The regulatory landscape is shifting in all directions, but some patterns can be picked out. Nick Jones identifies the major landmarks from our regulations round-up... and wonders how we’re going to pay for it all

So much of the regulatory landscape appears to be shifting right now. What are designers, developers and contractors to make of it all? What sort of patterns in the landscape start to emerge if you take a broad sweep of all the new codes, regulations and consultation proposals hovering on our horizon?

Trying to take a bird’s eye view of it all, we can start to spot some interesting themes.

First, there is a continuing emphasis for all new build on designing a more insulated and airtight fabric, with absolutely no sign of any let-up in the drive towards much higher thermal standards in 2010, 2013 and beyond. The recent consultation on the definition of zero carbon spelled it out and so will the forthcoming changes to SAP, Parts L and F. Most developers accept this is inevitable.

Closely linked to this is the second hint of what’s in store: an increasing scrutiny on as-built performance, and the standards of insulation, airtightness and energy efficiency being achieved in new buildings of all types compared to their design aspirations. The Heat and Energy Saving Strategy is just one that stresses the need for much better enforcement of Building Regulations.

This issue will also come to the fore because of the third major theme to emerge from recent regulatory changes and proposals – a focus on refurbishment and regeneration. In other words, existing building stock.

The government is trying to show that it’s got the message – in our attempts to meet ever more rigorous carbon targets, the energy-greedy nature of the UK’s existing stock is the biggest part of the problem.

Past attempts to apply Part L to existing buildings have had limited effect and many suspect the recommendations made in energy performance certificates are not being implemented by homeowners or landlords. We can expect further ideas in this area including the controversial “consequential improvements” to be written into future regulations to encourage improvements in the existing stock.

Unfortunately, most of the quick wins have probably been had already, including the activities from the Carbon Emissions Reduction Target (CERT) obligations on fuel suppliers which have led to an uptake in cavity wall insulation, loft top-ups and low-energy lightbulbs. The next level is the big retrofits such as external wall insulation and solar water heating. All are more expensive and harder to apply. Alternative individual heating systems such as ground-source heat pumps and biomass boilers are also hard to retrofit.

Thus we see a growing trend towards a “whole-house approach” to building improvements, where after a visit from an energy assessor all possible improvements are made at once, rather than just going for the cheap, easier options. These concepts underlie most of the recent government papers.

The government is trying to show it’s got the message – energy-greedy existing stock is the biggest part of the problem

Where’s the money?

The next round of government discussions will probably have to look more closely at funding for all these retrofits, especially given the scale of the job to be done just when business and consumers can afford it least.

The Community Energy Saving Programme idea could be a useful source of funds on large-scale housing refurbishments and redevelopments in targeted areas, but is more likely to increase the scope of existing initiatives than create new ones.

There will be continued channelling of funds towards the social housing sector. We might also see calls for incentives that reward a bit more frugality, for example by tariffs that rise in unit price the more energy we use instead of decreasing, although to some extent the market may do this for us since fuel costs will continue to go up and up so bring their own economic influences to bear.

The last major theme that we see coming is spelled out in letters 10 foot tall: district heating. Put crudely, pipes in the street bringing our central heating water from a low-carbon “energy centre” a mile or so away.

There are questions in the strategy proposals over the costs and risks of district heating systems (and CHP schemes), but councils are being set up as potential champions and this issue could have huge impacts on future planning, design and development.

For example, we are likely to see planning authorities including heat networks in their strategic infrastructure plans and greater pressure for builders to connect to them. There will be a big push towards communal heating systems at a building level (particularly flats and terraces), and at site or district scale. Who will be responsible for constructing this is a big question and it is likely that we will see the emergence of new utility companies specialising in this type of work.

These changes pose some technical challenges but these can be overcome. The bigger problems are social and cultural – the idea of paying for heat may be strange for people to understand. However, the biggest issue of all is cost – this will cost more, especially away from the high density housing. It just remains to be seen if this is an expense that ministers will be prepared to pay.