When analysing how to make our buildings more energy efficient, we should start with the materials used to build them, says Steve Wharton, housing manager at Modern Masonry

MPA Masonry_Steve Wharton

Geopolitical ructions in eastern Europe have highlighted how fragile the energy supply chain is. While we have made significant progress in our efforts to transition to renewables, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has thrown our continued dependence on fossil fuels, particularly natural gas, under the spotlight.

It is widely accepted that utility bills will increase significantly from spring 2022, and this is going to hit the pockets of homeowners, renters and landlords hard – not to mention UK business and industry.

It is therefore vital that we look where we can, and fast, to mitigate the situation’s impact. Here the residential construction sector has a vital role to play.

While retrofitting our existing stock will prove a sizeable challenge, housebuilders and developers can certainly look at future starts, revaluating approaches and carefully considering where efficiencies can be made, to help reduce waste and drive down energy consumption.

A fabric-first approach needs to become the standard mantra for any new residential project

A large array of low-energy, technology-backed solutions certainly exist to regulate power output and use, but I think this is jumping the gun a bit when it comes to delivering more efficient, higher-performance homes. The fundamental first port of call should be the material composition of the building itself.

To this end, a fabric-first approach needs to become the standard mantra for any new residential project. The Future Homes Standard has been clear in this aim, and, while the target for sector-wide adoption by 2025 is not far off, I think the current circumstances should bring this date forward.

Thankfully, achieving this much-desired nationwide scenario of high thermal performance, low U-value homes has been accelerated by the early introduction of part L in the autumn of last year.

With a requirement that all future houses achieve a U-value of 0.18 watts per square metre per degree Kelvin (W/m2k) or lower, this should become a primary goal for developers regardless of size.

With correct specification and construction, this should not be a hard figure to achieve, particularly when using a cavity wall system, which any quality housebuilder should be familiar with. Of course, leaving a 50mm cavity and using the latest high-performance insulation boards can further help to guarantee a low score and reduce the likelihood of thermal bridging.

So, there is really little excuse not to aim for 0.18 W/m2k and, where it is not attainable through the structural fabric, developers should be looking at making efficiencies elsewhere, such as through PV panels or natural HVAC.

Of course, the system specified needs to take location into account to achieve optimal performance, and housebuilders should consider a fabric-first approach against local, climatic and meteorological conditions. For example, a build on the west coast of England will require a different approach to one in drier parts of the country such as East Anglia when aiming to deliver part L requirements.

We want to help housebuilders and developers to realise this low U-value, high-efficiency landscape as soon as possible

While the industry still some way to go in terms of universally adopting a fabric-first mind-set, I believe we are not far off. Major developers such as Barratt have made impressive strides and estates such as Delamare Park in Frome, Somerset, are setting a benchmark as far as the Future Homes Standard is concerned. This is good news for buyers and renters alike, who will achieve better value from their properties.

Here at MPA Masonry, we want to help housebuilders and developers to realise this low U-value, high-efficiency landscape as soon as possible. Over the next few weeks, my colleagues and I will be reaching out across the sector to gain a better understanding of the challenges faced and how our members can better help achieve part L requirements.

As fuel and energy prices rocket, it will be in everyone’s interest to achieve homes which can add value by structurally reducing the already high cost of living.

Steve Wharton is housing manager at MPA Masonry