Opinion: Carbon neutrality – a norm, not an aspiration

Earlier this year the Government scrapped its zero carbon homes plan – again. Darren Evans outlines why architects and developers must not abandon the zero carbon agenda.

In May of this year the Government overruled the House of Lords and scrapped the zero-carbon homes policy – a policy it initially abandoned in July 2015. The House of Lords had attempted to reinstate the standard for all new homes through an amendment to the Housing and Planning Bill but the proposals were thrown out. Instead, the Cabinet committed to a review of energy standards in current Building Regulations. To many, including the UK Green Building Council (UKGBC), this is seen as a very ‘weak clause’.

Zero future?

The abandoned zero-carbon rules, which were due to come into force this year, would have required new housing developments to generate energy through renewable sources such as solar panels or ground-source heat pumps. So why the U-turn and where does that leave our drive for lower energy homes?

One reason given for the scrapping of the regulations was to boost housebuilding. This seems a contraction given the fact that in July, two months after scrapping zero carbon homes, housing minister Gavin Barwell said that the Government remains committed to building 1 million new homes. With mixed messages from the Government and a lack of legislation to drive the carbon neutral agenda, how does the market view our position and is there a place for zero carbon homes?

Going the distance

Sustainability is now considered a norm. However, all too often motives for sustainability, especially in the commercial sector, are short term and driven by motives such as quick financial gain. In the housing sector, while there is no doubt that housebuilders are ‘making hay while the sun shines’, there are more discerning clients, especially housing associations, looking at the future and realising the great gains are made by playing the long game.

You only have to look at the growth of BREEAM the internationally-recognised measure of sustainability for buildings and communities. More than 530,000 certificates have been issued under BREEAM on more than 24,000 projects in over 70 countries and over 2.2 million buildings and communities are registered for certification. This has to be the largest, global, indicator that developers, tenants and clients see the value in sustainability.

Homeowners: learn the benefits of zero carbon homes

While achieving zero carbon isn’t easy and can come at a cost, many are now starting to understand the long term gains. It is estimated that a mixed-use development built to achieve a BREEAM Outstanding rating will add around 4.8 per cent to the overall capital costs – but the payback in terms of lower running costs can be less than 10 years. Long game? Ten years isn’t that long!

The growth in the application of Passive techniques in the UK and the reduction in cost of renewables are now making zero carbon a commercial viability. But there is still work to do to educate homeowners about living in a zero carbon homes. While consumers today are increasingly looking at ways to save money, if you present someone with an opportunity for low or even zero utilities bills, they will bite your arm off.

I am pleased to see more clients looking forwards and talking about how they can achieve carbon neutral developments. We need to make sure that zero carbon is seen as a long term positive and like sustainability, becomes a norm rather than a aspiration.