Carbon cutting. We know where we have to be, and when we have to arrive, but nobody is sure how we get there. Paul Morrell has the job of prospecting a route

The image of a pioneer setting out into the wilderness without a map must have been flashing through Lord Mandelson’s mind when he gave Paul Morrell, the government’s chief construction adviser, the job of coming up with a report on how the construction industry could contribute to the small matter of cutting carbon emissions by 80% by 2050.

Six months on, and the findings of Morrell’s low carbon construction innovation and growth team have just been published. On first reading, the new boy seems to have done a pretty decent job. The report is intelligently written and identifies the key issues that need tackling – it is not yet a roadmap, more a surveying operation of the unknown and potentially hazardous terrain before us.

This is reflected in the fact that the report makes a distinction between “propositions”, of which there are 18, and concrete “recommendations”, of which there is one – namely that we need a programme manager to plot a detailed course for the road ahead. In contrast to all the ambitious talk in government departments, this sounds like a sensible idea. Likewise, the propositions emanate good sense. How easy they are to achieve if and when they become firm proposals , is another matter. One, for example, promotes integrated teams, an idea that has been knocking around since the Latham report of 1994, but is rarely seen in the field today. Below, we pull out eight of the suggestions in the report and assess how tricky they will be to negotiate.

1 Finding a navigator

"The government should commission a programme manager to prepare a detailed execution plan for the physical work assumed in the UK Low Carbon Transition Plan”

Morrell’s only actual recommendation to the government at this stage is to appoint a “suitably qualified” individual to prepare a detailed execution strategy for the transition plan. This would include scheduling the introduction of regulations, incentives and penalties so they are most effective.

It’s not hard to see why this receives so much emphasis in the report: if they are introduced too late, the measures would put us on the wrong trajectory to cut carbon by the target dates; if they are introduced too soon, they will catch businesses unprepared. There will also be a need to co-ordinate measures across departments so that companies and policing authorities can implement the changes.

Morrell’s own appointment in many ways serves as a model for this role. It was a condition of his employment that he would have ready access to government departments, and for the appointment of a programme manager to work, it would need the same privilege. The fact that the government finally created Morrell’s position after years of industry lobbying is an encouraging sign, but the jury is still out on how much sway his position – and any others like it – will have within the government.

Difficulty of achieving the goal 2/5

2 Taking a whole-life view of carbon

"As soon as a sufficiently rigorous assessment system is in place, the Treasury should introduce into the Green Book a requirement to conduct a whole-life carbon appraisal, and this should be factored into feasibility studies on the basis of a realistic price for carbon and become a matter of confirmation through the Office of Government Commerce Gateway process”

According to Morrell, carbon emissions from the built environment should include the embodied energy of the design process, the materials in a building, the construction process and the in-use emissions. This should be calculated according to a rigorous methodology and incorporated into the Green Book, the Treasury bible for the costs of public sector procurement. This could then be used to calculate the likely lifetime carbon emissions of a building and would be reviewed when projects go through the Office of Government Commerce Gateway process, a mandatory, independent review of the likelihood of the success of the process.

Taking a whole-life approach to carbon emissions is obviously the right thing to do, and embedding it in the public sector procurement process should make it easier to make informed choices. But coming up with the methodology won’t be straightforward – there isn’t a standardised method for measuring embodied carbon and creating one is fraught with difficulty. For example, is aluminium greener if it is smelted using hydroelectric power rather than coal? And how is the carbon content of that aluminium measured when its is recycled?

Also, the industry desperately needs to know how well low energy buildings actually perform in practice, a point addressed in the final proposition, overleaf. Then there is the challenge of embedding this in public sector procurement …

Difficulty rating 2/5

3 Using public guinea pigs

"The government should, in the short and medium term, consider the potential for the procurement of all publicly funded construction programmes to be used as test beds for the transformation of the industry and its products towards a low carbon outcome”

It’s a well-known principle that demand from clients forces suppliers to up their game: however, with public spending about to be slashed, the biggest test of the government’s commitment to a low-carbon agenda will be whether it will pay to be a guinea pig for low-carbon buildings before they become as cheap as higher carbon counterparts. Public sector projects including the Olympics have been praised by Morrell for their exploration of low-carbon design and materials; however, his report suggests that the public sector’s commitment to such strategies is “patchy”.

The requirement for all public buildings to display a certificate highlighting its energy rating is helping to encourage a greener attitude from government. Unfortunately, the evidence from the downturn suggests that in cost-cutting exercises sustainability is one of the first areas to be hit. This was seen in the publicly funded Learning and Skills Council college building programme: once the programme ran out of funds, colleges were encouraged to make changes by scaling back on their green ambitions.

Difficulty rating 3/5

4 Pursuing the holy grail

"The industry, working through a collaborative forum such as Constructing Excellence or the Strategic Forum for Construction, should produce a tighter definition of precisely how an integrated supply chain should come together, what the gains would be, and how the client’s position could be protected against cost increases resulting from a lack of competitive tension”

This, of course, is the holy grail of construction procurement – ever since Latham and Egan put pen to their respective reports in the nineties, a plethora of well-meaning industry bodies such as Constructing Excellence and study groups have tried and failed to get the principles of integrated working adopted in the industry.

