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Slash housing emissions or miss UK climate targets, watchdog warns government

Ccc uk housing
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The government is in danger of missing its legally binding climate change targets unless the UK urgently adapts its existing housing stock and slashes emissions from new homes, its climate watchdog has warned

The Committee on Climate Change’s (CCC) hard-hitting new report UK housing: Fit for the future? said only a ’near-complete elimination’ of building emissions would see the UK meet Parliament’s agreed reductions.

According to the body, which has demanded immediate action from the government (see below), the drive to reduce emissions from the nation’s 29 million homes has stalled.

Meanwhile, it said, energy use in homes – which accounts for 14 per cent of total UK emissions – had actually increased between 2016 and 2017. 

It added that the government’s current policies and standards were ’failing to drive either the scale or the pace of change needed’. The committee urged the government to insist all new homes should be heated using low-carbon energy sources, have ‘ultra-high levels of energy efficiency alongside appropriate ventilation’, and be timber-framed where possible.

It also called for no new homes should to be connected to the gas grid, meaning no gas hobs or boilers, from 2025.

Elsewhere the committee report also raised concerns about the ‘performance gap’, stating that new homes and retrofitted stock often fell short of design standards. 

Furthermore, government ‘flip-flopping’ on key policies such as the Green Deal and zero-carbon homes, scrapped in 2016, had led directly to a skills gap in housing design and construction, said committee chair Chris Stark.

He told the AJ: ‘The zero-carbon homes policy was pulled [just] as the whole sector was gearing up. The skills haven’t been developed and that gap is what we are highlighting.’

Stark said the report contained some ‘tough messages’ for the construction industry, adding that he hoped architects would be ‘real allies’.

He said: ‘When you look across whole building stock, we need to get to zero carbon by 2050. I hope the architectural community can help us.’

Steve Tompkins, of Haworth Tompkins, said the report ‘nailed the lack of government leadership’ in transforming the way we build, upgrade and evaluate our housing stock in relation to carbon emissions.

‘It confirms that the UK is falling woefully short of even our legally binding carbon reduction targets, let alone our contribution to the far greater challenge of holding global heating below 1.5 degrees over the coming 12 years.

‘The recommendations are clear; we have the technologies and we know what measures are needed, but we can’t turn this around without a collective act of will, underpinned by radically more ambitious government legislation and a level of resourcing that corresponds to the actual scale of the climate emergency.’

The committee concluded by calling for a ‘nationwide shift’ to make homes climate-ready and adapt the building stock and set out five key recommendations which the government needed to urgently act on.

Committee on Climate Change’s calls to action

1. Performance and compliance. The way new homes are built and existing homes retrofitted often falls short of stated design standards. This deceives householders and inflicts new costs in the future. Closing the ‘performance gap’ could save households in new homes between £70 and £260 in energy bills each year. In addition, widespread inspection and enforcement of building standards is needed, with stiffer penalties for non-compliance.
The required further tightening of building standards will have little impact if these issues are left unresolved.

2. Retrofitting existing homes. Ensuring existing homes are low-carbon and resilient to the changing climate is a major UK infrastructure priority, and must be supported as such by the Treasury. Homes should make use of low-carbon sources of heating such as heat pumps and heat networks.

The uptake of energy efficiency measures, such as loft and wall insulation, must be accelerated. Upgrades and repairs to existing homes should include plans for shading and ventilation, measures to reduce indoor moisture, improved air quality and water efficiency and, in homes at risk of flooding, property-level flood protection.

3. Building new homes. New homes should be built to be low-carbon, energy and water efficient, and climate resilient. The costs of building to tight specifications are not prohibitive, and getting the design right from the outset is far cheaper than retrofitting later. From 2025 at the latest, no new homes should be connected to the gas grid.

They should be heated using low-carbon energy sources, have ultra-high levels of energy efficiency alongside appropriate ventilation, and be timber-framed where possible. New laws are needed to reduce overheating risks in new buildings, as well as greater focus on ambitious water efficiency, property-level flood protection, green spaces (for example, trees on streets, vegetation on roofs, sustainable drainage systems) and provision for pedestrians, cyclists, public transport users and electric vehicle owners.

4. Finance and funding. There are urgent funding gaps which must be addressed, including secure UK government funding for low-carbon sources of heating beyond 2021, and better resources for local authorities – particularly building control departments. The UK government must implement the Green Finance Taskforce recommendations around green mortgages, such as preferential rates for owners of energy-efficient and low-carbon homes and green loans to cover the upfront costs of home sustainability improvements. It should also look to widen the scope of these measures, for example including water efficiency, flood and heat resilience in ‘green building passports’, and resilience surveys – to flooding, for example – alongside energy ratings.

There are urgent funding gaps which must be addressed

Householders can also make a big difference, even with small changes, the report shows. This includes setting boilers to the correct temperature, installing shading and increasing insulation, which helps to lower people’s energy bills and improve the comfort of our homes.

5. Skills gap. The chopping and changing of UK government policy has led to a skills gap in housing design, construction and in the installation of new technologies. Important steps in reducing emissions are being held back as a result. The UK government should launch a nationwide training programme and use initiatives under the Industrial Strategy’s Construction Sector Deal to plug this gap; by investing in new support to train designers, builders and installers of low-carbon heating, and measures to improve energy and water-efficiency, ventilation, thermal comfort and property-level flood protection.

