If you’ve listened to the arguments of climate protesters while stuck in a tailback somewhere on the M25 recently, you could be forgiven for thinking that the answer to reversing the effect of climate change is to simply bung another layer of insulation in the roof and turn the thermostat down a notch.
Disappointingly life isn’t quite as simple as that. But although their actions might frustrate, where organisations like Insulate Britain are correct is in their focus on the built environment to reduce its carbon footprint and help improve the UK’s environmental record.
It’s easy to understand why the activists are so cross. The numbers make for some pretty grim reading. According to the latest figures from the United Nations Environment Programme, the construction and building sector accounts for 38% of total global energy-related carbon dioxide emissions – or 9.95 gigatonnes of CO2.
To put that into some sort of perspective, if you rounded up all the land mammals in the world, excepting humans, and popped them on the bathroom scales they would weigh in at one gigatonne. Our built environment emits almost ten times that weight in carbon dioxide – each year.
The UK government is committed to reducing its carbon emissions to net zero by 2050 and has set some ambitious targets to hit along the way, notably a reduction of ‘at least’ 68% on 1990 levels by 2030 and 78% by 2035.
If the country is to get anywhere near those targets then the building and construction sector has to step up to the mark and begin to slash its emissions drastically, a task upon which it is becoming focused.
Industry bodies have developed initiatives that will endeavour to deliver real carbon savings. The Construction Leadership Council’s CO2nstructZero campaign is coordinating cross-sector activities with the shared goal of driving carbon out of construction.
Increasingly businesses across the industry boast some form of ‘Carbon Tsar’ with considerable clout at board level to instigate and investigate carbon reduction policies. Some might be difficult, even unpalatable, to introduce. Some may mean companies have to look longer-term when investing or change the way they work completely.
But however much change is feared, it is a nettle that needs to be grasped.
Introducing legislation to reduce carbon emissions piles huge pressure on the construction and built environment sector to deliver for the good of all.
For new-build projects – both residential and commercial – improved building performance can be introduced at the planning stages but the vast majority of the buildings that we will use in 2050 already exist. To bring them up to similar levels of energy efficiency is going to take a concerted effort across the industry.
There are 29 million dwellings in the UK with 4.4 million under the social housing umbrella and a further 4.9 million in the private rented sector (PRS). Social housing and PRS would seem the obvious areas to make the initial strides toward net zero carbon.
Indeed, all 33 of London’s local authorities recently announced the Retrofit London Housing Action Plan – a £98bn strategy to retrofit more than three million homes to an average Energy Performance Certificate rating of B (the second most efficient rating) by 2030.
This London plan and wider work across the country is a challenging task but not unmanageable says Vicky Fordham-Lewis, managing director of Osborne Property Services.
The firm offers a range of property services, maintenance and refurbishment schemes and looks after more than 60,000 homes across London and the south-east. It is well-versed in working on social housing refurbishment projects.
“There is no doubt that we can help bring existing buildings up to the standard expected of new homes but it is difficult to do,” says Fordham-Lewis. “We need to take a ‘whole house’ approach. That involves changing the heating system, introducing internal or external insulation, loft insulation and installing more efficient windows and doors.
“All of that is disruptive to occupiers. Even when we install new kitchens, we see 5-20% of occupiers decline the work. To have any success it is vital to open up a dialogue with occupiers well before projects begin, to help them understand the benefits – reduced heating costs, better health – of us carrying out the work,” she says.
That early engagement with occupiers should be driven by both customer and contractor. For Osborne this has meant the development of show homes to enable occupiers to come and experience for themselves how their post-project home could look and feel. The firm has also set up contacts with multiple online customer forums to help make sure occupiers have all the information required both pre- and post-installation.
“We need to make occupiers feel engaged in the process and that it is beneficial, rather than our work being an inconvenience,” says Fordham-Lewis.
She too has concerns over the number of skilled personnel available to carry out the amount of work that will be available and is an advocate of creating regional centres of excellence that provide the necessary skills required.
