Wednesday, June 15, 2022

They are not perfect, but we can work with the new building regs

Graeme Fox

Changes to the Building Regulations that come into force today can help the industry make buildings healthier and more comfortable while also reducing their carbon footprint, writes BESA’s head of technical Graeme Fox. 

The Building Regulations have never been perfect – far from it. Revisions are usually the result of several compromises and there is often too much wriggle room to properly establish the higher design and operational standards we would really like to see. 

However, the government deserves credit for performing something of a juggling act with the latest changes to try and balance energy/carbon reduction with improving the indoor environment to protect health, well-being, and productivity.  

It has also tried to raise the bar, and in the current climate, we should hope that these revisions will encourage a spirit of aiming higher than just what you can get away with to be compliant. 

BESA was able to interrogate key officials at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) when the changes were first announced, and it was clear that the pandemic had changed the focus on buildings. 

For example, they said that new ventilation requirements were deliberately prescriptive to prepare the country for future pandemics – and they would not compromise in that area in the search for greater energy efficiency. They said the overall strategy was for tighter fabric standards and air tightness, but with additional focus on systems that bring outside air into buildings. 

Revisions to Parts F and L of the Regulations were worked on in parallel to improve ventilation and tackle overheating while still cutting carbon emissions by 30% in new homes and by 27% in non-domestic buildings. A tricky balance has been struck. 

All new residential buildings, including care and children’s homes, and student accommodation, must also be designed to reduce overheating, thanks to the introduction of the new Part O. Changes to ventilation include making CO2 monitors compulsory and adding new standards for recirculating ventilation systems in offices. 

The government is bringing in three performance metrics today against which new non-domestic buildings will be measured: primary energy, a CO2 emissions target, and minimum standards for fabric and fixed building services. The introduction of a primary energy metric is designed to make the energy efficiency of each building a priority, regardless of the heat source.  

Heat emitters must also be designed to work with low temperature sources like heat pumps to make all buildings ‘zero carbon ready’ in preparation for the 2025 Future Homes Standard. 

Indoor air quality (IAQ) monitoring is now mandatory in offices and all recirculating ventilation systems must be capable of switching to ‘full fresh air’ mode when necessary to reduce the risk of disease transmission. Bathroom extract systems must have an ‘always on’ feature and trickle ventilators are also recommended in non-domestic buildings. The new guidance stipulates a recommended minimum air supply rate of 0.5 l/s.m². 

Tomorrow’s National Clean Air Day will be an opportunity to discuss the implications of these new requirements and ensure there is a focus on indoor air – so don’t miss BESA’s special webinar at 12 noon.  

Improved filtration is also a feature of the changes to Part F with a more frequent requirement for HEPA filters in systems that provide outside air. Officials told us this was designed to ensure air conditioning would still be widely specified for comfort reasons, but that there would now be greater focus on filtering the outside air supply to ensure we are better prepared for any future health emergencies. 

This reinforces the need for controlled airflows that reach every part of the occupied space to disperse the droplets as quickly as possible, which is very hard to achieve with natural ventilation alone.  Mechanical ventilation is also the most effective way of keeping relative humidity within the ‘sweet spot’ of between 40% and 60%, which is considered ideal for a range of health reasons.  

In short, today’s updates to the Building Regulations reflect many of the lessons we have learned about the importance of building ventilation during the pandemic, but can also help take us several steps further down the road towards net zero. 

Real progress will, of course, depend on the industry’s determination to use only competent people capable of turning good intentions into successful, practical solutions. This is something that remains a key focus for everyone here at BESA, which is why we continue to press the importance of using Competent Person Schemes as a vehicle for companies to be able to demonstrate competence and compliance whilst also avoiding costly and time-consuming building control visits.  

That is our job, but we should give credit to our colleagues in government who have listened to the industry and have been juggling away to get the right balance – and let’s embrace the new changes in the right spirit. 

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