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Mixed picture for carbon-cutting action in UK buildings


6 min read

Close up of air-to-heat pump on outside wall of building Photo: Shutterstock
Air-to-air heat pumps are seen as possibly the main heating technology to replace gas-fired boilers in UK homes and buildings

Photo: Shutterstock

Government support for efforts to reduce the amount of energy used in UK buildings is unimpressive, particularly measures to improve performance of the building fabric. But there are some schemes to support low carbon heating technologies, reports Andrew Mourant.

There’s never any lack of government announcements about schemes to tackle climate change. More have surfaced recently and, at face value, there are things to applaud, for instance grants to householders encouraging them to ditch gas boilers and invest in heat pumps.


Moreover – and long overdue – are regulations that came into force his month (June 2022) aimed at developers. In future they must ensure CO2 emissions from newbuild homes are 31% lower than current standards while those from other buildings, such as offices and shops, must be 27% below.


The rules relate to planning applications made on or after 15 June 2022, but not to those beforehand if ‘substantial’ building work begins before 15 June 2023. They are, in effect, a stopgap to improve things before 2025 when the Future Homes and Buildings Standards will require more significant cuts to carbon emissions.


The priorities are tackling energy efficiency, improving ventilation and ensuring that buildings don’t overheat. Crucially, there’s a requirement for improved insulation, the quality of which will become subject to a new standard assessment procedure.


Meanwhile, for existing homes, minimum ‘fabric efficiency’ standards will apply to new or replacement windows and doors. The regulations also require that future domestic newbuilds have preparatory work completed for installing an electric vehicle charging point.


Given the froth that surrounds some government announcements there was little fanfare about this one. Some in the building industry knew changes were looming but the Federation of Master Builders (FMB) reported in April that its members ‘urgently’ needed help to understand them. Brian Berry, FMB Chief Executive, blamed this lack of preparedness on ‘poor communication and engagement’ from the government.


Berry claims the new rules have significant cost implications for smaller developments and that in the ‘fragile’ housing market, buyers won’t want to pay extra for energy efficiency. ‘Costs will come off the bottom line of builders, threatening the viability of many developments,’ he warns.


Decades of past inaction in making buildings more energy efficient means that retrofitting on the scale needed would be a colossal undertaking. That said, the government has dipped a toe in the water with its Public Sector Decarbonisation Scheme (PSDS). A sprinkling of hospitals, schools, libraries, museums and leisure centres across England should be able to cut fossil fuel use and save on bills following public investment in low carbon heating and energy efficiency upgrades.


The money will pay for installing heat pumps and measures such as wall and roof insulation, double glazing, LED lighting and solar panels. Grants have been awarded to 381 bodies under the first two phases of the scheme, and some work is now underway.


This is the first tranche of £1.425bn to be allocated over three years, until 2025. The aim is to achieve a 75% reduction in emissions from public sector buildings – compared to 2017 levels – by 2037.


Projects vary greatly in size and nature. Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust will receive more than £70mn to decarbonise Queens Medical Centre, while Somerleyton Primary School, Suffolk, built in 1845 and still with its thatched roof, gets £600,000 towards a heat pump and improving energy efficiency.


A sprinkling of hospitals, schools, libraries, museums and leisure centres across England should be able to cut fossil fuel use and save on bills following public investment in low carbon heating and energy efficiency upgrades.


Not everyone’s impressed. Gillian Charlesworth, CEO of the Building Research Establishment (BRE), considers the scheme a ‘short-term solution’ for a country with ‘one of the oldest and least energy efficient’ building stocks in Europe. ‘Without a clear plan and funding to upgrade [this], our energy security strategy cannot be driven forward effectively,’ she adds.


Boilers to heat pumps 
The government is setting much store on its Boiler Upgrade Scheme (BUS) as proof of green credentials. It has created a pot of £450mn which, it hopes, will entice homeowners in England and Wales to replace oil and gas boilers with heat pumps. These, it is claimed, can deliver more than three times more heat per unit of energy input.


This scheme will also run until 2025. Grants of £5,000 will be available for air source heat pumps and biomass boilers; and £6,000 for ground source pumps. The government hopes that narrowing the price gap will catalyse change so that, by 2030, heat pumps are no more expensive to buy and run than fossil fuel boilers.