“The industry will need a workforce strategy that attracts people into the industry across multiple disciplines. That has to include the creation of apprenticeships for staff in all roles,” she says.
But the elephant in the room for refurbishment schemes involves those homes under private ownership. It can cost anything up to £80,000 to retrofit a home according to Fordham-Lewis, which leaves a question-mark over funding energy improvements for homeowners. Here the social housing sector acting as a bellwether could benefit owners by creating opportunities and continuation of supply, helping drive down costs.
“As the social sector embraces retrofitting then costs will fall, which could be of benefit to the rest of the market. But if we are to encourage wholesale improvements of our existing building stock then we need to look at ways in which we can encourage homeowners to take those steps toward making their own homes more energy -efficient,” she says.
Infrastructure, transport and civil engineering
The pipeline of work for the infrastructure sector looks extremely strong over the next few years. According to industry body the Civil Engineering Contractors Association (CECA) some £650bn is expected to be pumped into that pipeline by 2030.
With mega-projects such as HS2 and Hinkley Point C already underway it is important that the sector does its level best to mitigate some of its environmental impact.
But ultimately if the country wants to have a reliable, low-carbon mass-transport option that opens up routes for increased local passenger services and freight, or a renewable source of energy on a windless day, then difficult decisions have to be taken. You can’t make an omelette without breaking any eggs.
That doesn’t mean the sector is incapable of delivering on its zero-carbon promises, far from it according to Lara Young, group climate change director at Costain.
“Is delivering carbon neutrality on infrastructure projects feasible? Undoubtedly yes. But the pace at which the industry is moving toward it needs to accelerate significantly,” she says.
Young is an advocate of changing the nature of contractual relationships within the supply chain to deliver greater carbon efficiency. Apportioning financial incentives to hit carbon reduction targets might be one simple tool.
“We are trying to retrofit ‘zero carbon’ into current business models. There will need to be change if we are to accelerate carbon reduction. For example, most contractors are being asked to achieve targets but don’t necessarily have any financial incentive to do so – although we are starting to see those mechanisms being written into contracts now,” says Young.
She is an advocate of challenging all levels of the supply chain – clients included – to take a close look at their proposals and wherever possible offer solutions that are less carbon intensive. Costain has recently taken up the mantle by committing to provide clients with two possible values on all its tenders by 2023: a standard tender return and a ‘low carbon’ offering, giving them the clear opportunity to realise some of their own carbon reduction targets.
But longer-term plans should not be to the detriment of the easy wins that can be put in place immediately. “No one is an expert,” says Young. “We are all still learning but that shouldn’t prevent us implementing what we can do now.”
It is a viewpoint shared by Vanessa Hilton, head of carbon and environment at highway maintenance specialist FM Conway. “There are steps that businesses of all sizes – and even individuals – can take, no matter how seemingly insignificant. Every opportunity to reduce carbon emissions must be taken,” she says.
And that challenge has well and truly been accepted by the business. Among measures such as the use of ‘warm mix’ asphalt, recycled materials and energy- efficient asphalt batching plants, it has turned to pedal power for deliveries to sites in and around central London.
The firm has introduced two e-cargo bikes to its vehicle fleet and uses them to distribute materials, including bags of sand, cement, tools and boxes of fittings, to its gangs working on sites all around London. Each can carry loads of up to 250kg and is fitted with an electric power assist motor and GPS tracking.
The amount of carbon offset might not seem much at first glance but by reducing the need for two vans on the road, it soon stacks up.
“The carbon emission values associated to deliveries always rise in the last few miles,” says Hilton. “It’s where normally we would have 3.5-tonne vans carrying a relatively small load across the city. By replacing those vans with bikes we can dramatically reduce the carbon emissions associated with transporting materials to and from our sites.”
Cargo bikes may not be the answer for every business but in traffic-clogged city centres they do present another option for many.
You don’t have to be an environmental scientist to recognise that cutting emissions from plant and vehicle fleets can have a huge impact on the industry’s carbon footprint.
