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Karen Fletcher looks at the lessons coming out of the annual BESA Conference

At the start of the BESA National Conference on 20th October, Liz Truss was Prime Minister. By the time delegates were polishing off their lunches, she had resigned. It’s almost too on-the-nail to say that change is our new normal, but the 2020s are no time to be complacent.

The key message from the BESA National Conference was that the industry needs to stay alert, particularly around changes in legislation and market demands. Conference speakers addressed many topics, but three main stories hit home:

  • Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) is still top of the agenda for building owners, but the government needs to do more to set limits
  • Net Zero is very much in focus across the government, but clients need to understand how to achieve it
  • The full impact of the Building Safety Bill is yet to be felt, and there’s not enough engagement with it because too many people think it doesn’t apply to them (spoiler alert:  It does)

The panel stressed that it’s vital for professionals to be engaged or they will be caught out.

Karen Fletcher Rocket Karen Fletcher Content Director Rocket Content

Government dragging its feet

Speaking at the Conference, Mitsubishi Electric’s Product Strategy and Delivery Manager, Mark Grayston, highlighted the increased demand for Mechanical Ventilation with Heat Recovery (MVHR) systems in the UK, which rose 20% in 2021 and continues to grow steadily.

This interest seems driven by building owners looking to improve indoor environments, with MVHR retrofits leading the field.

But while the market is prioritising IAQ, many in the building services sector feel that government needs to step up and legislate further.

Speakers at the Conference noted that, frustratingly, the government has dragged its feet on setting standards for indoor air quality in homes or offices.

However, a significant amount of research is underway that may yet demonstrate a clear link between IAQ and health outcomes and force legislative action.

The road to Net Zero

In contrast, the government has legislated heavily on net zero. Our industry is undoubtedly feeling the effects of challenging Part L requirements for carbon reduction and energy efficiency in buildings.

And while the UK has been hitting its carbon-cutting targets, we’re getting to a crunch point where finding further savings is going to get tougher – and clients will need better advice.

Lord Rupert Redesdale, who founded the All Party Climate Change Group twenty years ago, warned delegates about the challenges ahead: “Companies are setting net zero targets for themselves, but they won’t be able to get there by offsetting or carbon capture technology which is not available at scale.”

He advised the industry to focus on helping clients understand what’s needed to get to net zero and to advise them on selecting technologies that deliver on that.

And for those interested in predictions, Lord Redesdale suggested we may soon see nationalisation of the retail energy market. Given the ever-changing state of UK politics, anything seems possible.

Safety in the shadow of Grenfell

Perhaps the most significant panel discussion of the Conference was around the Building Safety Bill.

Arising as it does out of the Grenfell Tower fire, this legislation touches on technical competence and a moral imperative across the construction industry to do the right thing.

Gill Kernick, Transformation Director of Arup, spoke about the urgent need for everyone in the industry, from architects to consultants and installers, to take responsibility for safety. She said: “We need to think about what we do when commercial pressures force bad designs. Risks don’t live in contracts; they live in the real world.”

And CIBSE’s Technical Director Hywel Davies had a stern warning for anyone who thinks that the Building Safety Act won’t affect them or their work: “The Building Safety Act applies to every building that falls under the Building Act.”

The full effects of the new Act are yet to be felt.

By October 2023, there will be a raft of legislation on building safety, competence and related issues. The panel stressed that it’s vital for construction and building services professionals to be engaged with these changes – or be caught out.

So, stay alert seems to be the overriding message from this year’s conference.

Karen Fletcher is former editor of CIBSE Journal and Modern Building Services