It’s been 10 years since the Labour government committed that all new homes would be ‘zero carbon’ and introduced the Code for Sustainable Homes, a code against which the sustainability of new homes could be rated.
Skepticism about whether such ambitious targets could be met was justified. The economic footprint of the UK House Building Industry is significant and housing is seen as a key driver of UK economic growth. One of the biggest impacts of a lack of housing supply is affordability. It therefore came as no surprise this week to hear that the government has overruled the House of Lords and again scrapped the zero-carbon homes policy in a bid to boost house building.
The news has however been a huge blow to the green building industry and housebuilders, planners and green groups have all condemned the move. The coalition Government amended the initial proposals to balance zero carbon goals and the stimulation of growth in the house building industry. The concept of ‘Allowable Solutions’ was introduced to widen the off-site carbon reduction options This has been widely criticised as it favours offsite contributions rather than actual on site solutions that would directly benefit the homeowner and the environment. The abandoned zero-carbon rules, due to come in to force this year, would have required new housing developments to generate energy through renewable sources such as solar panels or ground-source heat pumps.
A new benchmark for building the high-quality, sustainable homes will need to be put in place. It remains to be seen whether developers will continue to use carbon offsetting, but new targets which help developers and builders in terms of energy efficiency and on-site low carbon might offer new opportunities to provide better performing buildings. It is already affordable to achieve the zero carbon home 2016 standard through existing fabric efficiency measures, such as Passivhaus.
The EU directive on energy performance of buildings requires member states to implement legislation to ensure that all new homes are “nearly zero carbon” by 2020. Building fabric energy efficiency standards and on-site low-carbon energy may be selected as the new benchmark target. It is disappointing that due to financial constraints new housing developments won’t be required to generate clean energy. Performance driven design may be the key to meeting the 2020 targets and ensuring that new houses require minimal heating, even if they are dependent on pulling energy from the grid. As designers we should be looking at a ‘fabric first’ approach to ensure that sustainable buildings are achieved through excellence in design, rather than a reliance on bolt on technologies.
Whatever the outcome, as designers, we are committed not just to meeting targets 4 years or 34 years from now, but designing houses fit for future generations.