Both Westminster and Brussels have announced new regulations and standards designed to slash emissions from buildings, but concerns remain that reforms are not ambitious enough

The UK government and the European Commission have today simultaneously announced sweeping new rules and regulations designed to trigger a step change in the pace at which new green buildings and retrofit projects are delivered across the continent in support of long term net zero emission goals. The timing may be coincidental, but the hoped for impact is the same: a significant ratcheting up of pressure on housebuilders, property owners, and construction firms to deliver a tidal wave of ultra-efficient buildings and green retrofits.

The package of reforms announced by the UK’s Department for Levelling Up, Housing, and Communities (DLUHC) are intended to strengthen existing building regulations ahead of the introduction of the more ambitious Future Homes and Buildings Standard, which is slated to come into effect in 2025 and is expected to effectively ban new homes from using fossil gas.

Under the new regulations, carbon emissions from new build homes must be around 30 per cent lower than current standards and emissions from other new buildings, including offices and shops, must be reduced by 27 per cent.

Separately, new standards for all new residential buildings, including homes, care homes, student accommodation, and children’s homes, will require that they are designed to reduce overheating risks. Meanwhile, improvements to ventilation will also be introduced to support the safety of residents in newly-built homes and to prevent the spread of airborne viruses in new non-residential buildings.

The changes to existing Building Regulations will come into effect from June 2022, requiring developers to further bolster their green credentials ahead of the 2025 introduction of the Future Homes and Buildings Standard.

Housing Minister Eddie Hughes said the new regulations formed a key part of the government’s net zero strategy. “Climate change is the greatest threat we face and we must act to protect our precious planet for future generations,” he said. “The government is doing everything it can to deliver net zero and slashing CO2 emissions from homes and buildings is vital to achieving this commitment. The changes will significantly improve the energy efficiency of the buildings where we live, work and spend our free time and are an important step on our country’s journey towards a cleaner, greener built environment.”

The government said the new regulations come alongside £6.6bn of direct investment in improving the energy efficiency of buildings during this Parliament, through the Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund, Local Authority Delivery scheme, and Home Upgrade Grant scheme, as well as last week’s confirmation of a further £400m of funding for more than 200 local authority areas as part of a new Sustainable Warmth Competition.

However, while the strengthening of building regulations has been broadly welcomed by green groups some commentators have observed that the new rules are a case of “better late than never” following the government’s controversial previous axing of Zero Carbon Home Standards and last year’s decision to delay the Future Homes and Buildings Standard until 2025, rather than opt for a 2023 launch date that was also under consideration. Had Ministers not succumbed to pressure from a handful of housebuilders, the newly announced regulations would have already been in place and developers would be preparing for a full blown ban on boilers in new build homes in a little over 12 months’ time.

Add in the recent damning assessment of the mismanagement of the controversially axed Green Homes Grant scheme from the Public Accounts Committee and widespread perception that the plans to upgrade existing homes contained in the new Heat and Buildings Strategy remain badly underpowered, and it is easy to see how many industry insiders fear the building sector remains badly off track to deliver on the UK’s net zero emissions goals.

Meanwhile, many industry insiders remain concerned over the extent to which new regulations and standards will be enforced, following well documented scandals where housebuilders have faced little or no action when producing homes that fail to meet energy efficiency and building quality standards.

Responding to the government’s summarised response to the Future Buildings Standard consultation and the interim uplifts to Part L and F of the Building Regulations and the introduction of Part O, Simon Allford, President of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) argued regulations needed to be strengthened further. 

“These uplifts will bring us one step closer to decarbonisation, and we welcome that,” he said. “The new minimum standards for fabric efficiency and new Part O signal real progress, but without regulation of actual energy use, the built environment will not decarbonise at the rate required. Regulations must continue to tighten.”

Coincidentally, the confirmation new build regulations are to be strengthened comes in same week as a flurry of new industry-led initiatives designed to help accelerate green building efforts right across the economy.

