Building to perform

Pressure is growing to make our existing building stock much more energy efficient, to guard against overheating, and to deliver buildings that are safe and really work in daily use, as Hywel Davies explains

The Better Buildings Partnership recently announced a partnership to develop a UK version of Nabers.1 ‘Design for Performance’ aims to do just that: target design of buildings that deliver the designed performance. It is an alternative to the current ‘design for compliance’ culture, which is only concerned with meeting the minimum requirements of the Building Regulations, and disregards the performance of the building after handover, when Building Regulations cease to have a legal locus.

This culture was identified in the review of Building Regulations and fire safety by Dame Judith Hackitt, who described it as a race to the bottom.

Meanwhile, the government has enacted legislative change to the carbon emissions reduction target set in the Climate Change Act 2008, so the UK is now committed to a target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050.2 It is one thing to have a target and to generate positive headlines for changing the law; it is quite another to have a clear plan for delivering the target.

The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) said as much in its 2019 report on the government’s progress towards the 2050 objectives, which makes for uncomfortable reading.3 After last year’s ‘could do better’ on progress towards tangible, measurable delivery, the 2019 version is close to ‘couldn’t do much worse’. Only one of 25 specific recommendations from last year has been met.

Lord Deben, mildly outspoken chair of the committee, likened the government’s approach to climate change to ‘Dad’s Army’. Baroness Brown went on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme and outlined in more detail what needs to happen. If we are to meet out climate targets, we need more buildings that are designed to perform effectively. Not just energy efficiently, but meeting user and occupier requirements, and not overheating. And not just new buildings, but across the existing stock, too.

It’s not just the CCC that thinks this. Just days after its report, the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Select Committee issued its report, ‘Energy efficiency: building towards net zero4, which calls for: public disclosure of operational energy in the commercial sector; publication of audits undertaken for the Energy Savings Opportunity Scheme; and a commercial equivalent of the Future Homes Standard, with equal ambition for world-leading efficiency levels.

Meanwhile, the industry grapples with the Building a Safer Future consultation5, proposing significant change in the regulation of what we build, how we build, who builds, and how it is operated. Its call for design to target safety in operation, not just compliance at practical completion, complements and extends ‘Design for Performance’ – what performance characteristic is more important than safety?

The new structure is unclear, but it looks set to separate regulation from enforcement

There are proposals for contractors and designers of higher-rise buildings in which people sleep to sign a declaration that what they have built meets the regulations, and to provide a digital model of what they have actually built, identifying all significant changes to the approved design and agreed products.

In addition, they will make these declarations and models for a newly established regulatory body, not just local building control or approved inspectors.

More radically, existing buildings falling within the scope of the new regime will require a licence from the new regulator to show they are safe to occupy, with a safety case for continued operation, to be reviewed by the regulator every five years. It’s about management for safe performance – and with concerns over health impacts of overheating buildings, that is a safety issue.6

This new regulator poses a challenge. It goes way beyond anything we have currently, and will need considerable resource that knows the regulations, understands how to build things that comply, and that can recognise a building that still complies years later.

It will need people who can approve designs, as required by the new Gateway 2, and decide whether to give a building safety licence at Gateway 3, when the building is handed over and certified as safe to occupy (not just ‘practically complete’).

While the new structure is unclear, it looks set to separate regulation from enforcement, with a good number of building control professionals working in the new regulatory body. What is crystal clear is that this new system needs more competent building control professionals, not fewer, to support designing for safe operation and delivering satisfactory performance through the life of the building.

It will also need to cover existing buildings – and, with the emphasis on cutting emissions, and the risks of overheating, it will need to be fully competent in the energy efficiency aspects of the regulations, so that local authorities can deliver the enforcement for which the CCC, as well as Dame Judith and the select committee, are calling.

It requires the building control profession to step up and serve society even more effectively, in whatever roles the new legislation gives them.

Lord Deben and the CCC are very clear that – if we are to deliver the changes in our built environment that Dame Judith, the CCC and the select committee identify – we must adopt a ‘Design for Performance’ approach, to deliver buildings that are safe for occupants and for our climate, throughout their working life.

It is also clear that these reforms require significant private investment. Government needs to define a programme that inspires investor confidence and not undermine effective existing business models. The Future Homes Standard promises ‘world-leading levels of energy efficiency’. We need a regulator to deliver world-class building performance.


  1. National Australian Built Environment Rating System 
  2. Law for net zero emissions begins passage through parliament, Minister of State Chris Skidmore, House of Commons speech, June 2019.
  3. Reducing UK emissions – 2019 Progress Report to Parliament, CCC, July 2019; Progress in preparing for climate change – 2019 Progress Report to Parliament, CCC, July 2019.
  4. Energy efficiency: building towards net zero, BEIS, July 2019.
  5. Building a safer future: proposals for reform of the building safety regulatory system, June 2019.
  6. Kovats, R S, and Osborn, D, (2016) UK Climate Change Risk Assessment Evidence Report: chapter 5 – People and the built environment.

Hywel Davies is technical director at CIBSE