02 Sep 2015

Structural Solutions: New policy changes create unstable foundations

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Ian Loughnane, Business Unit Director of Kingspan Timber Solutions, discusses why recent government announcements have caused a wave of disappointment across the home building sector.

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In 2006 the announcement of the zero carbon homes policy – which aimed to have all new homes built to zero carbon within 10 years – demonstrated the government’s commitment to tackling climate change. This transition strategy to a low-carbon economy presented the home-building industry with great aspirations for growth. Environmental considerations would help transform how buildings are constructed, what materials are used and the methods employed.

However, in July the treasury announced the scrapping of the zero carbon building standards. The statement was presented within detailed documents, published as part of George Osborne’s economic productivity drive called, ‘Fixing the Foundations.’

The plans have been received with a wave of disappointment from across the industry. Businesses throughout the UK have been investing heavily, for the best part of a decade, in preparation for these future standards. On the back of this announcement the Green Deal cashback scheme was also axed – chipping further away at the government strategy on dealing with high energy bills through home energy efficiency.

I believe that we are now on the cusp of the predicted ‘sea-change’ with UK power generation in need of a significant upgrade. The way forward, in the longer view, seems obvious. Even the power industry is increasingly investing in renewable technology, with start-up organisations developing innovative ways of using local, renewable micro generation to deliver more cost effective energy supply and who passionately believe that they will ultimately change the energy market of the future. For our part, the government and the construction industry must continue to embrace innovative timber technology and offsite techniques in order to develop better buildings to minimise the environmental impact of high energy demand reducing energy costs for occupants and the energy poverty that is becoming increasingly common.

It would be very easy to view the recent changes to the regulations as a significant blow for the industry and yet I don’t believe it is. Self-builders always adopt much higher standards of energy performance than required by Building regulation and we are experiencing an increased interest in Passivhaus standards. Recent housing forum papers have highlighted just how important this sector is becoming in the mix of solutions to the housing shortage crisis.

Significant increases in home building have always been government inspired and this is still the case today. By announcing this policy change, the government seem to be saying loud and clear that energy efficiency, when it comes to building those new homes, is not going to be a priority and that production of short term ‘cheaper’ homes is taking its place. The fact of the matter is, a U-turn on energy efficiency may reduce initial build costs but not by much compared to the longer term costs to society and national energy demand. Indeed it is exactly those issues that drove the development of the green deal to tackle poor performance in the existing housing stock.

Our industry has proved time and again that creating sustainable homes is not more time consuming. In fact, it is actually quicker and more efficient to manufacture, deliver and assemble a high-quality, low-carbon timber frame building than build one onsite with lower thermal insulation created from materials which directly contribute to increasing carbon emissions.

Cost effective, energy efficient homes will ultimately save money for the end user as well as invest money back into the British economy. Energy efficiency doesn’t mean an explosion of high tech, expensive, obsolete eco-bling. The industry has invested heavily in getting building fabric solutions that deliver high performance without the future maintenance costs that renewable solutions entail. This ‘fabric first’ approach, synonymous with offsite construction, focuses on the delivery of an airtight building envelope to achieve sustainable and energy efficient new homes, reducing CO2 emissions, energy consumption and associated costs within wall thicknesses that don’t compromise plot sizes.

Kingspan are currently delivering a Self Build Live event which will showcase the first ever passive house show home - demonstrating on a real time basis, the value of creating a home at such a low energy standard. A passive house building requires very little energy for heating or cooling at the same time as providing a high level of comfort to the occupants. Self Build Live will allow visitors to attend and access-all-areas of the build project. This gives attendees the opportunity to view the site at various stages throughout the build and see the new show house come together.

It is regrettable that the zero carbon homes policy has been pushed aside and in the long term this will ultimately cause issues in a range of different areas. The government are going to find it challenging to ‘fix the foundations’ if it keeps digging holes for future generations to fall into.

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