Reduce your bills through sustainable design – Why wait?

Senior architect, Tom McTernan, has put his thoughts together on the road map to achieving net zero and what the challenges and sacrifices are to lead to a cleaner and fresher world.

Data released earlier this month by the UK government showed that the average combined household gas and electricity bill is now £1,339 a year.

Events in Ukraine mean, of course, that this is only going one way, and that’s up.

Price being a powerful rationer of demand, it’s a fair assumption that households and businesses are now identifying ways to reduce their energy consumption. As far as new buildings are concerned, designing it out in the first place is the most sensible starting point.

One industry peer recently identified how a later living project designed to passivhaus principles can be lit and kept warm for a cost of just fifteen to thirty pounds a year for the tenants. With energy supply now at risk and a lag between an immediate need and the market’s ability to deliver more low-cost, low-carbon properties, the solution isn’t one for the short-term – but at least the market is gearing up to take the initiative.

There are other pull factors driving the supply of better designed buildings beyond the near-term imperative to save money. Funder and investor mandates mean that they are increasingly deeming developments without sufficient green/net zero credentials as unsuitable. After all, there’s their ESG commitments to consider, never mind wishing to avoid expensive retro-fit costs in the medium-term.

Building regulations part L are being updated to reduce carbon emissions by 32% in 2023 and 75% in 2025. Soon it will be compulsory that we seriously consider air source or ground source heat pumps in order to comply (which would alleviate the worry of external factors affecting the price of gas/oil).

PLC-grade occupiers, keen to reduce costs whilst burnishing their own profiles, are also increasingly demanding better carbon performance from their new buildings, be they offices or logistics hubs.

Powerful forces for change then – and a clear signal for the architecture professional that perhaps it’s time to take a lead in guiding clients towards meeting their net zero obligations earlier. After all, the construction industry accounts for 40 per cent of carbon emissions.

Encouragingly, these demand-side factors are starting to drive the industry to beat the legislative timescales being set in the UK. Liverpool wants to be net zero in 2040; Manchester by 2038, but we’re seeing clients seeking to deliver on those targets now, years ahead of the game.

In London, LETI (the London Energy Transformation Initiative) has pushed planning legislation to ensure all major projects undertake a whole life carbon assessment. Their guidance and targets are being adhered to by a number of local authorities, providing a roadmap for how to achieve net zero targets in as short a time-frame as possible.

The reputational kicking that befell M&S when it sought to demolish a perfectly good building on Oxford Street rather than retrofit it served as a stark warning for those who treat their carbon obligations lightly. Helpfully, of course, it put into sharp focus just how readily buildings lend themselves to retrofit when an entire supply chain’s grey matter is brought to the task. The calculations and designs shared freely on-line in response to people’s shock at such wastage demonstrated that the relevant consultants can quickly be mobilised to work in concert, delivering a ‘fabric first’ approach which considers glazing ratios, orientation, form factor, air tightness and reduction of thermal bridging as first principles.

But back to new-build. We should be designing robust buildings capable of lasting, whilst having a plan for them to be easily dismantled and re-used should the need arise. Quite whether contractors (or even architects!) are willing to share the cost risk of including new technologies and materials with the client remains to be seen. Who’ll jump first? That’s difficult to say when the pace of technological change can quickly render today’s leading-edge (and expensive) technology redundant relatively early in a new building’s lifecycle.

As a collective we need to scrutinize the Environmental Product Declaration of materials and hold the supply chain to account.

A cultural shift is required in terms of post-occupancy evaluation. One architectural practice, who carried out a POE exercise on a Sterling Prize-winning school, found that the predictions which had been based on building regs in 2014 under-estimated gas usage by a factor of 9 (yes, nine) and electricity consumption by a factor of three.

Needless to say, this emphasises how crucial it is that buildings are properly modelled (in terms of energy) at an early stage.  It is more sensible to look to how your building will comply in 2050 rather than with today’s standards, otherwise you risk a stagnant or even toxic asset, ignored by investment funds, shunned by end-users and perhaps even uninsurable.

This is a massive challenge and will take a number of sacrifices, however; by considering both embodied and operational carbon at the early stage, reviewing passivhaus principles and aspiring to achieve LETI targets – we could live in a cleaner and fresher world, and cheaper to run- why wait!

Tom McTernan, author