Defining zero-carbon: Government’s golden opportunity

Emma Hines, senior manager of sustainable construction at Lafarge Tarmac, argues that the absence of a zero-carbon standard for non-domestic buildings has resulted in uncertainty, due to a lack of legislative clarity and no mandated need to embrace zero carbon.

In July 2013, the Government announced that there would be a 9% improvement for non-domestic buildings in Part L of the Building Regulations. When this came into force in April 2014 it was met with enthusiasm by many in the construction industry – despite the limits being far lower than any of the options initially consulted upon – as it finally provided clarity.

This has stifled the development of more energy efficient buildings across the UK and drawn attention away from the importance of designing sustainability into the fabric of buildings in order to deliver optimal whole-life carbon performance.

As an industry, there is a desire to invest in innovation and skills to build more efficiently and sustainably – but the lack of detail on policy implementation has resulted in fragmented efforts and inefficiencies which are preventing progress and fuelling uncertainty.

While the coalition government has confirmed its commitment to delivering a zero-carbon standard that will apply to all non-domestic buildings from 2019, there is a compelling economic case for establishing a definition in advance of this deadline. A strong government commitment would reinvigorate investment in innovation and skills to meet these standards, and enable the delivery of a more efficient built environment.

Definition development

We believe that any zero-carbon definition should build on the work already done by the Zero Carbon Hub’s residential hierarchy of energy performance and mirror the proposed definition for homes. Adopting this approach would potentially align the two standards, further developing Building Regulations Part L2A – which regulates the conservation of fuel and power in new buildings other than dwellings – and ensure that they both include a Target Fabric Energy Efficiency (TFEE) rate.

It’s also critical that this is used as an opportunity to address the performance gap for non-domestic buildings, by providing a methodology for predicting building emissions from both regulated and unregulated sources. This could be achieved via better data, using software, such as the Simplified Building Energy Model (SBEM), to produce both an Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) based on regulated energy and an estimate of the likely operational energy rating based on a range of occupancy scenarios.

As a member of the recent UK-Green Building Council (UK-GBC) Zero Carbon Non-Domestic Task Group – which was set up to help define and build support for a robust definition and produced recommendations in February this year – we are championing the need for more monitoring and disclosure of the operational energy performance of buildings. By accessing more operational energy data, the construction industry will be able to establish a clear trajectory, enabling it to prepare it for 2019.

Fabric first

As well as understanding the energy performance of buildings, there’s a need for a greater emphasis on adopting a ‘fabric first’ approach to construction to help reach targets.

Designing sustainability into the envelope of a structure is a very effective way to deliver in-use energy efficiency, and thus create a lower carbon built environment and help meet the targets. This long-term approach is crucial so that the focus is not solely on the embodied carbon of the materials themselves (although this is important), but rather on their whole-life performance, including end of life re-use and adaptability. It also helps to negate the need to retrofit often expensive, unnecessary and inefficient technologies to a building that can serve to add to the cost of building a zero carbon structure.

If you take concrete as an example, this material has a proven track record of delivering greater energy performance over the lifetime of a building. This is because it has inherent properties such as high thermal mass capability, which means it can create buildings which are more thermally efficient. It can be used to naturally regulate ambient temperatures within a building, reducing the need for energy-intensive technologies such as heating and air conditioning. The beauty of this is that concrete is a proven solution – it’s not a new or untested – we know it works and can deliver the efficiencies needed.

Future of zero-carbon

Along with the benefits of changing the way that buildings are designed, setting the parameters of a zero-carbon definition would focus the efforts of the sector and enable the industry to innovate and evolve; moving beyond regulated energy to encompass an approach based on recognising whole life and embodied carbon as equally crucial to delivering a lower carbon built environment.

The Government has a golden opportunity to capitalise upon the desire of our industry to support the delivery of zero carbon non-domestic buildings, and work alongside us to create a clear and dynamic vision for future policy. This would encourage further industry investment in solutions and innovation, whilst generating employment opportunities for hundreds of thousands of workers. More than this – by pre-emptively adopting higher regulatory standards in the non-domestic sector, the UK will be better placed to establish itself as a global leader in energy-efficient building design.

It’s essential that all parties work together to understand the issues and invest in developing the methodologies, standards and analysis needed to underpin regulatory and policy interventions. This would help to create a truly effective, achievable zero carbon definition for non-domestic buildings in the UK and result in the delivery of a more efficient built environment.

Emma Hines

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