Guest blog from Andrew Simmonds, CEO of the AECB.

On the eve of the AECB National Conference, which takes place this Friday at the headquarters of the Institute of Engineering and Technology in Savoy Place, it seems appropriate to reflect on some of the major issues the conference will be addressing.

AECB National Conference

Brexit may be dominating the news headlines at the moment, but the recent Hurricanes to hit the Caribbean and US are a reminder that we are facing not only profound political, economic and social challenges as a country, as an industry and as individuals – but an extremely dangerous ecological situation. It is self-evidently not currently possible, as an ever enlarging, planet-bound civilisation, to live outside of our ecological means. We are currently in significant ecological debt and to make matters worse, suffering from dangerous levels of social inequality.

It is clear that greater equality leads to a better functioning society – simply looking at the more successful, greener countries shows us that! There are economic costs and social and ecological consequences to extracting the energy we need to heat and power our lives – those costs are increasing and the consequences…are getting scarier each year.

Brexit, if anything can be said for this chaotic episode in our history, also reminds us that boldness can change things quickly – for better or for worse.

The UK has a housing crisis, both of quantity and quality. In the UK we’re consistently failing to build enough homes to meet current demand, never mind the requirements of future generations. The temptation for governments, and indeed developers, has been to sacrifice quality in the name of quantity to solve the problem. And yet the problem has never been solved, and in fact seems to deepen.  Of course this crisis is profoundly influenced by ‘deeper’ factors that are too often taken and accepted as givens, as too hard to tackle, these include:

  • Land ownership (we don’t even know who owns 50% of the UK!)
  • Too many influential political decision makers with vested interests in private rented property portfolios (also benefitting from flows of public subsidies in the form of housing benefit)
  • Political and cultural ideology that minimises the role of the State in housing delivery
  • The reluctance to significantly free up the potential of other forms of housing delivery such as creating serviced self-build sites
  • The vested interests of the large energy supply companies which conflict with the development of the built environment’s ‘First Fuel’ – energy efficiency – doing ‘more with less’.
  • A ‘shortage’ of building land – especially for some forms of housing delivery
  • Too few and too narrow a range of housing delivery routes and companies
  • ‘Land banking’ to control the supply and demand – and hence costs – of building land
  • The disappearance of many small and medium size housing developers and a deskilling of the construction industry.

Our own country’s history during the mid-20th century, as well as the experiences of other  countries such as Germany and the Scandinavian bloc, shows that bold, well planned house building programmes  are not only possible, but make complete economic and social sense.

We need to face up to the challenges of the ‘housing crisis, and address these key questions.

  • How can it be so difficult for the UK to sort out its now ever present housing ‘crisis’?
  • Why is it so difficult to ensure buildings are built to perform to the quality promised and to the performance calculated?
  • Why is the number of new houses needed each year never achieved?

The current state of affairs must certainly be benefitting someone, otherwise things really would change.  Usually ‘following the money’ is the best way of casting light on these matters.

Leaving aside vested interests and considering what is needed, the sustainability, or otherwise, of the housing stock as a whole could be described in a simple form, as:

  • the number and quality of new homes in relation to
  • the number and quality of improvement of existing homes – with a third key factor being
  • the decarbonisation of the remaining demand for heat and power, particularly our heat supply.

Historically secondary to these top level challenges but of increasing importance, care needs to be taken that we carry out all these activities in ways that minimise (embodied) carbon emissions, protects and enhances biodiversity and existing wildlife, and minimises toxicity to people and the environment throughout the entire manufacture, construction process as well as for occupants during the buildings lifetime.

It is more affordable for society to invest in sustainability in new homes than existing ones. Economically speaking, for new houses building to the highest standards based on financially recognising all the valuable benefits accruing to society, is an economic no-brainer, from the national perspective as well as the building occupants’. It seems fairly clear to many that all new houses should probably be built to either the Passivhaus Standard or AECB Building Standard, the interplay of adopting these two energy performance standards, both based on Passivhaus methodology but with slightly different fabric targets is interesting and offers the industry important flexibility in both technology and construction cost. The AECB Standard also offers a great first step for nervous developers!

For existing homes the AECB has looked in depth at what level of efficiency and comfort improvements are likely to be both feasible and to make economic sense, and it looks practically, and increasingly economically, feasible to reduce space heating demand across the UK housing stock by at least 50%, with some house types easier to improve than others.  Easier dwelling types can be improved economically by up to 80%. As a result of this work it has become apparent that the current building regulations appear to suggest homes being built to the current regulations do not achieve the levels of performance that can be achieved by economic energy efficiency measures applied to the UK’s existing homes.

This clearly implies that Part L of the UK building regulations needs to be upgraded, as we originally expected was to be the case in order to comply with the EU’s Energy Performance of Buildings Directive and the move to Near Zero Carbon Buildings (NZEB) for new build and then later to existing buildings. Whether or not the UK has satisfied the EU on its position on Part L versus NZEB, is something that seems to be close to the event horizon of the Brexit black hole, but still warrants further investigation and challenge. This is especially true now that it appears (via the EU Withdrawal Bill, formerly known as the Great Repeal Bill) that the Prime Minister and other Ministers will be able to pick and choose whether to keep or scrap EU legislation, Directives and other protections that hitherto have been legally required: and worse still, it appears, these ‘Henry the VIII powers will be used without any Parliamentary scrutiny!

