We’ve come a long way since Ecobuild was launched 10 years ago and today the industry is altogether more savvy about zero carbon. But now, says Paul King, something even more ambitious is called for - and our very lives depend on it

Paul King

There is a shared pride among the people who attended the first Ecobuild 10 years ago - a real sense of “I was there when it all started.” It was certainly a bit different back then. Exhibition stands in their tens, visitors in their hundreds rather than the tens of thousands that stream through the doors of London’s Excel now. There is also a nostalgia for the days of hessian jackets and sandals worn with socks, as opposed to the suits and boots of today. Ten years ago, for the most part, environmentalists and businesses still eyed one another warily, and the building company that embraced its social and environmental responsibility was still something of a novelty.

But it’s equally true that there was an awful lot of green nonsense or “eco-bling” back then. Spurious claims abounded - some naive, some just plain cynical, and for the most part the market was divided into the deeply committed and downright disingenuous.

And then the government got in on the act. Deputy PM John Prescott led the charge with a cross-departmental sustainable construction summit, but in time it would be Yvette Cooper who would launch the Code for Sustainable Homes and with it the world-leading ambition for zero carbon homes. For the first time the housebuilding industry was given a clear view of the forthcoming changes to Part L - in 2010, 2013 and 2016, and they were so grateful for that clarity that they signed up to the eye-watering 2016 target with a remarkable degree of enthusiasm.

Suddenly the wider industry sat up and took notice. The government was serious about this green stuff. Product manufacturers and builders could invest and innovate on the back of that kind of regulatory trajectory, and they did, in their droves. Realising that stuffing a bit more insulation into a wall, or applying a bit more mastic to fill the gaps wasn’t going to cut it when it came to zero carbon, they went back to the drawing board. Ecobuild became the Crystal Palace of its day, the Great Exhibition where new products could be found and sold, and fortunes could be made in the name of green building.
The UK Green Building Council was born on the crest of this wave. It grew rapidly from around 30 founding members at the launch at Ecobuild 2007, to several hundred in little over a year. From product manufacturers, to architects, engineers, contractors, developers, investors, lawyers and utility companies, green suddenly went mainstream. And the first project the UK-GBC undertook led to the recommendation for the government to regulate for zero carbon non-domestic buildings in a decade. Within three months Gordon Brown stood up in the House of Commons and made that commitment for 2019.

Ecobuild became the Crystal Palace of its day, the great exhibition where new products could be found and sold and fortunes made

Fast forward to February 2014. It’s been a rocky road to zero carbon, but we are getting ever nearer. Sweett has just produced a report showing the costs have halved in the last two years, and are a fraction of estimates back in 2006. At the same time, the Code for Sustainable Homes is heading for the scrap heap. Odd, because a decade ago the industry was bemoaning the fact that it had no consistent standard to work to. But undoubtedly there is a case for rationalising the mass of standards that have grown up and spread in the fertile soil of sustainability.

Government has proved something of a fair weather friend in all this. Feed-in tariffs that transformed the solar market suddenly turned from feast to famine and saw new investors head for the hills, though the prices of solar panels have continued to tumble. As I remarked to climate minister Greg Barker recently, the Green Deal, had it been a child, would have been taken into care before its first birthday, such has been the abuse and bullying it has received over its formative months, and its bigger cousin, ECO, has been beaten up in the midst of playground politics over the price of energy bills. A year to the day after announcing that the most competitive economies in Europe would be the greenest and most energy efficient, David Cameron boasted of “slashing 80,000 pages of environmental guidance”. So the industry has had to make the most of mixed messages at best, and disastrous investment decisions that have cost people their jobs at worst.

And now the floods are upon us, Biblical in scale. Wherever you stand on the debate about climate change, one thing is irrefutable. When we look forward to 2050 we know that over 80% of the buildings we’ll be living and working in then will be the same ones we’re living and working in today. Are they fit for purpose in the mid-21st century? Are they energy efficient, and resilient against flood risk? For the most part, certainly not. There is an unprecedented challenge ahead of us, and it’s called Re-building Britain 2050. Whether you will be more motivated by risk, reputation or reward, we all know it’s the right and only thing to do. There is an urgent need for this industry to come together, to collaborate, innovate and to scale up solutions for a sustainable built environment. We need to get on with it, as though our lives and businesses depended on it.

Paul King is chief executive of the UK Green Building Council