With companies moving toward all-electric or hybrid for their road vehicle fleet the pressure is on plant manufacturers and plant fleet managers to find lower-carbon alternatives for their on-site machines.
But it’s not quite as simple as swapping out diesel motors for electric.
“A large dozer will burn through a tonne of diesel a day,” explains Robin Powell, director at UK plant supplier Molson, “so the benefit of substituting fuel is obvious. The difficulty is in meeting the energy density requirements of large plant with fuel alternatives.
“Screens or shredders on a semi-permanent site have the capability to be ‘plugged in’ to the grid. They are incredibly efficient,” continues Powell. “But to power that dozer we would be looking at a battery that would need to be the size of two or three HGVs. Battery power for large plant is just not feasible yet.”
Powell breaks plant and tools down into three main areas: those fully electric machines that are capable of operating efficiently through a direct power source; smaller mini-excavators and hand-held tools that can happily run on batteries; and then “everything else”.
Presently that ‘everything else’ includes most of the larger machines that are most commonly used on construction sites on a day-to-day basis. And if electricity can’t meet requirements is there an alternative fuel that could?
“Hydrogen shows some promise. It works with the technology we have available at the moment but there are issues with storage and production. Realistically until alternative fuel technology catches up we need to look at using data to help us become more efficient with our fuel use,” says Powell.
He argues that if businesses sift through all the performance data available to them, it is possible to weed out inefficiencies, cut fuel use and improve carbon performance. It could also save them a fortune in fuel costs. He is such a supporter of the power of data to transform that he has the team at Molson working on a data portal that will allow fleet managers, owners and operators to view the efficiency of their machines – including carbon dioxide emissions – in real time.
This use of data to improve fleet efficiency is not lost on contractors. Costain is one that is looking hard at it.
“Plant emissions are a large proportion of our carbon footprint. We use electric or hybrid machines where possible but we are also using telemetry to make sure we are using our diesel engine machines as efficiently as we can,” says group climate change director Lara Young. “It has helped us identify hotspots such as machine idling – which we have reduced by 20% – and take action,” she explains.
Sitting alongside its carbon neutrality goal, the UK government has introduced new sets of building standards designed to improve the energy-efficiency of all new buildings.
The ‘Future Buildings Standard’ focuses on delivering ‘zero carbon ready’ energy-efficient non-domestic buildings while the ‘Future Home Standard’ demands similar for new-build homes.
Under the standards, developers must adopt lower-carbon heating alternatives from 2025 in all new-build homes, leaving natural gas boilers in the firing line.
Hydrogen is seen as having the greatest potential to work as a lower-carbon replacement fuel to natural gas and a raft of trials to assess the suitability of the existing gas network to carry hydrogen, as well as its suitability to fuel cookers and boilers efficiently, are already underway.
The H21 programme is a suite of projects that will look at the existing network’s potential. It builds on a 2016 feasibility study which used the city of Leeds as a model and highlighted the theoretical suitability of the gas to be used in the network.
Since then, further tests carried out on reclaimed cast-iron pipes and leakage tests on newly installed systems have confirmed those findings with further testing of a micro-network and hydrogen-specific appliances in test houses underway at a site in Cumbria.
Tests on a section of redundant Northern Gas Networks grid in Middlesbrough are set to precede full trials in the supply of hydrogen to around 50 homes on a public network, a trial that will eventually be widened to include several hundred.
Other studies are looking at the use of natural gas blended with hydrogen at differing percentages to reduce the immediate impact of natural gas use without impacting the effectiveness of appliances in existing homes. Around 650 homes in England’s north-east are due to be part of the testing regime.
According to Stella Matthews, hydrogen development manager at Northern Gas Networks, results so far have been positive and feedback suggests the public is ready to accept the new fuel – blended or not.
“We have held workshops with potential customers across the country and safety is not necessarily an issue for them – they trust us to deal with that side. Cost and disruption are their biggest concerns,” she says.
With roll out of hydrogen systems in some form likely over the next few years the onus will be on training up gas engineers and getting them certified for hydrogen installations.