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OPINION - Upgrade existing building stock and reduce carbon emissions

Much of the UK’s existing building stock predates modern energy standards. Patrick Bellew of Atelier Ten, a company which has pioneered environmental innovations, suggests that a National Infrastructure Project is needed to tackle waste and inefficiency in the built environment and significantly reduce UK carbon emissions.

Whenever energy use in the UK built environment is discussed you will invariably hear some familiar statistics – that the existing building estate in the UK accounts for 40% of the carbon emissions in the UK and that 80% of buildings in existence now will still be there in 20 years’ time because buildings, particularly the houses and apartments that dominate UK real estate, tend not to be demolished and replaced. These stats highlight unnecessarily large numbers and inefficiencies in the built environment that need to be addressed.

Patrick Bellew

Patrick Bellew

With very few exceptions, we know how to retrofit or modify buildings and systems to greatly improve energy efficiency through insulation, high performance glazing, LED lighting replacements and so on, and yet the pace of change remains extraordinarily slow. There are well-documented reasons for this – the inertia of disparate ownership, the large amount of rented accommodation (where the owner is not responsible for the energy bills) and the reality that the economics of energy savings through individual building upgrades do not represent the true cost to the UK economy once infrastructure upgrades to meet increasing demand are taken into account.

Reports and studies by authorities, from McKinsey’s global greenhouse gas abatement curve to the government’s own panel on climate change, are unanimous that these relatively simple measures represent the lowest cost route to reducing UK energy demand and carbon emissions.

So why isn’t energy efficiency retrofitting and renewable energy installation treated as a national infrastructure project? In addition to the energy and environmental gains, in the short to medium term this would be a sure-fire way to generate training and secure productive jobs for semi-skilled and skilled labour – quickly accessed and mobilised, and widely spread geographically across the UK. With five to seven million lofts and four to five million cavity walls to insulate along with seven to eight million solid walls there would seem to be enough work to support an industry – roughly 40,000 lofts per month between now and 2030 to clear the backlog.

Prior to 2012, in the domestic sector the Carbon Emission Reduction Commitment (CERT) and Community Energy Saving Programme (CESP) were relatively successful in implementing emission-reducing retrofits to residential buildings at zero or close to zero cost to owners.

Since 2012, and changes to funding structures when CERT and CESP were replaced by the Green Deal and Energy Company Obligations (ECOs), much of the momentum has gone out of the retrofit programme and capacity and many jobs have been lost in the industry as a result. In the early part of 2013, the Committee on Climate Change panel reported a 60% reduction in loft insulation projects compared to 2012 under the previous funding mechanisms. The current government at the same time is winding back its commitment to renewable energy projects in a move that is seriously damaging the previously burgeoning solar energy market.

The Green Deal grew out of a very logical idea brought forward by the construction industry through the UK Green Building Council that promoted BIOGRAPHY

Patrick J Bellew RDI FREng is the founding director of Atelier Ten, which has pioneered environmental innovations in the built environment. He is one of the UK’s Royal Designers and is a Chartered Building Services Engineer with more than 30 years’ experience in the design of high performance buildings and systems. He was one of the founders of the UK-Green Building Council in 2007 and a member of the Task Force that established the Sustainable Training and Education Programme training programme in 2010.

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