There are a range of means by which housebuilding and renovation could play a greater part in achieving climate change targets – but how can we incentivise the necessary investment?

Scotland has an ambitious target for net zero emissions of all greenhouse gases by 2045. According to the UK Green Building Council, 45% of total carbon dioxide emissions in Scotland are directly associated with the construction sector. As we plan to “Build Back Better” following the coronavirus pandemic, there is an opportunity for the construction industry to play a larger role in reaching this goal.

Policies and regulations to date have largely concentrated on energy demand, energy consumption and renewable energy. Newspaper headlines have been full of examples, including the ban on sales of petrol and diesel cars by 2030, gas and oil fired boilers being phased out, and consultations on low emissions zones in many Scottish cities, to name but a few.

In November, Levenmouth in Fife made the headlines as Ofgem awarded up to 18 million to SGN to build a hydrogen demonstration project in the town. A network will be built supplying up to 300 homes with 100% green hydrogen, allowing residents to heat their homes and cook their meals using zero carbon hydrogen. Construction is due to start this year.

The increase in smart homes which are controlled by technology is also playing a role – one in six owners control their homes by devices when they are out of their home, which reduces energy consumption by up to 30%.

Despite this, over 75% of the current building stock in the European Union is not performing to the necessary energy efficiency standard, and up to 85% of this stock will still be in use in 2050.

It has recently been reported that homeowners could face bills of up to 8,000 to eliminate emissions from heating alone, as fossil fuel boilers are phased out. Further cost may be incurred installing wall, loft and floor insulation and improving glazing. In short, Scotland’s existing building stock will require a massive overhaul at a considerable cost to increase its efficiency in coming years to keep up with legislative changes being made.

Costly upgrades

With such large costs being involved in renovating existing properties, we may see homeowners taking more of an interest in the materials used and the energy efficiency of the buildings they are purchasing.

A welcomed addition which may assist could be the building renovation passport. This document is an evolution of the energy performance certificate (“EPC”), which supports property owners with suggestions for renovation options. These options are generated from using data contained within the existing EPC, energy audits, information from the owner and automated data such as smart meters, etc. The output is a roadmap setting out renovation steps in a sensible order, helping homeowners understand the extent of the work needing to be completed and the value completing these works can provide.

Whilst potentially costly to homeowners, the retrofit project brings massive opportunities for the industry. There is an opportunity to the retrain the existing workforce and to provide further much needed jobs within the industry.

In November, the Prime Minister set out his “Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution”, which highlights the Government’s support for the construction industry through the green recovery. Up to 50,000 jobs will be created by 2030, with 1 billion being provided next year to make homes, schools and hospitals greener, warmer and more energy efficient. Will this be enough or will greater support for developers be required?

Housebuilding: who will commit?

Emissions of greenhouse gases are linked to all stages of a building’s lifecycle, including extraction and transportation of the materials, right through to disposal at the end of its life. The use of non-sustainable building materials is a huge contributor to the emission of greenhouse gases. Cement, widely used in the construction industry, is the source of approximately 8% of the world's carbon dioxide emissions.

Research is being carried out and innovative solutions are being created to try and find materials which will help lower carbon dioxide emissions in the industry. There are many examples, and one close to home is the K-Briq, a sustainable building brick made of 90% construction waste produced here in Scotland.

In self-build or smaller developments, some of these alternatives are already being used. This may be because generally, self-build customers place sustainability high on their list of requirements. Compared to those who buy a ready built house, they are more hands on from the start, with a greater say in the decisions about materials and building process.

However, there is often little uptake for these alternative solutions in larger scale developments. Developers can be reluctant to change business models to use these new, expensive materials. Contractors can be cautious about trying new untried alternatives. Furthermore, it is difficult to know how efficient these products truly are until the properties can be built and tested – a risk developers can’t afford to take.

Collaboration may help drive these solutions forward; however, it is likely that financial support and funding will be required to mainstream these solutions and make them affordable for developers to use more widely.

With the housebuilding industry driven by the demands of customers, and the growing desire for a more sustainable way of life, there may be a wider demand for more sustainable construction methods to be used. However, a challenge for the building industry will be balancing these sustainable desires against affordability and consumer cost expectations.

As climate change continues to climb higher on everyone’s agenda, will customers be willing to bear the financial burden to have an environmentally friendly home, and will the Government provide the much needed support to developers to allow changes to be implemented?

The Author

Natasha MacDonald is a senior solicitor in the Property division at Burness Paull

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