Amongst the many challenges facing the UK construction industry as the target date to achieve Net Zero emissions from the built environment looms ever closer (2050 or sooner), are those facing developers, building users and anyone responsible for operating and maintaining buildings.
The fire safety issues of Net Zero solutions, such as structural timber, MMC and some renewable energy technologies, is very serious and there are limited statutory or British Standard guidance available to help regulators properly appraise the fire safety of Net Zero designs. This was touched upon in blog post #32 and is something that is currently under review by bodies such as MHCLG and BSI – the problem is that the industry can’t wait for new standards or regulations and urgently needs to push on with Net Zero solutions now. This week I have been considering some of the other challenges, several of which I identified in my pilot project in the context of introducing innovative technologies into construction projects. As I progress my research project, engaging with building designers and developers, I come across the same challenges time and time again, the top 6 being:
- Maintenance worries
- Lack of feedback
Looking more closely at the first challenge – knowledge – this is quite an obstacle to Net Zero, not least due to the amount of mis-information designers, developers and building users are faced with when they seek low carbon solutions. I came across a good example of mis-information (or at least mis-leading) information this week, when reviewing low carbon heating solutions for housing. I found there were conflicting views on the inclusion of gas boilers that could potentially be converted to use hydrogen instead of natural gas in housing post-2025. In fact, gas boilers will be banned from new homes by 2025 and, whereas a prototype hydrogen boiler has been developed by Bosch, these are not readily available and, even if they were, there are many other challenges with using hydrogen as a low carbon heating source – these include the need to replace all the existing gas pipes with a suitable material for hydrogen distribution, the potential for leakages in the distribution pipework, the way hydrogen is generated (usually using fossil fuels) and the safety concerns around storing hydrogen in homes.
It is incredibly difficult for designers and developers to sift out good and bad information they are presented with when searching for low carbon solutions. This takes time that they generally don’t have and sometimes requires other expertise to work through the technical jargon that is sometimes used to stretch the truth about the readiness of the technology.
Cost is a barrier too. While most developers have the desire to work towards Net Zero, the reality is that they generally don’t have the capacity to increase their level of investment in developments. If you look at most current housing specifications, for example, they will include use of high-embodied carbon materials such as uPVC for windows, fascias, soffits and rainwater goods. Lower carbon alternatives, such as wood, aluminium or fibre cement board will inevitably cost more. Similarly, to replace internal finishes such as vinyl flooring with linoleum, rubber, cork or stone/ceramic tiling could add significantly to their budget. And there will be numerous other examples.
If developments cost more, there is a chance the additional costs are added to rent, which could adversely affect residents with low income and those from vulnerable groups. In Wales, the Welsh Government’s Innovative Housing Programme (IHP) grant funding has enabled some of the Regional Social Landlords (RSLs) and Local Authorities to utilise innovative ways to push their specifications towards Net Zero, by funding the inevitable uplift in costs. More of these programmes are needed, at least in the short term.
The next big challenges are risk and maintenance worries. Even when renewable energy technologies and data monitoring systems, for instance, are designed into schemes, they are often met with resistance from maintenance teams, who (quite rightly) worry about how they will be able to maintain these and how easy they are for building occupiers to use. They would, understandably, prefer to use systems they are familiar with. This challenge can be tackled by engaging with and providing training for maintenance teams and building users as the project develops.
The cost of monitoring systems is also sometimes an issue, with sensors and data capture systems being omitted at construction stage to make cost savings. The benefits of adding monitoring systems into buildings far outweigh their initial cost – monitoring energy data can help make operational savings through fast fault detection and remediation, optimisation of systems and enabling the development of planned maintenance regimes – i.e. helping rather than hindering the maintenance teams; and addressing the feedback issue.
As we progress towards achieving Net Zero in buildings, we must be careful not to ignore these challenges, as they represent the reality that those responsible for delivering buildings face. I hope to address some of the challenges discussed through my Active Building Toolkit, which will provide: information on low carbon technologies; checklists for ensuring critical design considerations are not overlooked; links to useful resources; case studies; training material; and a structured way to capture a project’s progress from inception to handover and use, which can be used to feedback into future projects.
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