Government scraps Zero Carbon Standard.....as the Builders’ Book is launched

Tom Dollard | Head of Sustainable Design Pollard Thomas Edwards

The latest instalment in the Zero Carbon Homes saga is rather shocking. Unlike previous chapters which have seen an almost understandable watering down of the policy, this time the Conservatives have let rip their true blue colours! George Osborne has completely given up pretending that the Tories care for environmental policy, and has lead a U-turn on policy that had achieved cross industry and government consensus over the last 10 years.

The Productivity plan announces that in order to free up the planning system and build more houses, “The government does not intend to proceed with the zero carbon Allowable Solutions carbon offsetting scheme, or the proposed 2016 increase in on-site energy efficiency standards, but will keep energy efficiency standards under review, recognising that existing measures to increase energy efficiency of new buildings should be allowed time to become established”.

Many industry leaders have slammed this approach. The Green Register and its members fully support the UKGBC’s open letter to the chancellor urging him to reconsider the governments sudden U-turn over the long established zero carbon homes policy. http://www.ukgbc.org/press-centre/press-releases/over-200-businesses-urge-chancellor-reconsider-scrapping-zero-carbon

As a signatory myself, I obviously agree with the majority of concerns and my favourite commentary is Rory Bergin’s blog where he convincingly questions the justification behind this decision. He successfully argues that removing the zero carbon standard will not mean increased productivity or increased housing supply. Housing supply is dominated by viability, primarily the sales value, and evidence shows supply is not affected by increasing standards. It will just mean more expensive homes to run, approximately £200 a year, and around 2 tonnes of extra CO2 per dwelling. Over 5 years this translates to £200Million extra spend by homeowners, and 2Million tonnes of carbon to be abated elsewhere by government!

Furthermore, there is an established body of zero carbon homes at different scales being delivered at or below market rates, most noticeably the Solcer House at Bridgend, delivered for £125,000 by Professor Phil Jones and the Welsh school of Architecture. Other zero carbon houses built to a variety of styles and costs include Hanham Hall, Virido concept house, The Pavilion Eco House, Crossway Passivhaus, lime house passivhaus –  to name just a few of my favourites, with developers around the UK showing they have successfully built these homes within tight budgets of below £1000/m2

So it is quite clear the Treasury is wrong to make this decision on “productivity” grounds. It has left government and industry some pretty large questions that need to be addressed. In order to meet legally binding carbon dioxide reductions, it must come up with an alternative pretty quickly!  So what must be done? Well, here is my manifesto of the 3 “Rs”:

1. Rationalise Zero Carbon Policy  

The Zero Carbon standard was certainly overly complicated - mainly around “allowable solutions”, and the unnecessary switching between Carbon and Energy. Take this opportunity to remove this anomaly and simplify design standards in favour of proven performance.

2. Re-brand Zero Carbon to low or positive energy buildings

In order to meet our legally binding target of “Nearly Zero Energy Buildings” or NZEB by 2020 – a target well documented in this excellent guide by the Zero Carbon Hub, focus on reducing energy demand in reality rather than carbon emissions in a design stage calculation. “Zero carbon” was never zero, and never really about carbon either!

3. Reduce the performance gap – let’s get our buildings performing better!

This needs a more thorough compliance regime, better quality assurance on site, clearer designs and more training in “energy literacy” throughout the industry. The lack of knowledge about energy performance in our construction industry was the main reason I wanted to write the Builders' Book. It combines photos and details taken from over 300 different dwellings in construction over the UK, and is a first step in addressing this issue.

There are a number of ways we could go about achieving the above – some more realistic than others. I along with many believe passivhaus would be the simplest way to achieve both the quality in construction, comfort and also the required energy reduction needed. Other countries in Europe have successfully used passivhaus as the minimum standard, but I don’t believe the UK construction industry is up to delivering this quality standard on a large scale just yet. However, as the Chancellor has just shown us, targets are meant to be broken, so why not aim high?

Tom Dollard is Head of Sustainable Design at architects Pollard Thomas Edwards and works for the Zero Carbon Hub on a number of research projects. He has just completed writing the first instalment of the Builders’ Book - an illustrated guide for housebuilders that promotes good craftsmanship and highlights key construction details when building a new home. The Builders’ Book can be downloaded for free here.

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