Recommendations on how to deliver net zero carbon emissions for heritage structures are contained in a new research report

The number of historic houses increases annually. In 2018, some 5.1 million homes, or 21% of all homes in England, were over 100 years old. Strategies for reaching the net zero target in the construction sector need to increase the energy performance of historic buildings while respecting the principles of conservation and taking advantage of digital technologies, contractual systems and procurement techniques that deliver improved value.

Roxana Vornicu

Evidence from Heritage Counts shows that by 2050 we can reduce the carbon emissions of historic buildings by over 60% through refurbishment and retrofit. Its study concluded: “A sustainable approach also requires us to look beyond the buildings themselves and consider the wider context of our built environment […]. A truly sustainable future for our precious historic environment must take a balanced approach that considers their value of our historic environment society, the economy and to the environment.”

In 2019, Historic England commissioned a scoping study from Carrig Conservation International to assess the whole-life carbon of historic buildings. It showed how energy efficiency could be improved through low carbon refurbishment and the use of digital technologies.

But making historic buildings energy efficient in ways that preserve their historic value and unique character cannot be achieved through traditional means of procurement.

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The Procuring Net Zero Carbon Construction report from the Society of Construction Law at King’s College London (KCL) shows the integrated approaches needed for delivering net zero outcomes and states clear recommendations that should be put in practice, including for historic buildings.

The report examines how clients, advisers and all construction sector organisations can use procurement and contracting systems to meet net zero carbon targets. It says an integrated approach to net zero construction procurement should adopt and connect the “four Is” of intention, information, integration and incentivisation:

  • Intention: How do clients and advisers establish an appropriate strategy for obtaining improved environmental value throughout the lifecycle of a construction project or programme of work?
  • Information: What information needs to be exchanged during the procurement process in order to help clients, advisers, consultants, contractors and supply chain members (including subcontractors, manufacturers, suppliers and operators) to understand each other’s positions and to reconcile their differing interests in ways that will achieve net zero outcomes?
  • Integration: How are relationships between clients, consultants, contractors and supply chain members integrated through contracts so as to ensure that exchanges of ideas, information and learning take place at the times when they will be of most value in achieving net zero outcomes?
  • Incentivisation: How will management motivate clients, consultants, contractors and supply chain members to honour their mutual commitments to achieve net zero outcomes?

The KCL report sets out recommendations and case studies designed to help deliver net zero carbon emissions for historic buildings through:

  • Client strategy and expectations: The construction procurement strategy should clearly state the client’s commitments to tackling climate change, to consider the building’s historic value and the ways in which the client expects these to be matched by commitments from the construction industry.
  • Team evaluation and bidder proposals: The system for selection of construction team members should use balanced evaluation criteria that consider net zero carbon proposals and strategies for heritage preservation.
  • Early supply chain involvement and preconstruction activities: Contractors and supply chain members should be appointed early during the pre-construction phase of a project on the basis of clear contractual systems through which they work with the client and consultants in developing and agreeing viable and affordable net zero carbon proposals in line with the client’s stated brief and budget, as preconditions to commencement of the construction phase of the project.
  • Long-term contracts and industry investment: The procurement strategy, team selection processes and construction contracts should make clear how the award of long-term contracts for pipelines of work will attract industry investments in net zero carbon innovations.
  • Specialists and supply chain collaboration: Clients, consultants and contractors should commit to contractual systems by which they explore systematically the best ways for specialist supply chain members to contribute their net zero carbon expertise and the best ways for local and regional supply chain members to offer a lower carbon footprint.
  • Contract governance and joint risk management: Clients should ensure that their construction contracts include a definition of sustainability that includes net zero carbon and describes systems of collaborative governance and joint risk management.
  • Framework alliances and shared learning: Clients, consultants, contractors and supply chain members should create multi-party “gold standard” framework alliances.
  • Whole-life procurement and digital information: Clients, consultants, contractors and supply chain members should agree and implement net zero carbon commitments to whole-life procurement through digital information management supported by a multi-party integrated information management contract that governs accurate exchanges of data in relation to design, cost, time, risk and operation.
  • Action plans and leadership: Clients and consultants should lead and manage the urgent implementation of net zero carbon objectives under new and existing construction contracts, including through the agreement of net zero carbon action plans with binding timetables.

Framework alliances can draw together the KCL recommendations for net zero procurement, based on findings from Constructing the Gold Standard, the 2021 review of public sector construction frameworks. Alliance features appear in a range of bespoke framework contracts, but the use of bespoke forms causes its own inefficiencies because they lack consistency and give rise to additional procurement costs and potential confusion for clients and industry. The only current standard framework alliance contract is the FAC-1 form published by the Association of Consultant Architects in 2016 and adopted on over £90bn of procurements so far.

Such frameworks can link net zero carbon objectives and heritage protection specifications to the measurement of performance. They can also state how performance measurement will recognise and reward the achievement of required net zero and heritage protection outcomes, including who evaluates performance, how feedback is shared and how it is used.

Roxana Vornicu is a research associate at King’s College London’s Centre of Construction Law and Dispute Resolution