Cracking the zero carbon code

The building industry has an integral role to play in enabling the country to move to a sustainable future. Ensuring the code guiding this transition evolves in a consistent and responsive manner will be key to meeting government's target of zero carbon homes by 2016, writes Paul King

Government’s record on the environment divides opinion among the environmental lobby. How much weight do you give to the international leadership on climate change? How badly does failure to significantly reduce domestic carbon emissions undermine the rhetoric? Perhaps the Climate Change Bill will be so successful that all else will be forgiven. Then again, that is only carbon. What about the natural environment? Water? Waste?

This is really just an attempt to put into context what I believe is one of the few pieces of progressive environmental policy making by this government, and one that is not always given the credit it deserves by opposition parties and green groups.

It may be a bit of a mouthful, but the Code for Sustainable Homes (CSH, or “the code” as those in the industry call it), despite its flaws, has the potential to fundamentally alter the sustainability of one of our largest and most environmentally damaging sectors. It could well turn out to be a defining feature of the Labour Party’s environmental legacy.

It hardly needs repeating, but our homes account for more than a quarter of the UK’s carbon emissions, are massive consumers of water, timber and other resources and have a huge influence on how we live our lives – not least our travel choices. And that is without getting into the impact on biodiversity. So it was no surprise, although somewhat belated, that the Sustainable Buildings Task Group should recommend in 2004 that government had to get to grips with the environmental effect of our homes – starting with new build.

Lengthy gestation

It was a painfully slow and difficult birth, but finally, in December 2006 in the basement of the Building Centre, Ruth Kelly, then Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, published the first draft of the CSH. The main idea was that new homes could be given an environmental rating – a form of measurement seen as the crucial first step in making progress on sustainability. The code goes from one to six stars, with minimum requirements at each level on issues including energy, water, waste, ecology and materials.

But the really significant news that day (although pre-empted by then-chancellor Gordon Brown’s pre-budget report) was that all new homes would be zero carbon from 2016. The Building Regulations would undergo incremental improvements to energy requirements in 2010 and 2013 with the final leap to zero carbon in 2016. These step changes would equate to the energy credits in certain levels of the code, and, in addition, zero carbon homes were to be encouraged by a stamp duty rebate from the Treasury up to 2012.

Here was government showing some pretty bold political leadership, saying “this is where we are going, and this is how we are going to get there”. You couldn’t fault the logic, and to their credit, most house builders recognised that the best way of bringing sustainability into the mainstream was for government to set out clearly what the changes were going to be and when. This would allow industry to use the code to gear up in advance for the changes to building regulations, which was always a fairly haphazard process in the past.

Government also announced that, from April 2008, code ratings will become mandatory on all new homes. For the first time, anyone buying a new home will receive information on how many stars their home is given. Furthermore, if the home has not been built to the code, then this should be clearly communicated to the buyer.

The details of this communication have yet to be worked out, but I believe certificates should explicitly return a “fail” or “no stars” rating if necessary. This should be an important part of increasing awareness, because, if consumers remain oblivious to the code and its implications, then we are not going to drive up demand for sustainable homes. This is important for developers, who need to get a payback on building to higher standards.

Ambitions plans

More than one year on from the code’s initial launch, sustainability is even higher on industry’s agenda. And I believe it has quite rightly been brought into the debate about quality and volume, rather than being seen as some sort of optional extra.

July 2007’s housing green paper set out ambitious plans for three million new homes by 2020. It incorporated plans for increasingly lower carbon developments through the tightening of building regulations and ten new eco-towns acting as sustainability exemplars. The code, of course, is central to all of this, particularly the eco-towns.

This is because it sets out the increasingly exacting standards for energy, and what a sustainable home actually looks like on the other environmental issues such as water and ecology.

But with a higher profile and such laudable ambitions come huge challenges. UK Green Building Council (UK-GBC) members, who are living and breathing the CSH on a daily basis, could talk for hours about problems with it. This is not for the sake of being obstructive, but because they believe in its purpose and want to see it succeed. This is not the place to get immersed in detail but there are some headline issues worth pointing out.

Constructive criticism

Of great concern, for fairly obvious reasons, is what actually constitutes zero carbon. It’s a source of endless confusion but, in short, the Treasury defined zero carbon for the purposes of its stamp duty relief and in doing so excluded the use of off-side renewables not connected by a private wire.

This sweetener might have been well intentioned, but it has had a perverse effect because the zero carbon definition in the technical guidance for the code (ie Level 6) was belatedly amended to also exclude the use of off-site renewables. This was in order to be consistent with the Treasury’s definition, despite having previously allowed it. Whatever the future holds for the Treasury definition, and frankly, people are not holding their breath that the Chancellor is going to be out of pocket as a result, it is critical we get the definition right to start with.

To help crack this issue, the UK-GBC established a task group under the leadership of Mark Clare, CEO of Barratt Homes. It brought together building and energy experts to recommend how to include the use of accredited, additional, off-site renewables within the zero carbon definition.

Its findings will be presented to government by the spring. To be blunt, if government does not take this on board, then the 2016 target is in serious trouble.

Last year’s Callcutt Review recognised the issue of the definition. It also recognised an even more fundamental problem with delivering the 2016 target, with associated implications for the code. This is the lack of a delivery hub to ensure smooth progress towards the goal. The UK-GBC has reported to government on what this body should look like, and will be working closely with policy-makers to ensure the recommendations are acted on.

The delivery hub needs to lead programme management of several key work streams to maintain an overview of the critical path to 2016. Key areas include technical issues, exemplar projects, skills and training, energy supply and public engagement.

There are problems to be tackled in each one of these work streams, and such an organisation – probably a private/public partnership – must continually identify potential threats to delivery of the target and ensure action is taken to address them.

So, plenty of work ahead, but let’s not lose sight of Callcutt’s headline finding – that the industry could deliver both volume and sustainability – as long as these recommendations were heeded.

It’s an exciting time for anyone with an interest in the sustainability of the built environment. We’ve made some great strides in the last year or so, and the CSH has played a central role in that. But we are only just beginning to fulfil potential. The challenges are huge – not least to widen the sense of urgency beyond carbon, but also to tackle the much neglected existing stock.

It is time the built environment transforms from being part of the problem to part of the solution. Our buildings, both new and existing, should enhance our quality of life, and support communities, not only economically and socially, but environmentally too.

Paul King is chief executive of the UK Green Building Council

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