The green ‘key’ to building back better

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Net-zero carbon buildings have been high on several successive governments’ wish list for at least a decade.

Remember Chris Huhne’s ‘Green Deal’ in the early days of the coalition?

However, with climate change and the growing (unstoppable?) impetus towards net-zero targets, it seems that this issue has never been a greater priority than it is now. The laudable notion of ‘Building Back Better’ strikes a chord with many, particularly in these difficult times when any positive, forward-thinking ambition will get a certain traction.

But what does it mean? In practice, rather than as a concept or notion?

The UK Green Building Council (UKGBC) has examined and reported on several aspects of national infrastructure and how we can reduce the national ‘footprint’. In 2019 it published its ‘flagship’ report on Net Zero Carbon Buildings.

This was supplemented by guidance published in the autumn on how to unlock the delivery of such buildings, which examined how various barriers might be overcome.

That guidance sits alongside UKGBC’s feasibility study (“Building the Case for Net Zero”) on what it described as ‘real world implications’ if such procurement could be achieved. The report looked, in particular, at issues of design, delivery and cost. The latter is particularly important; anyone who was around when the drive for more sustainable procurement suffered in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008 will recall how the need to maintain the bottom line swiftly overpowered altruistic intentions to build sustainably. Indeed, in its report, UKGBC identified the need for further research into the current challenges faced by those striving to deliver net-zero carbon buildings to increase their uptake rapidly.

Of course, we have moved on, and the desire for more environmentally-friendly and sustainable projects is (the odd Cumbrian coal-mine aside) becoming more mainstream. New generations not only ‘get’ it, they demand it. Sensibly, the UKGBC has not only identified the barriers, but it has also sought but to identify, alongside each, a corresponding opportunity.

For example:

  • Design – ways to integrate net-zero carbon into the building design or design process. This includes setting net-zero carbon outcomes early in the project’s strategy, inspiring design teams to think innovatively.
  • Cost – ways to finance net-zero carbon buildings. This includes accounting for future ‘brown discounts’ and ‘green premiums’ and a shift in perspective to whole-life investment rather than just immediate capital expenditure.
  • Stakeholder engagement – ways to integrate net-zero carbon into the decision-making process of all stakeholders. This includes identifying growing investor and occupier net-zero ambitions.
  • Innovation – ways of capitalising on new processes, mechanisms, and technologies to achieve net-zero buildings. This includes using new financing mechanisms and alternative building materials.

This guidance comes as the Better Buildings Partnership (BBP) launches NABERS UK, a system for certifying office buildings’ in-use energy performance. This tool recognises the growing appetite for transparency and disclosure from building owners and investors as the market begins to shift towards net zero carbon buildings.

As part of its ‘Advancing Net Zero Programme‘, the UKGBC has gone further. This month it has published further guidance for the property and construction sector on renewable energy procurement and offsetting. This guidance responds to a report in December from the Climate Change Committee, which highlighted that current electricity procurement was having a limited (or, at worst, no) impact on the UK’s plans to meet its carbon reduction targets.

For all the initiatives and column inches, there remains a nagging concern, which is this: how ‘joined up’ is the national plan?

This is a consistent theme in discussions about national infrastructure projects. Concerns linger, in particular, about projects like HS2 and the national ‘grid’ for charging points for electric cars.

The UK’s approach often appears to be to let the ‘market’ find the solution. The problem is, well, the problem itself. The looming crisis is potentially so great that it requires a paradigm shift that can probably only be made from the ‘top down’ (or at least with as much authority as the Government can bestow on bodies with real clout). No-one would argue with the UKGBC’s objectives, but it is only really looking at new projects and, whilst this is part of the challenge, a far more sizeable problem is the state of the current building stock.

In a damning report, released on Monday 22 March, the Environmental Audit Committee of MPs has criticised the Government’s flagship home insulation scheme, which was intended to kickstart a green recovery from the Covid-19 crisis.

Aimed at the 19 million poorly-insulated homes in the UK (responsible for around 20% of emissions), the report describes the scheme as ‘botched’, ‘disastrous’ in its administration and in ‘urgent need of rescue’. The take-up rate has hovered around 10%, and the report highlights the need for any such initiative to be adequately financed with high levels of commitment.

In looking to the future, it seems there is a pressing need to address the many shortfalls of the past.

Richard Wade

Richard Wade

Richard Wade is a partner and head of the Construction Planning & Environmental Team at Blake Morgan, specialising in construction and development, procurement and disputes.

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