Our Chief Executive, Jade Lewis, recently spoke at the West Midlands Combined Authority’s (WMCA) Energy Capital Event in September 2022 on the topic of decarbonising buildings:
We have seen really good progress on decarbonisation in the UK since 1990, which has been largely driven by the power sector. However, carbon emissions in buildings have actually increased in recent years. Given that approximately 1/3 of carbon emissions are from the built environment, then this means that we need to address energy in buildings to meet our target of net-zero by 2050.
Our building stock is some of the worst performing in Europe, so retrofitting the 26 million existing homes is a particular challenge facing us.
We also need to stop building homes and buildings that are energy inefficient. This will prevent us having to spend time and money on retrofitting them later.
Decarbonise the heating system
The long-awaited Government Heat and Buildings Strategy finally materialised in October last year and sets the strategic direction for the decarbonisation of buildings in England as we transition towards net zero.
Ultimately, net zero will mean completely moving away from burning fossil fuels for heating so the Strategy places a significant focus on plans to drive down the cost of clean heat and incentivise consumers to install low carbon heating systems.
The Government’s target is for all new heating systems by 2035 to either be using low carbon technologies like heat pumps, or low carbon ready technologies, such as hydrogen ready boilers.
At the SEA, we advocate a technology agnostic approach to decarbonising heating and believe that low carbon technologies that meet the space and water heat demands of the building in question and lead to the right outcomes should be installed. Our members offer the solutions with heat pumps, PV, solar thermal, biomass, thermal storage, waste water heat recovery, etc.
The Government has also funded research into Energy positive buildings, or active buildings, that generate and store renewable electricity to meet their own needs and intelligently redistribute the surplus to other buildings and back into the grid. It is possible to build to these principles today.
The heat and buildings strategy has a core principle that ‘the journey to net zero buildings starts with better energy performance’ and reaffirms the Government’s commitment to a fabric first approach.
A fabric first approach to decarbonisation has broader benefits in lowering energy demand, reducing homeowner exposure to volatile energy prices, addressing the root cause of fuel poverty, improving thermal comfort, health and well-being for occupants.
During this current energy bill crisis, it is essential that we stop wasting heat and address energy demand of our buildings as well as energy supply.
Addressing the building fabric means we need to better insulate buildings, but also consider energy efficient glazing, draughtproofing, airtightness, etc.
The Climate Change Committee has advised the Government that it is not enough to simply mitigate against climate change, but that the UK now needs to do much more on adaptation. We need to build homes and buildings that are more resilient to the adverse impact of worsening weather conditions and temperature rises. Meaning that flood and storm resistance, overheating, etc all needs to be taken into account when designing and constructing buildings.
Improve health and wellbeing
Given we spend on average 90% of our time indoors, the indoor built environment contributes directly to people’s health and wellbeing.
It is astonishing to note that the estimated cost of leaving people in poor housing is in the region of 18 billion pounds per year. This statistic demonstrates the need for change: we need to build homes and buildings that are healthy for people.
We have a real opportunity to create and use buildings to promote positive health and wellbeing while addressing net zero.
While energy efficiency plays a significant role, healthy homes and buildings are about much more; including thermal comfort, air quality, acoustics, lighting, and views of the outdoors.
Focusing on carbon alone without paying due care and attention to other factors has led to unintended consequences in the past. Overheating, poor air quality, mould and moisture are all known problems from poor quality approaches to energy efficiency schemes and safety should be foremost.
The Government is helping prevent quality failures by mandating the use of installer standards, as well as Trustmark accreditation, and the use of a retrofit coordinator for government funded retrofit schemes.
In use performance
New technologies are being made available to monitor the performance of buildings. Ensuring the in-use performance of energy efficiency measures will help lead to the effective decarbonisation of buildings.
Use of innovation
New innovative solutions to decarbonising buildings are being developed all the time, as well as advanced manufacturing and digital techniques driven by the transforming construction agenda, to improve the construction process. New and improved assessment tools, like Building Passports can help in delivering multiple measures and holistic solutions to existing buildings. Rapid adoption of successful new and existing technologies is needed.
Finally, just to summarise, in practice, decarbonising buildings requires a change to low carbon heating systems, taking a multiple measure, fabric first approach, improving quality and in-use performance, and utilising innovative solutions.
In addition, we should take the opportunity to adapt buildings for climate change and improve health and wellbeing. Then we can build homes and buildings that are fit for the future, as well meeting our net zero targets.