04 Feb 2020

How can self-builders reach carbon zero?

As self-builders adopt an increasingly sustainable ethos when designing and building their own homes, Simon Orrells of Frame Technologies considers why issues surrounding climate change and the zero-carbon agenda cannot be ignored.


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As sustainability and cutting carbon emissions are fundamental to reducing energy consumption and related costs, self-builders have a vested interest in looking to adopt low-carbon methods of construction. In my opinion, outdated traditional construction practices are simply no longer sustainably viable. The onsite waste, high levels of landfill disposal, intense labour costs, lengthy build times, onsite risks and transportation issues are just a few of the reasons why I believe self-build practices have evolved to embrace offsite-manufactured timber technology.

While traditional build methods are on the decline, offsite-manufactured high-performance timber frame systems are rapidly moving to the forefront of the sector. Self-builders are looking for ‘added value’ – they understand that upfront investment in high-performance systems will deliver long-term results in vast energy savings for the lifetime of their home. To meet this need, Frame Technologies designs and manufactures TechVantage timber systems that surpass Building Regulations by 20-25% through superior insulation combinations.

Airtightness and the ban on gas boilers

With pressure from Government bodies to reduce our carbon footprints and work our way towards achieving the UK’s zero emissions target set for 2050 – many self-builders are asking, can we really become entirely carbon-neutral? This is a huge question and one I’m not entirely equipped to answer, but I do understand that the traditional construction industry is a major contributor and we all need to do our bit.

One recent carbon reduction suggestion has caused a high level of controversy in the media. The considerable carbon impact of gas boiler heating systems has triggered major news headlines with the Government’s plan to ban gas heating in new houses from 2025. The scheme is based on a report by the Committee of Climate Change (CCC), who recommend low-carbon energy heating over gas boilers for new builds. In reality, this new legislation will not pose any real issues for the self-build community as innovative practices are on the increase in this forward-thinking sector.

The impressive airtightness and SAP calculations that can be achieved in self-build projects using high-performance timber frame systems are already overcoming heating predicaments. Until temperatures are particularly low, no heating solutions are required at all, virtually eliminating heating costs for the best part of the year. This all comes down to adopting a fabric first approach when planning a self-build project. While these principles are only coming to the fore of self-build discussions now, they are not new. I’ve been promoting fabric first as the solution for energy efficiency in self-build projects for over 20 years.

Non-fossil fuel heating systems recommended by the CCC provide options for environmentally-conscious self-builders. These alternative solutions comprise heat recovery ventilation systems, heat pump ventilation systems, air-source heat pumps and air to domestic hot water pumps. Each of these techniques supports fabric first designs that embrace timber for optimal SAP calculations and U-values.

Carbon sequestration

Timber creates a natural carbon store through sequestration. In simple terms, the use of timber has a positive impact on the environment, and embodied carbon is therefore pivotal in the fight to reduce our carbon footprint. The use of concrete and structural steelwork in their current forms account for 14-16% of world carbon emissions, and whilst we accept that these materials lend themselves to certain design solutions, there must be a fundamental change to the way in which we design and specify materials.

The energy efficiency of a building fabric through strong airtightness and U-values remains core to a highly efficient home. Airtightness refers to continuous airtight seals for draught-free construction. It is essential for protecting building envelopes as it ensures energy efficiency and warmth, complying with Building Regulations.

The innovative use of sustainable timber technologies helps to deliver high-quality buildings without compromising the environment. Over the last 10 years, engineered timber systems have been emerging as a sustainable and cost-effective building material of choice. It is a vital component in the battle to reduce carbon emissions. We must consider the impact of specifying materials when constructing developments large or small to ensure we minimise the impact on the environment, not just for us but for the health and wellbeing of generations to come.

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