Earlier this year the government scrapped its zero carbon homes plan – again. Were the plans too ambitious or were they just simply not required or valued by the industry? Many believe it was the wrong decision. But the question remains, are zero carbon or carbon neutral buildings financially achievable in the current climate and does the desire still exist to strive to create them?
In May of this year the government overruled the House of Lords and scrapped the zero-carbon homes policy – a policy it had scrapped in July 2015. The House of Lords had attempted to reinstate the standard for all new homes through an amendment to the Housing and Planning Bill but the proposals were thrown out. Instead, the government committed to a review of energy standards in current Building Regulations. To many, including the UK Green Building Council (UKGBC), this is seen as a very ‘weak clause’.
The abandoned zero-carbon rules, which were due to come into force this year, would have required new housing developments to generate energy through renewable sources such as solar panels or ground-source heat pumps. So why the u-turn and where does that leave our drive for lower energy homes?
One reason given for the scrapping of the regulations was to boost housebuilding. This seems a contraction given the fact that in July, two months after scrapping zero carbon homes, Housing minister, Gavin Barwell, said that the Government remains committed to building 1 million new homes.
So whilst we are getting mixed messages from Government and a lack of legislation to drive the carbon neutral agenda, how does the market view our position? Is there a place for zero carbon homes?
Sustainability is now considered a norm. However all too often motives for sustainability, especially in the commercial sector, are short term and driven by motives such as quick financial gain. For example, carbon reduction with the driving force being reducing immediate energy costs rather than long term resource efficiency. In the housing sector, whilst there is no doubt that housebuilders are ‘making hay whilst the sun shines’, there are more discerning clients, especially housing associations, looking at the future and realising that the great gains are made by playing the long game.
You only have to look at the growth of BREEAM the internationally recognised measure of sustainability for buildings and communities. More than 530,000 certificates have been issued under BREEAM on more than 24,000 projects in over 70 countries and over 2.2 million buildings and communities are registered for certification. This has to be the largest, global, indicator that developers, tenants and clients see the value in sustainability.
Whilst achieving zero carbon isn’t easy and it can come at a cost, many are now understanding the long term gains. It is estimated that a mixed-use development built to BREEAM Outstanding will add around 4.8% to the overall capital costs. However the payback in terms of lower running costs can be less than 10 years. Long game? 10 years isn’t that long!
The growth in the application of passive techniques in the UK and the reduction in cost of renewables are now making zero carbon a commercial viability. Yes there is still work to do to educate homeowners what living in a zero carbon homes means and the lifestyle changes required. However at a time when consumers are looking at how they can save themselves money, present someone with an opportunity for low or even zero utilities bills and they will bite your arm off.
I am pleased to see more clients looking forwards and talking about how they can achieve carbon neutral developments. We need to make sure that zero carbon is seen as a long term positive and like sustainability, becomes a norm rather than a aspiration.