Reaction

Anna Woodeson, director at LTS Architects
The report rightly identifies that the technology and knowledge exist to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions from UK housing but the level to which we need to upskill as architects is eye-watering. We can reassert our relevance within the construction industry by leading the charge on this.

The profession needs to play a pivotal role in ensuring all five priorities can be actioned – a colossal call to arms for all of us to change the way we work and vastly enhance our expertise.

Andrew Waugh of Waugh Thistleton
This report is incredibly prescient. Architects must begin to take responsibility for their actions and take the challenge of climate change seriously.

As for clarity on the issue of fire in wood construction, I completely agree. The government’s knee-jerk reaction to a tragic fire in a concrete building is shameful. We are working closely with the timber industry and others to demonstrate that this new regulation should be urgently revised.

Engineered timber is the only viable material that can reduce our dependence on concrete and steel

We all know that engineered timber is the only viable material that can reduce our dependence on concrete and steel. The massive quantities of embodied carbon in construction must be confronted by architects and policymakers – it is not yet recognised by planning policy.

It is tragic that the architectural profession needs a committee of scientists to state the obvious and to wake them up to their responsibility. I was taught that architects were thought leaders; the lack of action on climate change could signal their extinction too.

We wholeheartedly support the work of the Committee on Climate Change on issues that we have been championing for years. 

Mina Hasman of SOM
This report clearly outlines the urgent need for effort, to allow us to meet the UK’s legally binding climate change targets. We must put our sustainability approaches and strategies to the fore of how we work if we are to positively affect this global challenge.

This report clearly outlines the urgent need for effort

As a problem that will impact us all, it is imperative we embrace our efforts to address climate change collectively. We need to bring together a full range of industry expertise, promote national training opportunities and provide the necessary funding, to deliver a meaningful and holistic response.

Alan Vallance, RIBA chief executive
This report underscores the urgent need for government action to address the energy performance of the UK’s building stock. We desperately need a new approach that includes a comprehensive plan for improving the energy efficiency of our homes and offices.

A number of themes highlighted by the CCC will be familiar to anyone with experience of the construction sector: low standards, a lack of enforcement of building regulations and a culture of cost cutting that leaves others to pick up the bill later down the line.

We desperately need a new approach

While culture change can deliver some improvements, ultimately we need government to make significant changes. From re-committing to a zero-carbon standard for new homes, to mandating the use of post occupancy evaluation in all public contracts - the government has a number of opportunities to show the leadership that has so far been lacking

Julia King, crossbench peer and chair of the CCC’s adaptation committee
This report confirms what we have long-suspected: UK homes are largely unprepared for climate change. The government now has an opportunity to act.

Major improvements in how we design, build and use our homes are needed to meet these challenges. Climate change will not wait while we consider our options; the nationwide shift we need to make UK homes climate-ready must start today. 

Tom Thackray, CBI Energy and Infrastructure director
[This] report provides a stark warning about the need to act right now to improve energy efficiency in, and reduce carbon emissions from, the UK’s homes.

There is a gaping policy gap that must be addressed to support the low-carbon measures that will save consumers money.

There is a gaping policy gap that must be addressed 

No single government department has total ownership of this issue, so it will require greater collaboration and input from business to provide the correct regulations on heat and energy efficiency, skills and funding to ensure that the UK’s homes are fit for the future.

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Readers' comments (2)

  • How often do I have to comment on these pages before you people pay attention? The public sector is failing, due to lack of initiative and finance, and fear of legislating if it might disadvantage the less well off?

    The private sector could solve all this using firm direction from DEFFRA etc and Municipal Green Bond finance. How would 1£Trillion/annum for 10 years at 1.15% payback for worldwide help? Minimum bond £250m. Wake up and smell the money!! Britain is 17th in the rankings claiming this assistance. The Chinese are Number 1, USA 2, France 3, I think?

    Architects are already trained to design carbon neutral, they just need the clients to wise up to the advantages. New build and retrofit. Jobs for all, from fitters and tradesmen to suited professionals.

    Contact me via Paul at the AJ and I will let you know how to access Aggregated Green Bonds! Pay attention 007? The future is bright Green, the future is BREXIT, max.5/6 storeys high, 3000mm flr to flr with a basement. Simples.

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  • Are Architects already trained to design carbon neutral? No they are not.
    Secondly, factually only 10 % of the new housing are built by Architects – which is a negligible impact.
    As far as new housing is concerned, let’s start asking some real pertinent questions:

    1-Why do we accept poor performance or ( and performance gap) in our buildings?
    For example, If my car achieved 20mpg say instead of 60mpg and the something didn't work, I would take it back straight to the dealer!
    2- Why should it be the case that very low-energy houses are not valued at a higher price than other properties?
    3-Why are Funders, providers, valuation surveyors and buyers failing to recognise that ”A very energy efficient home can save you thousands of pounds over the course of its lifetime? This is the biggest and singular long term investment one will make!
    4- Why do the volume-house builders (who build 90% housing) spend considerable amount of additional costs for max energy standards, in the knowledge that they will not be valued any differently in a competitive housing market?

    I think we do need to address these questions first!

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