Zero Carbon is Coming – one reason behind those increasing housing registration figures?

In December 2006, the UK Government announced that all new homes would be ‘zero carbon’ from 2016. This was, as many suggested at the time, a ground breaking commitment from the Government.  Some also considered this policy commitment an opportunity for innovation and green growth in a much beleaguered housebuilding industry.

With 8 years’ worth of hindsight, a housing crisis and 15 months of anticipation remaining, will 2016 really yield a step change in the way housebuilders design and produce new homes in England?

Policy Evolution or Regulatory Capture?

Anyone looking for a comprehensive overview of the podgy history of zero carbon housing policy will be disappointed.  I won’t be providing you with one here.  Requires far too much research.  And time.  I’m fast forwarding straight to the juicy stuff.

After much dilly-dallying, the Coalition Government produced its long awaited ‘clarification’ of zero carbon housing policy via the Queens Speech but with one important caveat, more commonly known as allowable solutions – that is, a ‘cost effective and flexible mechanism’ allowing housebuilders to meet the remainder of the zero carbon target through off-site carbon abatement measures.  A sort of offsite contribution equivalent to s106 affordable housing provision.  And there seems to me to be a fair few ways of abating those pesky extra carbon emissions.

So, whilst housebuilders have to mitigate, through various measures, all the carbon emissions produced on-site as a result of the regulated energy use (including energy used to provide space heating and cooling, hot water and fixed lighting, as outlined in Part L1A of the Building Regulations), this doesn’t need to be delivered via material alteration alone.  A very important moment for an industry so heavily reliant on standardised design and production practices to achieve success in the land market and required rates of return.  And, an opportunity for those previous claims of policy watering down to resurface.

Zero Carbon Policy and New Home Registrations

Rewind back to early 2014, when NHBC published its annual overview of new home registrations.  We saw noteworthy increases in the number of new home registrations across most regions in the UK in 2013 when compared to the previous year’s figures.

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Source: http://www.nhbc.co.uk/NewsandComment/Documents/filedownload,54854,en.pdf

Whilst this could be attributed to more positive market conditions, I suspect zero carbon policy has a role to play here…

Many housebuilders in 2012 and early 2013 were registering plots on 2010 building regulations.  Then came the announcement on 30th July 2013 of the proposed changes to Part L.  And a warning of the increased energy efficiency requirements that would come into effect on 6th April 2014.  Cue registration fever for housebuilders looking to avoid increasingly stringent, costly and poorly defined regulations.  Because that wouldn’t be so good in an already unstable housing market.  Bit risky.

Most housebuilders probably won’t be building to 2014 regulations by the time 2016 comes along and zero carbon compliance starts to bite. Which is, as one housebuilder I spoke to recently stated, a crazy situation because “…there’s going to have been no learning from current regulations before they up them again, because the transitional provisions are such that we’ve all registered thousands of plots under the old building regulations before the old cut-off date”.

A quick call to NHBC will tell you how many building plots have been registered under 2010 building regulations.  If you imagine how long it’s going to take housebuilders to build those homes, its likely there’s going to be very few 2014 building regulation houses built before they’re meant to be ‘doing zero carbon’ in 2016.

So that step change is quite high and there will be little if no learning on the way there.

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