'We are a sector of problem solvers'
Berkeley Homes has an impressive portfolio of sustainable buildings. Tom Idle gets an insight into the firm's aspirations when he pays a visit to the managing director of its urban renaissance divisionInside the temporary offices that sit on the disused piece of land in the shadow of Battersea Power Station on the banks of the Thames, Karl Whiteman talks excitedly about the challenge thrown up by the government's zero-carbon homes target.
"It's an important challenge," he says. "We have got a responsibility." He's right. As one of the top 20 UK house builders, with plans to build around 3,500 homes this year, the Berkeley Group - of which Karl heads up the urban renaissance section of the Berkeley Homes division - the company is in an influential position.
As we sit and discuss how the sector will reach the 2016 objective, outside the window hundreds of builders scurry around the Chelsea Bridge Wharf site, which is nearing its final stages of development. It is a typical Berkeley Group project - a large, mixed-use regeneration project in the heart of London. "It's a bit of a cliché but it's a bit of a live, work and play type scheme," says Karl. It looks fantastic; excellently designed and executed, and the type of building work that looks fit for our carbon-conscious future, with good insulation, internal low-energy lighting and all the A-rated washing machines and tumble driers you could ask for.
But, as Karl admits, "it's not an exemplar". That's because it is a scheme started more than seven years ago. And, although the latter phase of the development has been built to the 2006 Part L Building Regulations, it is a fair way off the zero-carbon ambitions the government has in mind for the UK's new-build stock.
More impressive in the Berkeley Group portfolio is its Woolwich Arsenal scheme which boasts a large-scale combined heat and power plant, "designed to be able to bolt on new and emerging technologies as they come forward. That's pretty innovative," says Karl excitedly.
Meanwhile, in Berkshire, the group is pushing forward a scheme in Green Park, Reading, to create a "truly sustainable village".
A builder by background, Karl has been with Berkeley for the past 12 years. After stints in charge of a number of the group's businesses, he now oversees the urban regeneration division, with a specific responsibility for sustainability at group level. "There isn't a dedicated sustainability practitioner because we believe sustainability is an inherent part of our business. We've got a number of people who have become expert, but we don't believe it is a separate thing."
As part of this responsibility, Karl is actively involved in the newly established Zero Carbon Task Group, set up by the UK Green Building Council. The forum's main aim is to address the issue of achieving the 2016 target in a realistic way. "The UK needs 240,000 new homes a year. The question is how can we deliver those homes to a zero carbon standard."
A bugbear of the industry right now is the government's insistence that the zero-carbon homes target be met without the use of off-site renewables - a policy being lobbied against strongly by the group, which also includes representatives from Barratt Homes and Crest Nicholson. "There are schemes in dense, urban locations where there just aren't the natural resources to deliver the level of renewables [needed] on site," argues Karl.
"There are a number of issues with on-site technology. There are constraints on certain sites, particularly in an urban location where, by the time the wind reaches this part of London, for example, it has lost 60% of its energy.
"As for solar, there just isn't the area of sky exposure to gain the energy from the sun on high density schemes.
"If we could invest sufficient money on an off-site location for renewables, you get a lot more renewables for your buck.
"Once a particular site has been exhausted for the amount of renewable energy it can practically deliver, it's only right to look off-site."
Karl's argument seems like a no-brainer. And it's an issue that is obviously frustrating the construction sector. "Each scheme needs to be looked at on a project-by-project basis," he goes on. "We try to be as energy efficient as we can. We try to use low-carbon technologies. But, if we can't power them using renewable energy from on-site, in a practical and deliverable way, then we should be able to look near-site or off-site."
The Task Group hopes to report its recommendations by "late spring, early summer". Government officials sit on the panel too and Karl is happy to say "they are engaged in it", so watch this space.
As for Berkeley, the company is not fazed by the zero carbon challenge, just as long as the targets are deliverable. And the sector seems to be working more closely together - something that Karl says is a necessity if the sustainability ambitions are to be realised. "If we are going to deliver, it is going to have to be through a collaborative approach between the sector, the government and the supply chain." But it is a sector that has traditionally asked for a hands-off approach from government when it comes to regulation.
Is that a fair assessment? "Regulation and legislation has its place," Karl admits. "Fiscal incentives have a place too.
"We as a sector would like to be told what the target is, given a clear path as to when these targets have got to be achieved and then allowed to come up with the solutions.
"We are an innovative sector and we are a sector of problem solvers."
In just eight years, all new homes will have to be zero carbon rated. It is a hell of a challenge. Does Karl really think it is achievable? "I'd rather get there in 2017 or 2018 than not get there at all," he stresses.
"The key is deliverability. What we don't want is the sustainability targets that are being pushed upon us to have a negative effect on housing supply. We've got to be sure that we, with the government, are constantly reviewing the target for zero carbon homes, with the number of homes that need to be delivered."
The Berkeley Group is making good progress towards 2016. Last year, it made some impressive sustainability commitments. And, from the beginning of this year, all their new homes will be delivered to level three of the Code for Sustainable Homes. As yet, there are no plans to get the properties up to level six (the highest level) because, according to Karl, an incremental approach is the best option right now.
The sector needs to move together in a united fashion, bringing the supply chain with it, as well as the customers. After all, as Karl argues, "we don't want them going to B&Q and taking out the technologies we've put in for them because they don't perform".
And its these customers that might ultimately drive the sustainable house-building market. But it's early days. "We are starting to see the sort of green shoots of customer demand. But I'm not sure there ever will be a real consumer demand."
Berkeley is spending around £75M on meeting its sustainability targets. It costs them around £5,000 extra per property to reach level three of the code, which crucially "we are not going to get back off the customer".
Most of the £5,000 is spent on energy efficiency products and improved insulation. Code Level 3 means designing the property to a water efficiency standard of 105 litres per head per day, which is about 30% more efficient than a typical new-build home in the UK. That means more products - dishwashers, washing machines, taps, baths, toilets, etc - which "in themselves are not expensive, but together are".
"The challenge for the sector is to drive those costs down," says Karl.
Attention to detail; understanding the issues; having first-class people that understand the challenges - these are just some of the reasons Karl offers giving reason for the progress Berkeley has made in sustainable development in the past few years.
But, while he oozes positivity on the future for the new-build sector, he recognises that it's the impact the other 95% of buildings are having on climate change.
"The real challenge is to take the research and development and learning we are doing in the new-build sector and applying that learning to the existing housing stock - that is where the real challenge lies."
How this might happen, and whether it is even feasible, is unknown. But, if other sectors show the same enthusiasm and commitment, sustainability in the built environment may not be such a distant aspiration.