Our Hopes for COP 26 and What Needs to Happen Next….

Like most people, we’re hoping that world leaders will agree to make momentous, positive and decisive steps to tackle climate change this week at COP 26.

However, we’re going to need to adapt the way we live in order to meet the challenge ahead; and change is going to affect most areas of our lives including the places and spaces in which we live, work and play.

In 2019 the United Nations Environment Programme reported that the built environment accounts for 38% of all CO2 emissions. Experts suggest that the C02 used in both the construction, and operation of buildings needs to reduce by 6% in order to reach net-zero by 2050.

To hit these targets, some sweeping changes are urgently to deliver new-energy efficient buildings and dramatically improve our existing building stock.

Here are our three suggestions to the Government of key measures which would make a big difference:

1:  Incentivise thermal upgrades to existing buildings:

Under the current tax system, the construction of new houses qualifies for a 0% VAT rate; whereas any work to an existing house attracts a 20% VAT. Therefore, it’s usually cheaper to demolish an existing house and build a new one; rather than retro-fit the existing fabric due to this considerable disparity in VAT rates.

The construction of new buildings uses more carbon than retro-fitting old ones as you lose all the embodied carbon when the existing building is demolished. You then also have to factor in the carbon contained in all the building materials and construction process for the new build.  So, knocking down a good building and then constructing a new one in its place, is wasteful and unsustainable.

We have over 20million homes in the UK which are over 20 years old, so it’s going to be completely impractical to knock them all down and start again! We need to have a programme of upgrading our existing housing stock to make them fit for the future.

We’d therefore like to see Retro-fitting, and thermal upgrades to existing building stock, incentivised by a 0% VAT rate as well.  Like many Architects, HPA are supporting the Architect’s Journal #retrofirst campaign, and have invested in staff training to assist our clients in making informed decisions. Members of our team have already carried out retrofit improvements to their own homes as well.

However, I’d also like the government to go one step further and also to provide grants for natural insulation products in order to make them comparable cost-wise to man-made insulation products; some of which are derived from petro-chemicals.  Headway is being made in the creation of these innovative products, which have enormous potential for use in heritage buildings; but there needs to be a commercial incentive in order to make them attractive for use in the mainstream construction market.

2:  Change the Building Regulations:

The current English Building Regulations need to go much further than they do now in terms of insulation and the energy efficiency of buildings. The regulations also need to be changed in order to promote a ‘fabric-first’ approach to the design of buildings. These changes have already been subject to a consultation process in January 2021, and are expected to be implemented in 2022. Whilst the changes are welcome, it’s frustrating that they’re taking so long to introduce.

There also needs to be a cultural shift in the design of buildings, to make energy assessments and modelling an integral part of the design process.

Currently the need for thermal calculations comes too late in the design process, often when plans are fixed and it’s too late and costly to make major changes to the scheme. As a result, the solutions for meeting the current thermal regulations are too heavily focused on mechanical and electrical systems, rather than focusing on  the building fabric itself.

We’d therefore like to see the need for the thermal design of a building to be assessed much earlier in the building process. It will make it easier for design teams to make significant thermal changes to the performance of the building (for instance by altering simple elements of the design, such as the position and size of windows) whilst the scheme is in its early stages, when it’s easier to make changes.

I would also like the Government to aim high and try and make buildings achieve net-zero ahead of their current target for 2050. In our profession, the Royal Institute of British Architects is challenging its members to deliver net-zero buildings by 2030, which is something HPA are supporting.

3:  Relax Planning for Energy Efficient Buildings:

A modern house, designed for maximum energy efficiency, will inevitably look different to a classically proportioned Georgian dwelling, or a 1990’s estate house.

In the 2020 ‘Planning for the Future’ Consultation, the Government suggested introducing model design codes for new houses. Worryingly, these codes veer towards the provision of standard solutions, rather than encouraging a site-specific approach, which is a fundamental first step in the design of an energy efficient building. Therefore, the planning system needs to be more receptive to bespoke, site specific solutions which deliver low-carbon designs.

We’d also like to see further relaxations in the planning system for the permitted use of solar panels, small scale wind turbines and Heat Pumps. The Planning System also needs to be changed to encourage the use of buildings with low embodied energy; I know from experience how difficult it can sometimes be, to obtain planning permission to build a timber clad house, especially in an AONB or a National Park.

There are, of course, many other changes which can be made; but I believe that the three examples we’ve provided, demonstrate how our Government can change the current regulatory system to encourage the design and delivery of low carbon buildings, in order to meet the pledges we desperately need them to make at COP 26.

At HPA we’re eagerly awaiting the changes that will follow COP 26, and we’re looking forward to working with our clients to play our part in delivering a greener built environment.

Richard Wooldridge is an Architect and Director of HPA Chartered Architects. He is currently the Chair of RIBA North-West, and is a member of the RIBA Planning Group. All views are his own.

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