However, a survey of about 1,000 construction professionals by Constructing Excellence last year found that only about 10% had seen the benefits of integration since the Egan agenda was established. Morrell’s secondary aim – to have integrated teams work on prototype proposals for zero-carbon buildings – may well attract interest, but the problem remains how to lift such projects out of the realm of exemplars and into mainstream industry practice.

Difficulty rating 4/5

5 Tackling existing homes

"An ‘Existing Homes Low Carbon Hub’ should be put in place to provide the leadership for the industry to start planning for delivery [of low carbon existing homes]”

One sizeable impasse on the road to 2050 comes in the form of 26 million existing homes. These need an investment of £200bn to bring them up to scratch, a problem that’s exacerbated by the fact that 70% are in private hands. The challenge for the government is coming up with a cost-effective way of doing up these homes without it being totally uneconomic and disruptive for owner-occupiers, landlords and tenants. It is in the industry’s interest to identify the best solutions, acquire the skills to do all this work and find the best delivery mechanism, whether this is individually or street by street, using the influence of the zero-carbon hub. A mixture of regulations and incentives is also needed to get people to make the improvements.

The Zero Carbon Hub has been very successful in working with the government on devising ways to deliver zero-carbon homes. It is a group of industry experts who pull together best practice guidance, identify and advise on skills and raise awareness among consumers. It also researches and determines targets such as the minimum energy efficiency target for new homes and is working on what off-site solutions should be allowed to count towards the definition of a zero-carbon home.

Setting up an equivalent for existing homes is an excellent idea and shouldn’t be difficult to do, especially considering the communities and business and innovation departments are already making noises about setting up a retrofit consortium.

Difficulty rating 1/5

6 Taking a local approach

"Each local authority should be tasked to produce a renewable energy strategy and stock audit that considers new developments together with existing buildings, with a view to providing the opportunity to deliver energy and heat solutions for both”

One of the biggest hurdles when it comes to establishing a district heating or energy network is finding the right mix of buildings to make use of the low energy supply of hot water and electricity. For example, housing requires a lot of heating, whereas most offices need cooling. In an ideal world, you would build the offices that need to reject heat close to housing or a swimming pools so they can make use of it.

This, of course, is easier said than done, but it’s not insurmountable. The Greater London Authority has created a “heat map” of the capital that marks the heat load in any given area, enabling developers to assess the feasibility of installing a district heating system as part of a new development.

There is also a strong argument for local authorities to take the lead by making public sector buildings connect to existing or planned community heat and power networks as they would provide an “anchor load” of demand. This in turn would remove some of the risk and encourage private investors to fund such systems. Schemes such as the Pimlico District Heating Undertaking – which was set up to serve the Churchill Gardens Estate as long ago as 1950 and is now used across the district – have shown that, once established, these networks can expand and flourish.

Difficulty rating 2/5

7 Bringing the costs down

"A number of integrated teams should develop a proposal for a suitable building type, with a view to showing how, given the right procurement and contractual arrangements, a zero or close to zero-carbon building could be constructed for the same price as a building built only to current Building Regulations”

Morrell rightly points out that cost is a big barrier to delivering low and zero-carbon buildings. Contractual and procurement arrangements can go some way to bringing costs down, but the kit is still expensive. How easy is it to change that? In some cases it is possible to build low carbon buildings for not much more than the cost of ones built to the present Building Regulations, and if the energy savings are factored in then it should work out cheaper.

Going for zero carbon homes is expensive, up to 50% more so than meeting base Building Regulations, because the power needed for appliances must be generated in the home. Offices and factories could cost anything from 10-120% more, depending on how energy intensive the process inside the building is. In time the costs should come down as demand increases and renewable energy becomes cheaper.

Another difficulty is that it takes specialist expertise to deliver cheap, low-carbon buildings, which is a barrier to adoption. Another barrier is that cutting emissions by using a third-party energy supplier to operate and run a CHP plant is complicated. In time this should become standard practice, and as energy regulations get tougher it will, de facto, become cheaper.

Difficulty rating 3/5

8 Bringing back post-occupancy audits

“The possibility of reintroducing a programme of independently conducted, properly funded published audits of buildings’ energy performance by comparison with their design criteria should be explored”

How will the industry be able to design high-performance low-energy buildings if it doesn’t know how well they perform once operational? If they are not up to scratch, is it because they are badly designed, badly built or operated in a cack-handed way? Morrell says we need rigorous post-occupancy studies along the lines of the Post-occupancy Review Of Buildings and their Engineering (Probe) studies that were carried out in the nineties. Armed with these, the industry would be in a much better position to learn from any mistakes.

Herein lies the problem – the reason there is such a paucity of post-occupancy data is because no client or project team wants to be associated with a mistake. But Probe proves it is possible, and recently the industry has woken up to the need for such data. Constructing Excellence, for example, makes it a condition that this is provided for its demonstration projects.

Difficulty rating 1/5