For example, the UK Green Building Council (UKGBC) announced it had teamed up with the World Green Building Council, several European Green Building Councils, Climate Alliance and the Buildings Performance Institute Europe, to publish a new framework to support cities and local authorities measure the impacts and wider benefits of building retrofit programmes. Dubbed the Build Upon Framework, the approach sets out a suite of environmental, social, and economic indicators that local authorities can measure in a simple, standardised way at either a city or project level to help track the success of retrofit projects.

“Building renovation can deliver a triple win for local communities – not only can it deliver significant carbon reductions, but it can also boost local economies through job creation as well as deliver health and wellbeing benefits through improving the quality of our homes – making them warmer, more comfortable and cheaper to run,” said Simon McWhirter, director of communications, policy and places at UKGBC. “Through optimising the use of high-quality impact data, this framework seeks to support local government in tracking the effectiveness of renovation schemes and ultimately scale up the many benefits wide-scale renovation can bring to communities.”

Similarly, think tank E3G this week published a briefing paper detailing how the new UK Infrastructure Bank could have a “mission-critical” role to play in mobilising capital in support of a “sustained, multi-decade national retrofit drive to decarbonise homes and buildings”. Specifically, the report calls on the government to ensure that decarbonisation of the built environment is a strategic priority for the new bank and actively explore how it could provide a range of financing options and tools to drive large scale green retrofit programmes.

It recommends that the bank could play a catalysing role on a number of fronts by providing patient low-cost capital to co-invest alongside local authorities; providing concessional finance or guarantees to retail banks to help make green financial products more attractive; directly supporting the private and social rented sector to decarbonise building stock; supporting local authorities and others to identify project pipelines and aggregate demand to build economies of scale and reduce costs; and connecting with private finance actors to deliver blended finance.

A very similar dynamic is at play on the other side of the Channel, with the European Commission today proposing sweeping reforms to building regulations, which experts reckon represent both an important step forward and a major missed opportunity.

The Commission said its new rules would align regulations for the energy performance of buildings with the European Green Deal and its goal to decarbonise the EU’s building stock by 2050. As such homes, schools, hospitals, offices, and other buildings across Europe would face new standards requiring them to enhance their energy efficiency and curb emissions.

The package proposed by the Commission would require that all new buildings must meet zero emission standards by 2030, while all new public buildings must be zero emission by 2027. Meanwhile, the worst-performing 15 per cent of the building stock of each Member State to be upgraded from an Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) Grade G rating to at least a Grade F rating by 2027 for non-residential buildings and 2030 for residential buildings.

“Stimulating renovation of homes and other buildings supports economic recovery and creates new job opportunities,” said Executive Vice-President for the European Green Deal, Frans Timmermans. “Moreover, energy renovation leads to lower energy bills and in the end the investment pays for itself. By targeting the obstacles to renovation and providing financial support for the necessary upfront investment, today’s proposal on the energy performance of buildings aims to boost the rate of energy renovation across the EU. Its focus on the worst performing buildings prioritises the most cost-effective renovations and helps fight energy poverty.”

The proposed package, which will now be considered by the European Parliament and Council, also includes reforms to EPCs to make them easier to understand and applicable to more buildings; a requirement for National Building Renovation Plans to be integrated into National Energy and Climate Plans, including roadmaps for phasing out fossil fuels for heating and cooling by 2040 at the latest; new mortgage portfolio standards to help boost the nascent market for green mortgages; and requirements for larger new or retrofit buildings to include electric vehicle chargepoints as standard.

As with the strengthening of the UK’s building regulations, Brussels proposed package will help to slash emissions, enhance energy efficiency, and unlock billions of Euros of investment in both new and retrofit green building projects. Both sets of reforms represent a substantial step forward.

But they also allow for several more years of development of new homes and other buildings that will not be compatible with long term net zero goals and are likely to require costly upgrades. Equally, they struggle to adequately address the crucial question of how to finance and execute the decarbonisation of existing buildings – a technical and financial challenge that has to be overcome if net zero goals are to be met. The Commission’s proposal that by 2027 the minimum building standard will be an EPC rating of F only serves to highlight how millions of people will be living in woefully inefficient homes for years to come.

Decarbonising heat and buildings remains arguably the biggest single challenge for the net zero transition, and despite this week’s welcome progress the need for significantly more ambitious policy interventions remains obvious.

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