In terms of the environmental context, where national policy needs to work hardest is to determine the safest, most economic and reliable balance between decarbonising the heat supply and improving the thermal performance of our dwellings. The AECB work (its ‘CarbonLite retrofit programme’) has been looking at how best to improve the various types of UK dwelling and has usefully identified a range of energy performance targets for existing homes, delivering multiple benefits.  We encourage those improving existing dwellings to work towards these targets – or at least to develop plans to inform a step by step approach to achieving the targets, and at the very least to carry out repair, maintenance and improvements works that do not compromise later attempts to apply energy efficiency measures. There are many simple near cost-free techniques to prepare for ambitious future energy efficiency measures – yet  many ways in which to lock homes into a condition that is expensive, hard or impossible to improve properly in the future.

Over time – given the developing energy supply and climate change situation– new and existing homes will continue to become more energy efficient, more comfortable and healthier for occupants and neighbours (e.g. air quality in, and particulate emissions from, homes). Unfortunately the interlinked climate change, public health and energy security challenges we face demand faster action is required than any this country has taken outside of wartime – the  ‘market’ alone cannot deliver what is needed. Optimising and integrating government policy, industry training, education, awareness-raising, financing etc. is not something many countries excel at: so this is the major challenge, but something we nevertheless must attempt. Our civil servants may be able to redefine ‘zero’ on a napkin at lunch and then tell the EU that our current Part L of the building regulations can deliver to the Near Zero Carbon Buildings Directive – but as we know, climate change will take no hostages.   Every time a new housing estate is built to the current building regulations (whether genuinely fully complying or ‘not quite’) – we are building something that is going to need to be retrofitted not too far into the future. With our existing buildings: every time an existing roof or wall or floor is refurbished (often bypassing building control?) without incorporating robust and extensive energy efficiency measures, or worse, in ways that make future energy efficiency measures even harder or more expensive to apply – then that adds cumulatively to the growing social and environmental millstone around our collective necks.

So we need to decide – perhaps in the next general election – which of the deeper factors do we want to tackle and hope the next government will deliver! The ones we don’t tackle politically through the ballot box, or that prove too intractable to solve will define the nature and scope of the challenge. If the UK’s ‘housing crisis’ challenge is not then achievable we may as well call it out for what it is, a permanent fixture, a National Institution – and set up a new Department for it.

Perhaps we can get some earlier action from the city mayors, for example:

  • The opening up of different forms of housing delivery as currently proposed by Sadiq Khan or
  • Real policy support for scaling up off-site timber frame manufacture and other MMCs to higher performance standards (perhaps incentivising the few largest housing developers to embrace new ways of working) for increasing speed and scale of delivery
  • Getting real about the building ‘performance gap’ – we know about this now and about how to close that gap
  • Adopting rigorous energy performance targets such as Passivhaus and the AECB Building Standard (a rebranding of the AECB Silver Standard) – we have 330 AECB Building Standard homes.

Overall we need the industry, and particularly that part of the industry who have the ear of government, to fall in love with a new approach informed by a better, more responsible business model, based on rigorous design and construction methods, that can also be delivered at scale.

By bringing together the Association for Environment Conscious Building (AECB) national conference and the International Refurbishment Symposium under the banner of EcoConnect we have the opportunity bring together experts from across the industry to discuss and debate the options available and highlight successful initiatives from across Europe.

About the AECB and the 2017 Conference

The AECB itself is the UK’s largest and oldest green building organisation, focusing on society’s need to build better buildings and to dramatically improve the performance of existing buildings in terms of energy security, climate change and peoples’ health and wellbeing.

With a cross-sector membership of around 1,200, the AECB captures the experience, insights, exemplar practice and hard data on building performance via a network of leading design and construction industry companies, professionals and practitioners.

Both our conference and the symposium offer like-minded professionals to exchange ideas and listen to the views of leading experts in their field, reflected in the packed programme of guest speakers.

Over the next year or so, the political landscape is set to be dominated by the Brexit negotiations and resulting economic uncertainties and so it’s more important than ever that we come together to keep housing in the minds of political leaders and the wider public.

If you haven’t already, there’s still time to book your place at this landmark event that has the potential to shape the industry for years to come. We look forward to seeing many old and new faces at the conference on Friday!

The AECB will be represented at the conference by CEO Andrew Simmonds, who will be giving the opening address and our Development and Communications Manager, Daniel Purchase. Also in our stand is Tim Martel who can demonstrate the CarbonLite REALcosting software for buildings energy and financial investment modelling. Also look out for several high-profile AECB members and trustees delivering their thoughts and impressions at the end of the day in a question and answer session!


Further reading:

Why can’t the UK build 240,000 houses a year?

By Tom de Castella BBC News Magazine

Unlocking Britain’s First Fuel: The potential for energy savings