If anyone did have any lingering doubts about the government’s determination to reform the construction industry and its supporting specialist sectors; then a flurry of initiatives and strong statements in January would surely have dispelled them once and for all.
The industry has a history of ‘seeing off’ previous attempts at reform going back several decades, but this time it feels different. The appointment of a building products regulator has added to the pace of change set by the Hackitt Review and even the quirky use of the word “beautiful” to characterise future developments shows commitment to root and branch reform.
The Housing Minister Robert Jenrick concluded a busy January by reinforcing earlier proposals for planning reform to include a requirement that housing developments reflect the character of their local area with local communities given the power to reject schemes on aesthetic grounds.
A new Office for Place will advise local authorities and make it easier for them to reflect what they might consider “ugly” schemes that fail to improve the “health and wellbeing” of occupants and harm the local environment. The Office will be supported by a new design guide providing a checklist of principles that should be adopted by all councils.
Don’t be fooled by the use of the word “beauty”, which has been adopted as a result of the findings of the Building Beautiful Commission that reported last year. This is all about better quality – getting away from the poor and partially designed; from shoddy workmanship and the corners that were cut leading to many “outright unsafe” schemes, in Jenrick’s words.
That announcement came hot on the heels of the news that the Future Homes Standard had evolved into a Future Buildings Standard and will set ambitious new performance targets for both residential and commercial buildings from 2025. Significantly, the new standard includes plans for non-domestic buildings to be subject to improved ventilation requirements and monitoring of indoor air quality (IAQ) to make them better equipped to deal with future health challenges as a result of lessons learned during the current pandemic.
New homes will be required to achieve 75-80% lower carbon emissions than current levels and be “zero carbon ready” by 2025; and even homes built this year will have to achieve a 31% reduction in carbon footprint compared with the levels set in 2013 by the last revision of the building regulations.
Existing homes will also be targeted. Any extensions or major repairs will have to meet a number of low carbon targets including improvements to windows and insulation as well as the installation of heat pumps and other energy efficient technologies.
All of this is part of “interim” building regulations designed to help the industry prepare for the 2025 regime.
The implications for BESA members are profound. The role of mechanical ventilation is now getting the recognition it deserves. The new regulations will specifically focus on improving air change rates in all types of buildings while also insisting on the use of mechanical ventilation with heat recovery systems in homes to ensure good air quality can be achieved without driving up energy use.
The standard, which is being developed in tandem with revisions to Parts F and L of the building regulations, will also set out to tackle the growing problem of buildings overheating. This will be one of the sector’s key challenges in the years and decades ahead. It is responsible for almost 2,000 deaths every year in the UK, which is expected to rise to over 7,000 by the middle of this century due to climate change, according to government figures.
In responding to the consultation findings, the government noted the need for additional cooling capacity, ventilation and indoor air quality (IAQ) monitoring in high-risk commercial buildings such as offices buildings and gyms.
This is one of the most important lessons our policy makers have learned during the pandemic. The advice given to increase ventilation rates to tackle viral loads was simply not possible for many building managers because their systems were already at full capacity. In future, commercial buildings will be required to have an additional 50% capacity available that can be called into action when needed.
These measures represent a concerted attempt to drive up building quality right across the board and is happening in tandem with the ‘green industrial revolution’ launched by the Prime Minister and backed by £12bn in government investment, which could create up to 250,000 new jobs.
Decarbonising the heating and cooling sectors sits at the heart of this 10-point plan, which includes a pledge to tackle energy efficiency in hospitals, schools, and other public buildings through the £1bn Public Sector Decarbonisation Scheme.
The Green Homes Grant for homeowners has now been extended by a year until March 2022, but the Construction Leadership Council wants to go further and is calling for a national education programme to persuade the British public to spend £525bn on home improvements. This would need an additional 500,000 people to join the industry’s workforce – doubling the present numbers over the next 20 years.
The biggest hospital building programme in a generation is also underway including six confirmed major projects worth £2.7 billion due to be delivered by 2025. The government’s Health Infrastructure Plan aims to use more standardised design elements and make use of modular construction methods to speed up delivery. Eventually, the plan is to deliver another 30 new much needed hospitals over the next decade.
And over at the Department of Education (DfE), the tender process has begun for its £7 billion school building programme to be delivered over the next decade. More than £1 billion is to be released shortly to fund the first 50 projects with construction due to start in September.
All of which promises exciting economic opportunities for the building engineering sector; from the creation of ‘green’ jobs to being instrumental in tackling the climate crisis. The Covid-19 pandemic has also taught us some important technical lessons that we can use to improve the health and well-being of all building users.
The way building services supports critical infrastructure is now more widely understood and the part played particularly by ventilation in tacking virus transmission means our engineers are now regarded as having a vital healthcare role because they are instrumental in helping suppress the spread of infection.
However, with opportunity comes responsibility and our industry’s competence and compliance will be under scrutiny like never before. This unprecedented focus on the built environment is not just about delivering enormous volumes of work and driving the economic recovery, it is also all about improving quality right across the sector to root out the poor practices highlighted by the Hackitt Review and opened up to shaming scrutiny by the Grenfell Tower public inquiry.
The government seems determined to show its teeth and provide better enforcement of standards leaving no hiding place for corner cutters. It could certainly help its own cause by speeding up a resolution to the cladding safety issue that has left thousands of people trapped in unsafe and unsaleable homes – the current situation is not doing its credibility any favours.
It is going to be a challenging time between now and 2025, but that challenge is long overdue and is wholeheartedly welcomed by BESA and its members.