Fixing the foundations

Ian Loughnane business unit director of Kingspan Timber Solutions, discusses how the government needs to fix the foundations after the Scrapping of Zero Carbon Homes

Last month the treasury announced the scrapping of the zero carbon building standards. The statement was presented within detailed documents, published as part of George Osborne's economic productivity drive called, ‘Fixing the Foundations.'

The plans have been received with a wave of disappointment from across the industry. Businesses throughout the UK have been investing heavily, for the best part of a decade, in preparation for these future standards. For example, £6.4million - including £3.2million of public funds - was invested in the AIMC4 project, developing and applying materials to create low carbon homes, now to be told that these standards will no longer be implemented.

On the back of this announcement the Green Deal cashback scheme was also axed - chipping further away at the government strategy on dealing with high energy bills through home energy efficiency.

The transition strategy to a low-carbon economy presented our industry with great aspirations for growth. Environmental considerations would help transform how buildings are constructed, what materials are used and the methods employed. I believe that we are now on the cusp of the predicted ‘sea-change' with UK power generation in need of a significant upgrade. The way forward, in the longer view, seems obvious.

Even the power industry is increasingly investing in renewable technology, with start-up organisations developing innovative ways of using local, renewable micro generation to deliver more cost effective energy supply and who passionately believe that they will ultimately change the energy market of the future. For our part government and the construction industry must continue to embrace innovative timber technology and offsite techniques in order to develop better buildings to minimise the environmental impact of high energy demand reducing energy costs for occupants and the energy poverty that is becoming increasingly common.

It would be very easy to view the recent changes to the regulations as a significant blow for the industry and yet I don't believe it is. The build for rent sector along with the Housing Associations still view energy efficiency and environmental responsibility as core to their organisations. A Landlord doesn't want the rent spent on paying the energy bills and Housing Associations provide for some very vulnerable families on low incomes who need their home to be economically viable. These realities exist irrespective of government regulation.

By the same token, self builders always adopt much higher standards of energy performance than required by Building regulation and we are experiencing an increased interest in Passivhaus standards. Recent housing forum papers have highlighted just how important this sector is becoming in the mix of solutions to the housing shortage crisis.

The zero carbon homes target is just one of many policies from the government's platter of promises and undoubtedly the recent reversal of carbon limiting policy is unhelpful. We are only two years into the government 2025 strategy - a strategy which states the requirement for the construction industry to reach a 50% reduction in carbon emissions by this date - this is now becoming further out of our reach.

This abrupt decision also comes at a time when the UK should be taking strong action on climate change ahead of the UN conference in December this year. Particularly in light of recent declarations by President Obama's administration, if we are to maintain credibility within that forum. Whatever the short term solution - there is overwhelming evidence from across the scientific community of the genuine threat that CO2 poses to this country and to our world. This is something that cannot be overlooked.

Without even getting into the bigger scientific issues - the compounded problem of lack of delivery of housing stock during the recession now needs to be reversed and it isn't the volume housebuilder's issue to solve, their priorities are set by shareholders. Housing provision is a fundamental responsibility for government just as defence of the realm and energy provision are. Significant increases in home building have always been government inspired and this is still the case today. By announcing this policy change, the government seem to be saying loud and clear that energy efficiency, when it comes to building those new homes, is not going to be a priority and that production of short term ‘cheaper' homes is taking its place.

The fact of the matter is, a U-turn on energy efficiency may reduce initial build costs but not by much compared to the longer term costs to society and national energy demand. Indeed it is exactly those issues that drove the development of the green deal to tackle poor performance in the existing housing stock. The holistic approach of building to high standards now and facilitating the upgrading of existing stock via building regulation and financial instruments is the correct way forward.

Our industry has proved time and again that creating sustainable homes is not more time consuming. In fact, it is actually quicker and more efficient to manufacture, deliver and assemble a high-quality, low-carbon timber frame building than build one onsite with lower thermal insulation created from materials which directly contribute to increasing carbon emissions. In this regard timber holds a unique position in the sustainable material agenda and one which is available to rich and poor economies alike. It is a global material supporting a solution for a global problem. It isn't by chance that the majority of the world's population live in timber base dwellings.

Kingspan Timber Solutions will continue to keep energy efficiency as a key factor in all of our projects. We recognise the value of low energy homes to the British economy and will continue to invest and innovate in this area. Part of the reasoning to scrap zero carbon homes was that it was an unachievable target that would be costly to the industry. This is something that I strongly disagree with.

As a nation we need affordable, well designed and energy efficient homes that address the significant issues of fuel poverty and climate change - particularly within the social housing sector. This combination of requirements plays to the strengths of timber frame and structural insulated panel systems (SIPS), which deliver a sustainable solution. We must not make the short sighted mistake of prioritising ‘cheap' over ‘cost effective' when it comes to providing homes. Cost effective, energy efficient homes will ultimately save money for the end user as well as invest money back into the British economy.

Energy efficiency doesn't mean an explosion of high tech, expensive, obsolete eco-bling. The industry has invested heavily in getting building fabric solutions that deliver high performance without the future maintenance costs that renewable solutions entail. This ‘fabric first' approach, synonymous with offsite construction, focuses on the delivery of an airtight building envelope to achieve sustainable and energy efficient new homes, reducing CO2 emissions, energy consumption and associated costs within wall thicknesses that don't compromise plot sizes.

It is regrettable that zero carbon homes policy has been pushed aside and in the long term this will ultimately cause issues in a range of different areas. The government are going to find it challenging to ‘fix the foundations' if it keeps digging holes for future generations to fall into.

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