipment will need to prepare for a more long-term initiative. The paper notes that "embodied energy in building materials and building services plant can represent a significant element of the lifecycle energy budget of a building and the aim is to address this within Building Regulations in the coming decade" once the necessary data and methodologies are sufficiently developed.

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