The money will be made available through installers applying on behalf of property owners, with up-front funding, sent as vouchers, taken off their quote. These will be valid for three months for air source pumps or biomass boilers, and six months for ground source. ‘Robust’ upfront checks to minimise non-compliance and fraud will be made before vouchers are issued and grants paid. Even so, given some installers may be tempted to inflate prices, homeowners would be wise to shop around.


Installers must be covered by the Microgeneration Certification Scheme, designed to prove technical competence. Consumers can check whether they’re eligible, and installers for guidance, through a dedicated page on the energy regulator Ofgem’s website.


This funding is expected to help homeowners install 90,000 heat pumps over three years. However, the consumer association body Which points out that this falls far short of the 600,000 a year target announced by Prime Minister Boris Johnson in November 2020.


Nevertheless, Phil Hurley, Chair of the Heat Pump Association, believes BUS will kick-start his industry. There is, he says, the capacity to train 40,000 installers annually. The government is running a £60mn heat pump innovation programme to encourage British manufacturing. Pumps are expected to become 25–50% cheaper by 2025 as the market expands and technology develops.


The government wants all new systems installed in UK homes by 2035 to be low carbon, such as electric heat pumps, or supporting new technologies, for example hydrogen-ready boilers. It claims there’s no property type or age unsuitable for a heat pump. But even with grants and zero VAT, costs will vary according to the size of the system, putting pumps beyond the reach of low-income families.


Rebecca Robbins, Director of Consumer Codes at Renewable Energy Assurance (which administers the Renewable Energy Consumer Code), warns that if BUS is to deliver cost efficiency and cut emissions, systems must be well designed and correctly installed in well-insulated homes. Households will need to factor in the price of fitting underfloor heating where needed and upgrading radiators. All of this could cost thousands.


Ducking the issues? 
There’s a feeling within the built environment industry that the UK government is still ducking some of the fundamental issues. As it has yet to produce guidance on net zero building standards, a cross-industry group has decided to develop its own. This coincides with a highly critical report of government performance published last month (May) by the Parliamentary Environmental Audit Committee (EAC).


The EAC says there’s been a lack of government impetus to assess and reduce emissions from residential and commercial buildings. These, it says, create 25% of the UK’s greenhouse gas output, so urgent action is needed.


In its report, Sustainability of the built environment, the EAC recommends that to reduce the levels of CO2 in construction – for instance when using cement and steel – the government makes it mandatory for ‘whole-life carbon’ assessments to be incorporated into building regulations and the planning system. These would calculate emissions from construction, maintenance and demolition and energy used in a building’s day-to-day operation.


Net zero building standards 
Such measures already exist in countries such as the Netherlands and France. The EAC points out: ‘A clear timeframe and targets should be set by the end of 2022 at the latest, and they should be introduced [here] not later than December 2023.’


It continues: ‘Retrofit and reuse of buildings – keeping carbon locked in – should be prioritised over newbuild. Reforms to permitted development rights appear to have created an incentive for demolition and newbuild over retrofit.’ Moreover, says the EAC, the UK faces ‘a chronic skills gap’ in energy efficiency and retrofit, without which net zero ambitions will fall flat.


A formidable body of industry organisations is driving the initiative towards net zero building standards. They include the UK Green Building Council, Better Buildings Partnership, BRE, Carbon Trust, Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers, Institution of Structural Engineer, London Energy Transformation Initiative, Royal Institute of British Architects and the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors. Government inaction they say, has spurred them to take matters into their own hands.


The standard will cover new and existing buildings and set out targets addressing operational energy and embodied carbon emissions to align with the UK’s 2035 and 2050 emissions targets (78% reduction and net zero respectively). It will also cover procurement of renewable energy and the treatment of residual emissions including carbon offsetting. The group intends to start work next month (July) and consult interested parties throughout its development.


Measuring energy performance 
Meanwhile, BRE is to develop a new way of better measuring the energy performance of UK homes. It will produce a new version of the Standard Assessment Procedure (SAP), the government’s system for assessing and comparing the energy rating of houses. This is also used to create the information on Energy Performance Certificates (EPCs) and show compliance with building regulations.


The update will be designed to accommodate the growing use of heat pumps, renewables, storage technologies and smart control devices. SAP 11 is due to be ready by 2025, as part of the Future Homes Standard, intended to bring in measures that will ensure new homes are fitted with low carbon forms of heating.


What does all this tell us? That there is progress, of a sort, towards improving the energy efficiency of UK homes and reducing carbon emissions. But it remains slow, fragmentary and crab-like – a few headline-grabbing, time-limited schemes. What’s being left undone by government remains the big concern.