British building regulations need to tighten up so we build better and healthier buildings

Will Kirkman BW

UK building regulations are stuck in a ‘time warp’, according to Dame Judith Hackitt, a conclusion mirrored by the recent Committee on Climate Change report which found UK homes are not fit for the future.

The report pointed out that greenhouse gas emission reductions from UK housing have stalled and efforts to adapt the housing stock, for higher temperatures, flooding and water scarcity, are falling far behind the increase in risk from the changing climate.

It states the quality, design and use of homes across the UK must be improved to address the challenges of climate change. Doing so will also improve the health and wellbeing for occupants.

The way new homes are built and existing homes retrofitted often falls short of design standards.

Greater levels of inspection, firmer penalties for non-compliance and closely-monitored performance are needed. Closing the energy use performance gap could save between £70 and £260 in energy bills per household year.

Only a few decades ago, building inspectors worked for local councils. However, Thatcher’s government privatised the building control profession in an attempt to free up the planning process.

The change created competition for staff and, crucially, a ‘competition of interpretation’ – an incentive to help builders cut corners. Developers were able to choose their own inspector and some began to offer both design and inspection services. This created what Hackitt refers to as a ‘race to the bottom’.

This significant leeway afforded room for interpretation in compliance, leading to a range of ‘compliant’ outcomes with the clear tendency to only meet the minimum standards.

This resulted in a well-evidenced performance gap. In some cases, buildings designed to meet thermal performance standards are consuming in excess of 70-100% more energy than the values predicted. The latest government data shows 12% of homes built in 2018 were rated EPC C and 7% rated D or below.

Existing regulations do not set an adequate base level of performance. Instead, they facilitate the delivery of poor quality buildings and, more worryingly, this is accounting for poor workmanship and design which are not accommodated within building regulations.

Where do existing building regulations fail to drive performance?

  • Build quality
  • Indoor air quality
  • Occupant health
  • Occupant comfort
  • Overheating
  • Good design
  • Toxicity of products (except in ground)
  • Breathability – i.e. the capacity of a building top self-regulate moisture
  • Embodied energy (carbon)
  • Noise especially in domestic dwellings (except for some minor elements)
  • Renewables
  • Water efficiency
  • Condensation risk analysis
  • Cold bridging
  • Material choice
  • Material recycling and recycled content

UK building regulations contain 14 individual approved documents which ‘contain the rules for building work in new and altered buildings to make them safe and accessible and limit waste and environmental damage’. They do not guarantee quality or performance. Too often, building regulations are described, used and promoted as a benchmark. The presumption is they provide a performance guarantee – they don’t.

With UK building standards significantly below many of our European neighbours, builders wishing to benchmark higher quality, low-carbon, healthier buildings turn to continental certification schemes.

Building to a specification which achieves the CCC report’s aims is not cost-prohibitive. With the lack of indigenous UK regulations accounting for health, a number of European standards are becoming widely adopted. These systems, such as Passiv Haus, have been identified by the UKGBC as key components to deliver our sustainable, low-carbon future.

Building a home which is both energy efficient and promotes high indoor air quality is well beyond UK building regulations. This is where Nordic countries lead the way – monitoring and measuring indoor air quality.

In 1978, a framework by the Nordic Committee included – in its standard guidelines – a regulation for indoor air quality. As part of this, all buildings must have mechanical ventilation.

It’s not enough to simply rely on the construction industry to choose health. Regulations should act to drive behaviour to ensure the UK is delivering healthy, low-carbon and high quality buildings.

Existing regulations will not deliver on the government’s performance ambitions. Comprehensive changes need to be made to the way we build – including the regulatory framework, design and material choices if we are to meet these ambitious targets.

A change in regulations is fundamental but we also need to understand the context of change and be ready to make choices based on a different set of values. Our future health and wellbeing rely on us to act now.

Will Kirkman is managing director at Ecomerchant