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Will the changed energy efficiency rules help or hinder the push for zero carbon homes?

When the Part L 2013 pre-notification is announced later this month, will we see a transformation in the way houses are built in the UK, or will the road to zero carbon take a back seat? Stewart Milne Timber Systems group managing director Alex Goodfellow considers the options.

The government has recently restated its commitment to ensuring all new homes in England are zero carbon from 2016. The 2013 re-write of Part L – the section of the Building Regulations relating to the energy efficiency – should, in theory, be enforcing stricter criteria designed to bring the market a step closer to the zero carbon standard.

However, given the current climate there is a heated debate in the industry as to what should be decided.

The 2013 consultation will be the third of four planned revisions between 2007 and 2016 which, in the domestic arena, will implement the zero carbon homes standard (all new non-domestic buildings in England will be required to be built to zero carbon standards from 2019). The changes introduced in the 2013 consultation were originally intended to provide a stepping stone for the transition to zero carbon in 2016/19. Despite this, there are a number of results which may come from the consultation.

Firstly, in these difficult economic times it may be decided that we do nothing.

This would mean maintaining the criteria introduced to Part L in 2010 which may alleviate pressure on the industry in the short term, however this could present greater challenges in the longer term as the shift from 2010 standards to zero carbon in 2016 represents a much bigger leap.

Alternatively, we could proceed with the original Part L 2013 goals, which would require a further 25 percent reduction in carbon compared with existing 2010 standards.

These changes would also lead to the introduction of the Fabric Energy Efficiency Standard (Full FEES), to ensure the building envelope performance is not sacrificed in favour of renewable devices.

The FEES Standard encourages greater fabric performance through improvements to U-values; thermal bridging; air permeability and glazing, to help reduce energy and carbon demand from space heating. This approach is built into the fabric and an ever-lasting fit and forget, first principle solution.

The third option is to meet somewhere in the middle and go for an eight percent improvement on 2010 Part L regulations with Interim Fabric Energy Efficiency (Interim FEES). Similar to Full FEES, Interim FEES also allows for combinations of fabric specification to be applied in order to ensure a decent fabric performance is preserved.

However, as the Interim FEES criteria is less than that required for Full FEES, other adjustments to the design may be required, such as installation of low and zero carbon technologies. The Full FEES approach would easily meet full fabric first compliance.

The FEES approach to building encourages housebuilders to look at the building envelope design as the first priority. Making new homes as energy and carbon efficient, through a fabric first approach, is the first crucial step to reaching zero carbon, and one of the simplest and most cost effective routes, is through a fabric-first timber frame solution.

FEES compliance is something Stewart Milne Timber Systems is already championing as an integral part of our business. Timber is the only truly sustainable building material and one of the lowest embodied carbon raw materials around.

Inherently flexible, timber frame is a cost effective simple solution to the challenges of sustainable building delivering assured fabric performance and managing cash flow. Owing to the amount of offsite fabrication possible with timber frame, significant savings in both time and cost can be achieved using a timber build system.

Reduced site prelims, less material and labour waste, lower site and office overheads, improved productivity and reduced labour and supervision on site all save time and money.

Times are tough, but it is important we don’t let the zero carbon target slip. Regardless of the outcome of the 2013 Part L consultation, energy and carbon efficiency is an inevitable part of the future of housebuilding and, undoubtedly low carbon alternatives have a major role to play.

As an industry the onus is on us to find ways to develop homes cost effectively and to the highest standards, with built-in assured performance all the while being sustainable, desirable and affordable. Putting fabric first and creating a high performance, energy efficient structure is one way of doing that.

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