Energy efficiency can only be achieved if we enforce the law

All new homes are expected to meet basic energy efficiency standards. But, as Andrew Warren of the Association for the Conservation of Energy reports, nearly half of all builders are breaking the law and failing to meet basic requirements.

If you buy a new home, there is an evens chance that it won’t be as energy efficient as you anticipated. The reason is simple: in almost half of all new houses, the builders are skimping on installing the energy saving measures they have to provide. Effectively, they are knowingly breaking the law.

The consequence is that all such homes need to burn more fuel to function normally than an occupant could reasonably have anticipated. Gas and electricity bills are higher. And so emissions of carbon dioxide, the main gas responsible for the threat of climate change, grow more. All this has severe implications, both for the individual householder’s pocket. And for the government’s legal commitments on both energy efficiency, and climate change.

For years, there have been accusations of ‘non-compliance’ with the energy parts of the Building Regulations aimed at the housebuilders. But almost all of this had been anecdotal in nature. Now for the first time, a detailed study of new homes has confirmed the fears. In spades.

The study was funded by the Energy Efficiency Partnership for Homes (of which I am deputy chair), and undertaken jointly by National Energy Services and the Building Research Establishment. It involved visiting 100 new homes at random throughout England, built under the 2002 Building Regulations standards. In each case the home had been occupied for some while, and so the inspections required the consent and cooperation of the occupiers.

Assessors examined details of the boiler installation, loft and pipe insulation, electric lighting, and glazing. Plus the information provided to the householder regarding the operation and use of the boiler system. Effectively they were checking whether what had been formally approved, as the very minimum range of energy saving measures by the local authority, had actually been installed. In other words, had the law of the land been complied with?

Their task was complicated by the fact that there is substantial latitude given to builders as to precisely how homes are ‘deemed to comply’ with the Regulations. No longer is it a question of insisting that specific U values must be achieved for different parts of the fabric. Trade-offs between various energy saving measures are permitted. All of which complicated the assessors’ work considerably.

So the simplest method to check whether a building complies is to measure the number of air-changes. The fewer the air-changes (within reason) the less likely it is that the home will be operating as a gas-guzzler. It is accepted that to meet the minimum standards, air permeability must be no higher than 10m3/h/m2 at 50Pa.

The study shows that, as abroad rule of thumb, the smaller the home, the more likely it is to comply. In the sample, 87% of flats reached the required air leakage standard. Whereas only 57% of the remaining sample, of terraced, semi-detached and fully detached homes, did.

Effectively, the more luxury the home, the more likely it is that corners had been cut. Where were the problems found? Assessors noted a lack of sealing around boiler flues and service pipe penetrations in kitchens and bathrooms, particularly around vanity units. The larger the home, the greater the opportunity to miss out. Gaps were found around some external doors and window frames. Many trickle ventilators leaked air when closed.

In almost one quarter of the sample, a lower standard boiler than would deliver the anticipated SAP rating had been installed. The three high efficiency light fittings now mandatory were seldom to be found. Whether these had never been installed, or had been removed by the occupants subsequently, is unclear: but what is undeniable is that their anticipated benefits in energy, hence carbon, saving assumed by the Government were not happening.

Some pipe insulation was absent from hot-water pipes. A few windows had been fitted with the low-e coating on the internal rather than external face. Few were able to provide any documents explaining how the heating system worked. And, obviously, it was simply not practicable for the assessors to dig up the floor or open up the external walls to check if the requisite insulation had been installed.

So, what lessons do we draw from this? According to the House Builders Federation, none at all. They have told the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee that existing regulations compliance was 100%. The Committee, rightly on this evidence, has expressed considerable scepticism at this complacency. Members of the government’s formal advisory committee on building regulations (BRAC) were visibly shocked when given a presentation on these findings.

Later this year, the government is due to announce the details of a further tightening of building regulation standards. These, according to the buildings regulations minister, should “improve the energy efficiency of new buildings in England and Wales by a further 27%”.

There is no question that these new, tighter standards are the right way to go. The changes will almost certainly be replicated in Northern Ireland. And on paper at any rate they will deliver some substantial energy saving improvements, helping the government to meet its new legally binding commitment, to improve the energy efficiency of housing by 20% this decade.

But the current building regulations are also a “legally binding” commitment. Except they seem as much observed in the breach as the actuality. It is up to building control departments in local authorities to enforce the law. Later this year we shall be carrying out a further survey, asking such departments for their views as to how best we can ensure that the regulations are delivered.

One question we shall be asking will be regarding their finance departments, to make sure that building control functions are fully funded via ring-fenced receipts, as – again by law – they are required to be.

In this whole area of energy conservation, it really is high time the law of the land was properly enforced.

By Andrew Warren, Deputy Chair, Energy Efficiency Partnership for Homes.

Association for the Conservation of Energy

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