The latest changes to Part L of the Building Regulations are welcome, but reinforce the impression that this government talks big on sustainability, but doesn’t always deliver

David Cameron

In May 2010, David Cameron pledged to make the coalition the “greenest government ever”. Since then we have seen many new policies which, on first reading, promise to push the UK with reasonable speed towards the much-trumpeted “low-carbon economy”. Central to the greening of the built environment is Part L of the Building Regulations. Some details of the latest revision - the much anticipated and very late “Part L 2013” - is now in the hands of the construction industry. Was it worth the wait?

There is no doubt that the carbon emissions targets are a step forward - albeit a small one. New homes will need to cut their carbon emissions to 6% below the previous standard - a smaller decrease than was originally proposed. The target for non-domestic buildings is 9% below the current regulations.

This goes some way towards achieving a zero-carbon built environment, but not far enough. Coupled with delays, it is a steep climb to meet the deadline of 2016 for homes and 2019 for non-domestic buildings. In the coming months, ahead of implementation in April 2014, suppliers to the construction industry, manufacturers, software developers, architects and engineers will join the three-year push towards developing viable technical solutions to meet the standards before the next revision in 2016. But this doesn’t mean we’re actually going to meet them anytime soon. Inevitably, many developments that have stalled will be able to carry on under the old regulations, so buildings designed to the old standards will continue to emerge for some time.

Furthermore, the design software needed to meet the regulations is not available yet and, when it is, it will no doubt go through a teething period while problems are ironed out. It could be 2013 before many new Part L schemes are on site. 

Looking at the detail, we welcome the full implementation of fabric efficiency factors for homes, which will hopefully discourage the over-specification of renewables as a quick but costly fix. At the same time, we are disappointed by the absence of ambition in the new regulations - particularly in relation to the lack of new standards for refurbishments and existing homes, which account for most UK emissions.

We are disappointed by the absence of ambition in the new regulations - particularly in relation to the lack of new standards for refurbishments and existing homes

Cost is another issue. According to the communities department, the small increase in construction costs required to achieve the latest Part L changes will be heavily outweighed by the resulting £384m net energy savings over an average building’s lifetime. However, the cost is borne by developers and contractors, and the savings accrued by homeowners and tenants - and there is little evidence that homeowners and tenants are willing to pay significantly more for sustainable buildings. 

The government’s solution includes measures such as the Green Deal and Carbon Reduction Commitment, which should make the implementation of energy-efficiency measures more viable. However at present, neither of these is delivering the carbon savings that were predicted at the outset. More attractive and long-term incentives are required.

For major developments, the deadlines for zero-carbon buildings are just around the corner and further delays or dilutions to the targets, such as those experienced with the Carbon Reduction Commitment, display energy certificates, feed-in tariffs and the Green Deal, will only hinder the industry further. The coalition is developing a reputation for making bold pronouncements about green growth, only to water down its ambitions when in policy.

As we creep out of recession, the construction industry is craving certainty to make long-term investments. The revisions to Part L may make for the “greenest Building Regulations ever”, but it’s all about degrees. The UK construction sector has a track record in adapting to new standards and methods. But it needs a government that is bold in its ambition and consistent in its execution.

Chris Birch is director of sustainability at Hilson Moran