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Leap forward for efficient buildings must start now

The long-awaited revisions to the Building Regulations come into force in April. Consultations with industry have taken longer than expected, with debate within our sector focused on the proposed changes to Part L covering conservation of energy.

Part L is central to delivering on the UK’s carbon reduction and energy-efficiency targets, as it sets out minimum standards that buildings must achieve. The approach is similar to that used in Formula 1, where the bar is raised each time there is a review of the rules.

The original carbon reduction target for commercial buildings up for debate was 20%, averaged across building types. When this was floated, it was argued that it was ambitious but necessary, in order to achieve the zero-carbon emission target for new non-domestic buildings required by the EU by 2019.

Following consultation, the target for reduction in carbon emissions that has been adopted for UK commercial buildings is 9%, averaged across building types. This clearly represents a significant step back from what was originally proposed.

Costs vs commitments

The need to deliver on green commitments is in conflict with the equally valid wish not to burden industry and business with unnecessary costs, particularly when the economy is gradually moving out of recession.

Recent cost-benefit research sheds light on the likely impact of the different measures. The 9% reduction in carbon emissions for commercial buildings is predicted to deliver energy savings of around £604m, for additional incremental costs of £604m. A 20% reduction target is anticipated to more than double energy savings to £1.3bn, but related costs would rise even more, to £1.5bn.

On the strength of this, combined with the continuing recovery, the economic argument is persuasive. The problem is that lowering carbon reduction targets now leaves a very substantial gap to close in the next review of the Building Regulations, in order to meet EU targets.

The next review takes place in 2016, already within the scope of a decent desk diary. At this point, it will require a huge quantum leap to deliver the zero-carbon status for new commercial buildings to which we are signed up.

Ready to go

The reality is that the technology and innovation required to deliver significantly lower-carbon buildings is available now. The current higher costs involved often reflect the fact that production volumes are much lower than competing traditional solutions.

Small-volume, speciality products cost more than large-volume, well-established ones. However, with increased demand, there is every reason to expect prices for low-carbon plant and equipment to fall, closing the gap with less efficient technologies and tilting the economics in favour of lower-carbon buildings.

The aim of policy should be to drive the adoption of higher-
efficiency technologies and thereby shape the economics of production in favour of better ways of doing things. In this way, volumes can be steadily increased and more efficient products brought into the mainstream.

The effect of this would be to create a virtuous circle. On the one hand, we could more quickly develop buildings that cost less to run and have a reduced impact on the environment. That big leap forward is still possible. But it is hard not to conclude we could have been limbering up to make it now, rather than in two or three years’ time, when the game will inevitably have moved on.

Lee Jon Newman is MD at Pipe Center and Climate Center

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