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Architects Data File editor, James Parker looks towards a much more sustainable future for heating

Despite the tumultuous affairs of the past few months thanks to Covid, if you know anything about housebuilding, it can’t have escaped your notice that a huge change is coming in 2025.

Driven by the need for us all to take major steps to stall climate change, the Future Homes Standard is going to end gas-fired heating in new homes.

In the likely scenario that housebuilders won’t have all moved to creating Passivhaus-style ultra air-tight, highly insulated new dwellings by then, and despite the Earth warming up, houses will be requiring some form of heating for the rest of this decade at least.

As ever, clear direction from the top is somewhat elusive, the Government, no doubt clamouring for a non-Covid headline to grab, earlier this month stated gas boilers would be ‘banned’ from 2023, but it has since rolled back on that statement.

There can be no question that we are transitioning to low carbon heating

James Parker James Parker Editor of Architects Data File

An open door

It appears however that there’s no doubt new installations of domestic gas heating will end with the Standard, there’s only been a mix-up on whether it will start to be implemented in 2023 (which seems highly unlikely).

Given how fast this non-year has flown by, the two year difference between 2023 and 2025 will not seem all that long.

Despite this, the carbon savings from taking early steps towards more sustainable options could well make such a proactive move very worthwhile long-term.

The Heat Pump Association (HPA) has recently put out a substantial report which surprise surprise, heartily backs the adoption of heat pumps in the current context, but they may be pushing at an open door.

Ambitious aims

Electric heating is thought to be too expensive on the basis of current prices, solid fuel or oil are probably going to be inappropriate for small as well as major developments, and solar thermal, PV, and biomass all have their issues. 

Enter heat pumps (and particularly the easier to install air source type, with ground source requiring much more involved pre-thought).

The HPA’s report admittedly focuses on retrofitting existing homes, with this both being where most of the volume of work for its members will be sourced, short-term, and retrofit being the context of the new Green Homes Grant – now extended until March 2022 and offering homeowners up to £5000 towards a heat pump.

However the body’s aims are ambitious, “to shake up the existing framework and introduce regulatory, impactful and meaningful changes in the heating sector, paving the way for mass deployment of low carbon heating.”

Enshrining sustainability

The HPA is understandably putting the focus on building and developing installer skills in order to ensure this initial ‘customer’ tier is fully clued up on both the potential and practicalities of getting heat pumps into homes.

It says the report hopes to “level the playing field across all heating types,” while “encouraging best practice and low carbon heating for all installations, regardless of technology type.”

The report suggests some practical recommendations, which if adopted could help enshrine sustainable heating systems in upgrades.

With heat pumps working more efficiently at lower flow temperatures, the HPA is calling for a maximum flow temperature of 55ºC to be mandated in Building Regulations for replacement heating systems from 2026.

In addition, heat loss calculations would be required to be carried out as part of any replacement project, and installers would have to have a Low Temperature Heating and Hot Water Qualification, or equivalent, in order to be accredited to do the work.

As well as these ‘playing-field levelling’ measures, the HPA says the Government needs to bring in specific regulations “to leave no question of the transition to low carbon heating.”

As the heating and construction industries struggle to discard time-honoured methods and adapt new ones, this stick approach will be needed, alongside the carrot, with tradition being hard to break.

Ending the use of fossil fuels

The HPA holds that as well as being an established technology, heat pumps are “recognised by the Committee on Climate change (CCC) as the backbone to the decarbonisation of heat,” a pretty strong marketing line. The Government wants to end the use of fossil fuels, that much is clear.

The CCC has found that heat pumps are cost-effective in new builds, says the report, and with “sufficiently ambitious changes” to Part L (its revision now put back to next year), the HPA says the deployment of heat pumps “should increase considerably in the run up to, and after, the introduction of the Future Homes Standard.

This will have to be the case, as the Government has identified a figure of 19 million heat pumps being needed by 2050 in order to meet ‘net zero.’

With new builds presenting a much more stable set of variables when it comes to types of building, this will be one area where the installations can be done with some confidence of widespread return on investment.

Surely everyone, including the Government, now wants a ‘green recovery from Covid,’ but practical, deliverable steps towards making things happen need to be the priority.

When an intervention such as that by Persimmon into the zero carbon homes goal in 2015 was enough to see it scrapped, we have to hope that such a fate couldn’t befall the Future Homes Standard if it suddenly appeared to dampen affordability expectations.

The HPA’s report, including its proposed regulations to support the uptake of sustainable heating upgrades, is part of the process of making it realistic.

James Parker is Editor of Architects Data File