January 26, 2021

Is the government just blowing hot air into the Future Homes Standard?

Mike Harrison, a structural and mechanical engineering sector specialist at R&D tax credit consultancy ForrestBrown, argues that the Government’s Future Homes Standard falls short in its environmental aims and won’t make a significant impact on Britain’s carbon emissions.

Buying a new home is never a simple affair in this country. Solicitors, estate agents, a seemingly endless bureaucratic maze filled with paperwork: there’s a lot of legwork that goes into putting a roof over your head.

Not quite satisfied with this toil alone, I took things one step further and designed and built my own eco-home. That is, a home that was as sustainable and environmentally friendly as possible.

As an engineer with a construction industry background, I certainly had a head start – but the process was still an eye-opener for me. Not just the construction phase. That part was hard graft, sure, but by far the biggest challenge was stitching all the elements of an eco-home together in a coherent way.

I realised it wasn’t about the individual technical components of my build, but rather that I needed to view a home as a complete “machine” in its own right to make it function properly.

Is it all just hot air?

This realisation is why I have my reservations about the Government’s recent pledge that by 2025, all new homes will be banned from installing gas boilers and will instead be heated by low-carbon alternatives. It’s admirable – but it fundamentally misunderstands how eco-friendly buildings are constructed.

The government’s proposed Future Homes Standard envisages a 31% reduction in CO2 emissions from new homes through improved insulation and more energy-efficient heating. It sees heat pumps playing a key role in this given that the energy efficiency of air and ground source heat pumps can be over 300%.   

Undoubtedly, the UK needs to embrace eco-friendly building and engineering practices if it wants to hit net zero emission by 2025 and meet the country’s demand for new housing. Indeed, we’ve lagged behind the standards set by countries such as Norway, Denmark and Germany for far too long.

The German standard of Passivhaus is the gold standard in eco-friendly housing. Some Passivhaus builds are so effectively insulated that they don’t require heating. Energy is only needed for core functions like lighting and appliances. It’s a glimpse of where we could go in future.

What’s needed in construction and in Government (and society at large) is to look at the building as a system. Even a one-bedroom dwelling is a rather complicated system. As seasons change, the system has to adapt and react to these changes.

But I’m concerned about how eco-homes (and eco-friendly construction more generally) are being thought about and discussed. Like an electric car, an eco-home might look the same but it will be fundamentally different under the bonnet.

Changing mindsets

Heat pumps are just one part of an eco-friendly home. It doesn’t go far enough when it comes to future-proofing buildings and the Government is missing a trick because a big stumbling block in building eco-homes is that regulations aren’t joined up enough to absorb new technologies.

Building my own eco-home showed to me that the way new homes are being constructed is broken from the bottom up. Regulations not being joined up or complied with. The result is buildings and homes that are not as coordinated or integrated as they should be.  

For example, the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) is well-meaning but adopts an unsuitable baseline meaning it fails to reward the most efficient designs, and crucially doesn’t address the system complex interdependency (and associated system uncertainties from an R&D perspective) of a complete modern house as it only focuses on individual aspects.

The focus shouldn’t just be on the heat pump or, say, triple glazing – they’re individual parts of a holistic project. We need to look at the entire build. 

We should think of the fabric of an eco-home in its entirety. This opens up a whole host of potential R&D opportunities for companies working across the supply chain – whether in the renewable sector, architects, fabricators, manufacturers, housebuilders and contractors.

The questions we must ask about eco-homes

For eco-housing to truly take off and for results to be consistent and readily replicated, it all needs to be modular, integrated and far simpler as a consequence. But, of course, making things easier and simpler is often quite complicated.

It’s not just a matter of brute force regulation. To start with, if planners had a proper grasp of the issues and had a more consistent approach with clear definitions for elements of design, this would certainly help. If construction firms are taking design risks, we need to ask why. If people are finding loopholes, why? Are the materials too expensive? Are the methods too laborious? Is the technology not well enough known?

Answering these questions are of vital importance to us as a society with a climate crisis looming in the coming years. The house is more than the sum of its parts. If we aren’t even getting the basics right –properly insulating floors to stop heat escaping downwards, for example – the Government’s pledge around heat pumps will be moot.

If we can’t get the bottom right, then what does that say about the home on top of it? But there’s great potential. In my role as an engineering sector specialist at ForrestBrown, I’m lucky enough to work with amazing businesses pushing the envelope in innovative, eco-friendly construction.

For example, one client has made a robotic brick building system, which not only has huge potential to get consistency of build and extremely efficient house building but can also help overcome certain labour skills shortages within the industry. 

It’s time to grasp the future

The Covid-19 pandemic is radically changing the way we use our homes – no longer are they just our houses; they are also our offices, schools and entertainment centre. Going forward, there’s one thing for certain – we will all be using our homes in a very different way than ever before.

Even before the pandemic, replacing boilers with heat pumps was never going to be enough alone to make a major environmental impact – not least because older properties were never built with new technologies in mind. Or perhaps that’s another great R&D opportunity, depending on your perspective.

So now, more than ever is the time for companies to drive innovation to deliver integrated systems within the home to ensure all the cogs in the machine mesh together. The future is exciting – we just need to seize it.

Mike Harrison, a structural and mechanical engineering sector specialist at R&D tax credit consultancy ForrestBrown