Terry Keech says it’s time to end the disconnect between ‘intended performance’ and ‘actual performance’ of low carbon technologies installed in social housing


Having worked within the M&E sector for 25 years, I have seen first-hand the gap between “intended performance” and ”actual performance” of low carbon technologies. It’s these challenges that led me to my recent Professional Doctorate (PrD) thesis into the barriers of achieving low carbon social housing, with my research qualifying fundamental failings at planning, main contractor and commissioning phases.

A significant finding from the research was a lack of buy-in from the supply chain. In most instances, the low carbon technology selected at the local authority planning stage was specified due to planner’s preference, expediency of assessment or simply cost; rarely for the benefit of the development.

This ‘tick box’ approach has been a key contributor to a disconnect between the technology and the installation, with a lack of buy-in, knowledge or trust in the technology from the outset of the project, with main contractors deferring responsibility to sub-contractors through a lack of understanding of operation leading to weakness in the level and quality of the install.

‘We need to create and embrace a structured and mutually agreed process throughout planning, installation and commissioning with all project stakeholders’

Appointed via tender, the subcontractor is trusted to ‘deliver’ what is asked of them in line with the Employer’s Requirements Document. With little emphasis on performance, the work is deemed acceptable if the installation is completed on time and on budget.

My study revealed that 67% of contractors and 83% of designers agreed that monitoring installation is the least common activity undertaken on site. With little monitoring, the performance of new technologies lacks the priority to achieve current and sustained ‘real world’ energy and carbon reductions. It is this lack of priority and fundimential understanding of performance criteria that is another contributory factor to the performance gap.

The current EPC process does nothing to counter this. With certifications awarded on theoretical modelling and inadequate legislation to ensure effective commissioning, the reported Dwelling Emission Rates (DER) and Target Emission Rates (TER) rarely correlate with the real performance levels of the property.

Only 29% of those questioned thought commissioning was carried out effectively on site, with 68% believing that the commissioning process was not fit for purpose. And while this appears to be common knowledge within the industry, I saw no desire to challenge the status quo. Main and subcontractors are appointed to ensure ‘successful delivery’, not ‘successful performance’. In a highly competitive market – and with subcontractors appointed on perceived market value – companies are focusing on gaining new contracts and, as long as they are seen as delivering what they were appointed to do, there is no motivation to spend extra time and money undertaking performance commissioning, if their competitors aren’t.

So where do we go from here?

To close the gap, we need to create and embrace a structured and mutually agreed process throughout planning, installation and commissioning with all project stakeholders. This process would see ‘actual performance’ made a mandatory standard that can be tested, and more importantly, validated.

With 88% of those surveyed having no qualifications in low carbon technologies, it is clear that the industry is undereducated in this area, with learning fragmented due to the short-term nature of construction projects. A contractual emphasis on ‘actual performance’ would therefore also create a compulsion within the industry to educate and upskill, so that we are not merely playing lip service to low carbon homes – but actually delivering them.