Experience has shown that the carbon savings that are promised in design can fail to materialise in the finished building. The task we face now is to identify where we’re failing, find practical tools to help, and take responsibility for the outcome

A new, tougher age of carbon accountability is about to dawn. There are several forces at work, in particular, the arrival of a new government focused on enforcing responsibilities, and rising concerns about compliance with Building Regulations, coupled with the trend for mandatory carbon targets in procurement programmes. Also, there will be new requirements for display energy certificates in commercial buildings and, crucially, the Energy Efficiency Scheme league tables are due in just over a year.

Add to this financial pressures on every building owner faced with increasing energy prices and a desperate need to claw back what money they can. The writing is on the wall and it spells: penalties.

A bit alarmist, you might say. Except that the problem for our industry is that, despite our Herculean efforts, far too often the buildings we design are still failing to live up to their carbon promises.

We have all seen studies of buildings like Portcullis House, the MPs’ £240m office building which consumed almost five times the energy it was designed to, making it A-rated in theory, but G-rated in practice. There are bound to be many more post-occupancy reports that tell a similar story. Carbon Buzz, the RIBA/Chartered Institute of Building Services Engineers project that shares anonymous data on building design and operational energy use, already confirms a significant gap for nearly every building sector, especially education, retail, residential, offices and health.

Welcome to the Performance Gap, buildings that consume far more energy in operation than was promised in design.

I have already heard of PFI contractors fighting fines or picking up the tab for a project’s unexpectedly high fuel bills. But the penalties are much more than financial and reputational. When the Performance Gap appears it’s usually a failure we must live with for 50 years or more, a reminder that our efforts to tackle climate change are still not good enough.
So where are the problems and what can we do about it?

There’s no single group at fault. Over-complex specification of building systems doesn’t help, that’s for sure. But the biggest issue is still probably our failure to work constructively through the issues that matter and talk openly about the new shared responsibilities that come from innovation. To avoid the gap, we must all work more effectively from a much earlier stage, and continue that partnership through every stage of commissioning, construction and handover.

There are practical tools that can help - and not just design tools. For example, Soft Landings is an excellent initiative which aims to ensure designers and builders stay involved with the building beyond practical completion, helping the client during the first months of operation and beyond to understand how to control and best use their building.

Another approach that helps my team is called Dream (Demand Risk Evaluation and Mitigation), which we originally developed for use on the £4.5m redevelopment of the Roden Rehoming Centre for the Dogs Trust.

Dream allows Inbuilt’s team to identify, track and monitor potential risks and the effectiveness of the mitigation strategies from day one right through to the end of the client handover process, and beyond. Tackling the Performance Gap is not just something that just happens at design stage. All architects think about energy demand risks from the outset - that’s not the issue.

The gap appears because throughout the process new issues crop up, new partners join the development team, new demands and decisions are made. What is needed is a methodical, analytical approach to identify, monitor and manage the risks at every stage.

The training that happens before we hand over a building to the client is also critically important. The facilities management team and occupants need to know how to manage the control systems and get the reports they need from the powerful metering and monitoring systems at their service.

In this new age of accountability, we need such attention to detail and longer-term risk management and monitoring. It will save the blushes and bank balances of anyone commercially affected by the Performance Gap, including owner-occupiers, contractors working on procurement programmes such as Building Schools for the Future, green-lease landlords, housing associations and registered social landlords.

Get it right and we will save time and money by reducing redesign, recommissioning and remedial works. We will make a stronger and more lasting impact on cutting carbon emissions. We will meet all the new regulations and achieve the comfort and health benefits that come from real sustainability.

That’s a positive result for which we should all be happy to be held accountable.

David Strong is chief executive at low-energy consultant Inbuilt