Traditional building designs and techniques will not cut it in the future and the industry needs to wake up to its dual role in helping people cope with the unavoidable effects of climate change whilst making more efficient buildings to aid efforts to prevent things getting worse.

This was the message of Sir John Harman, chairman of the Environment Agency, when he spoke at London’s Ecobuild conference on Tuesday.

“Climate change is happening. Decades of unsustainable development have placed significant pressure on the environment,” he said.

“How we adapt to it is the challenge facing planners, architects, developers, construction engineers, innovators and investors. It also offers significant financial opportunities.

The energy used in constructing, occupying and operating buildings was responsible for half the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions, he said.

“The built environment has a major role to play in getting us back on course, as it is the most important contributor to the UK carbon account,” he told delegates.

“And this is not a static industry. The Government wants to increase the annual rate of house building to 200,000.

“It is also setting targets to improve environmental performance and developers will need to respond. Like it or not, we face the prospect of a complete rethink of design; and some would say not before time. This presents initial costs and risk – but the alternative is commercial extinction.

“The good news is energy efficiency standards for new homes are 40% better than those built before 2002 and 70% better than in 1990. But there is still some way to go before the UK matches Europe’s best, and really starts to move towards zero carbon buildings. Currently 70 per cent of homeowners claim to know little or nothing at all about sustainable homes. However, research shows they are becoming increasingly interested in the subject.

“To really grasp the nettle of zero carbon we need to design out the need for home heating, avoid the need for air-conditioning, and design specific onsite and renewable systems to meet our energy requirements such as solar hot water.

“As our understanding of climate change develops it is important we don’t build homes in places that we will regret. We have to recognise that the flood plain is our best natural protection and avoid locating development in areas of unacceptable flood risk.”

“Much of the recent focus has been on new homes but we need to do more with existing homes and other buildings,” added Sir John. “The problem is there are few opportunities for intervention to influence the standards of existing stock, but we need some sensible interventions, for example at the time of resale or major refurbishment.

“However, increased efficiency must not simply promote increased consumption. Changes in the way we build, produce energy and make technology more efficient must go hand-in-hand with the changes in behaviour and life style needed if we are to not only survive climate change, but thrive.”

David Gibbs

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