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George Clarke looks at some of the challenges the nation faces on the way to 2050

In January I wrote a ‘Part 1’ HUB article about the ‘Challenges for a renewable air-source heat pump (ASHP) future for UK homeowners, with the intention of making my February article a ‘Part 2’ about housebuilders, developers, landlords and commercial property owners.

However, a published letter from The House of Lords Environment and Climate Change Committee (which described the government’s Boiler Upgrade Scheme as ‘seriously failing’) had to take priority in February.

So, the ‘Part 2’ was postponed to this month

…sorry for the delay.

Greener buildings, low-running costs and happier occupants is surely a win, win, win situation.

George Clarke George Clarke Architect, writer, TV presenter and Ecodan Ambassador

The private sector

Let’s start with private landlords.

Currently there is no legislation to force private landlords to replace their old, existing gas boilers with a renewable energy heating system.

Just over 4.4 million households live in privately rented homes in England, the equivalent of 19 per cent of all households.

When you think about it, that is a massive amount of housing stock.

The boiler upgrade scheme exists to try and ‘encourage’ landlords to make the switch to air-source heat pumps by 2035, but they can currently keep working gas boilers past this date.

If we are serious about a zero-carbon future then this absolutely has to change, but its not a straightforward transition at all.

Many rental properties (particularly apartments) just don’t have the outside space for the ASHP unit to be installed. Also, far too many rental properties are poorly insulated with too many draughts to the point that an ASHP may struggle to heat the home properly. This huge issue has to be tackled first.

A million miles away

Unfortunately, the government are a million miles away from addressing this problem.

There is a ‘DECENT HOMES STANDARD’ for the Social Rented sector, but at the moment there is no Decent Homes Standard for the private rented sector.

The government are looking to change this and have recently gone out to consultation on the issue, but with 21% of Private Rental Sector homes being classified as ‘non-decent’ and 12% being classified as ‘Housing Health and Safety Rating Category 1’ (which represents a “serious and immediate risk to a person’s health and safety”) then this massive problem has to be tackled and fast. (figures recently published by the English Housing Survey)  

It is frankly ridiculous for the government to make grand announcements on a zero-carbon future, but not act quickly and decisively on some of the poor conditions in our private rental housing stock. 

One idea would be to have an national ‘Home Building Fabric Upgrade Scheme’ (that actually works and that isn’t burdened by red-tape!) backed by strong ‘Home Improvement Legislation for All Existing Homes’, while coming up with innovative solutions with industry on how to provide low-carbon (ideally zero-carbon) heating to existing flats and apartments. 

Shared networks

HEATING NETWORKS and SHARED HEATING SYSTEMS need to be developed for apartment blocks, so individual gas boilers can be removed from each apartment and replaced with a green and sustainable communal heating system.

Unfortunately, when it comes to upgrading the country’s existing housing stock the wheels of government are far too slow and are taking far too long to work out the right direction to travel and that is just not good enough.

It is a fact that the home-building and home-retrofit industry is reluctant to significant change, so tougher legislation is needed if the government has any chance of hitting its own zero-carbon targets.

How we balance tougher legislation for better quality, energy efficient rental properties with increased material and construction costs, high inflation as well as the lack of a large-scale, highly-skilled workforce to efficiently eco-retrofit existing buildings is a massive challenge for government and the industry.

But, we cannot shy away from it.

The end of gas

We’ve discussed in previous HUB articles that the government has banned gas heating for all new build homes from 2025, although I do find it head-shakingly ridiculous that they chose not to ban gas hobs for cooking in new-build homes at the same time.

Maybe this will come about naturally when gas boilers for heating are banned. But, there are absolutely no plans to phase out gas boilers in existing homes, which for me, is nuts.

Also, there is no requirement for property developers who refurbish existing homes or convert existing buildings into homes to move away from using gas boilers to more ecological and sustainable forms of heating.

Surely, if any existing homes are being developed and refurbished by property developers to the current building regulations, then there should be a statutory requirement from them to move away from gas-boilers!

Retro-fitting our existing buildings to be low or zero carbon is one of the biggest challenges he UK faces.

Green commercial spaces

With commercial buildings things are actually looking more positive.

There is a growing demand from companies who want the commercial spaces they rent to be more green and energy efficient.

There are ESG (Environmental, Social, Governance) related factors where many companies now have very strong corporate environmental values and are willing to pay for it.

Many corporate organisations (the ones who can afford it!) are often happy to pay a rental premium to have their workforce in greener buildings.

There is also some evidence to suggest that very well-designed, green buildings have a very positive effect on the happiness and wellbeing of staff.

Greener buildings, low-running costs and a happier workforce is surely a win, win, win situation.

Adopting a long-term view

Established organisations who build their own commercial buildings for them to occupy for many years definitely taking a long-term approach to making the ‘home’ of their employees more ecological.

They see the long-term value in the investment they are making to make their buildings green.

One building that springs to mind is the New York Times HQ designed by Renzo Piano and completed in 2007. The intelligent building managements system and innovative technologies adopted (such as the responsive lighting systems) means the building when built was 70% more efficient than New York’s building codes, saving the company millions of dollars in annual running costs.

But, a company building its own ‘home’ is similar to a family ‘self-building’ their own domestic home.

Owner/occupiers in both commercial or residential self-build projects often go way beyond the building regulations and are willing to invest far more in their ‘homes’ to be green.

The challenge is to convince landlords o do the same.

Raising the EPC standard

A commercial landlord who owns a commercial building to rent out to a tenant is now coming under pressure to make their building more ecological.

A new report by commercial real estate agent, Colliers, claims that around 10% of London’s office space has an EPC rating of ‘F’ or ‘G’ making it potentially unusable and un-rentable when new MEES (Minimum Energy Efficiency Standards) come into effect this year.

The report also states that there is a genuine appetite from tenants for sympathetically refurbished buildings that benefit from low carbon technologies and energy management tools.

Tenants are genuinely willing to pay higher rents if they know their energy running costs are being significantly reduced.

Commercial office space landlords should be seeing the ecological retrofit of their buildings as being a fantastic opportunity to create more demand and more income, rather than being a burden.              

On all fronts Government, industry, property developers, private landlords and commercial landlords need to be working closely together to create a zero-carbon future.

George Clarke is an Architect, writer, TV presenter and Ecodan Ambassador