The policy clues

There has been a flurry of recommendations about the future for heating, cooling and energy efficiency in our buildings. Hywel Davies considers how they might influence the review of Parts L and F of the Building Regulations

Last December, the government committed to review Parts L and F of the Building Regulations, and to look at regulating overheating. Since then, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has called for gas heating in new homes to be phased out by 2025 and the government has committed to a new ‘future homes standard’ from that date.

The Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) Select Committee published a critical report on energy efficiency standards, especially in new homes. And then the Climate Change Act was amended to set a target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

This summer, government consulted on ‘Building a Safer Future’ – its proposals to reform the overall system of building regulation in England, following Dame Judith Hackitt’s review after the Grenfell tragedy. It has issued a new version of Approved Document B (although it was, at the time of writing, temporarily withdrawn – see page 9 news) and introduced restrictions on the use of combustible materials in external walls of residential buildings over 18m high.

In early September, proposals were announced to require installation of sprinklers in such buildings, too. Members can participate in CIBSE’s response.

So, what might all this mean for the review of Parts L and F? There appears to be a clear commitment to improve standards of energy efficiency in new homes. This is important to reduce heating demand in homes to assist the transition to low-carbon heating systems, such as heat pumps. The review of Part F suggests that the link between energy efficiency, airtightness of new homes and ventilation will be addressed in any proposals, which is welcome.

It is not so clear what might happen to energy efficiency in new non-domestic buildings at this stage. Nor is there any indication what is planned to improve the energy efficiency of our existing building stock, whether domestic or commercial. This is a real ‘elephant in the room’ issue. Some 80% of the existing stock will still be in use in 2050, so we need a plan, and action, to reduce emissions from these buildings. It is not easy, which is why it has been ducked in previous reviews. But the problem is not subsiding: it gets more pressing.

Overheating in buildings will, if not addressed, cause 4,500 premature deaths per year by 2050

It is quite unclear what will be required in relation to overheating. This is perhaps of greatest concern. Europe experienced an unprecedented heatwave this summer, with the French health minister recently reporting that the 18 days of extreme heat in France led to around 1,500 premature deaths.

The Environmental Audit Committee was last year forthright in calling for Building Regulations to address overheating more effectively. This was reinforced earlier this year when the CCC progress report cited published peer-reviewed research from University College, London, suggesting that overheating in buildings will, if not addressed, cause some 4,500 premature deaths per year by 2050. Given the French experience this summer, that research needs to be taken seriously.

Current concerns about design, installation, compliance and enforcement that the Grenfell tragedy has so starkly exposed equally apply to other hazards as well as fire; they should include concern about the growing threat of premature death from overheating buildings.

Annex B of the ‘Building a Safer Future’ consultation indicates a total of 1,550 fires involving fatalities (in some cases more than one) over the seven-year period from October 2011 to September 2018.

If we do not address the very real-life safety issue of overheating, but continue to build new dwellings that are not adapted to the changing climate, then we are not building a safer future. So while we must recognise the need to address the fire safety issues that Grenfell and subsequent events have exposed, we must also heed the clear warnings of the CCC, EAC and others that we need to better adapt our buildings to the future climate too.

We should be doing this in parallel with reviewing Part B. We need to achieve building safety in the round, embracing all relevant hazards and addressing all the relevant disciplines, not just fire expertise. As the government reviews other parts of the Building Regulations beyond Part B, we need to consider how those reviews can contribute to building a truly safer future.

  • Dr Hywel Davies is technical director at CIBSE