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Leading recovery with a healthy built environment

Politicians, consumer groups and engineers all agree that the UK’s successful recovery from the pandemic will depend on a concerted effort to improve all aspects of our built environment.

All the economic indicators are pointing in the right direction as the country starts to see light at the end of the lockdown tunnel. For our industry, it is a time of unprecedented opportunity and challenge.
The Construction Products Association has forecast a 13% increase in construction activity this year and steady improvements in the following years. And when Boris Johnson reset the country’s emission reduction goals during last month’s Earth Day, he set every built environment professional a major target.

Cutting emissions by 78% by 2035 (compared with 1990 levels) is a significant step up from the government's earlier position of a 68% reduction by 2030 en route to net zero by 2050. What makes this latest government pronouncement different from those of the past is that the new target is about to be enshrined in law as part of the Environment Bill, which gives it additional policy impetus.

Buildings are responsible for more than 40% of total UK emissions – so the challenge is clear – and there are several specific targets for the built environment in the proposals, which were first laid out by the Climate Change Committee in its Sixth Carbon Budget recommendations. These include wider deployment of low carbon heating solutions, better re-use of building materials, and higher standards of insulation.

Big and shiny
The Committee recognised that delivering net zero is not all about big, shiny infrastructure projects and huge amounts of renewables. With 80% of the buildings that will be in use in 2050 already built, getting back to basics like energy efficiency will be critical.

This puts added pressure on the government to announce a fully funded national programme of building retrofits and to be more ambitious with energy efficiency targets in the current revisions to the building regulations and the planned Future Buildings Standard.

We have already had Minimum Energy Efficiency Standards (MEES) since 2018, which make it illegal for landlords to rent out commercial properties on new lease agreements with an Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) rating below E. From April 2023, MEES will apply to all privately rented property, making it an offence to continue to let a commercial space with an F or G rating even in during a lease period.

The penalty for non-compliance is based on the property’s rateable value and can be as much as £150,000. That is quite an incentive for property owners to set about improving the performance of their buildings. It should lead to the modernisation of heating and cooling in thousands of rented buildings including the addition of more sophisticated, but easy to use, control systems to help occupants manage their building’s performance better.

The digitalisation of systems more generally will have to accelerate, and the government has made specific spending pledges to help companies use data more effectively to tackle the impacts of climate change and help support the creation of new ‘green’ jobs.

 

The Construction Leadership Council (CLC) believes the industry’s workforce will have to grow by 800,000 people by 2050 to keep pace with government net zero targets. That sounds daunting, but in the wake of the pandemic there is a huge opportunity to encourage people to move into the green skills sector, including building services. There is likely to be a significant transition of people from areas like retail, which have been hit hard and will not recover to the same extent as engineering and construction.

We will still have to make our industry more appealing to a younger and more diverse demographic and advertise the fact that they can make a real difference by joining us. We need to shout about our role in delivering net zero and tackling the climate crisis, but we should also stress that we have an even wider social role to play.

While pushing hard for energy efficiency and better all-round performance, we must also ensure buildings become healthier. That means delivering high standards of indoor air quality (IAQ) – particularly in light of the lessons learned during the pandemic about airborne transmission of diseases.

This is already having a radical impact on how building ventilation is regarded – something that was largely invisible to the general public in the past – and opening up significant investment in filtration, air cleaning and better methods for ensuring adequate air change rates in line with advice issued by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE).

Ventilation rates
Professor Cath Noakes, one of the two engineer members of SAGE, which has been advising the government during the pandemic, says it is not as simple as increasing ventilation rates in buildings to mitigate transmission of the Covid-19 virus and other health threats.

The Leeds University professor says that bespoke solutions will be needed to deal with the wide range of factors in each indoor space and long-term solutions depend on collaboration between engineers, researchers, and policy makers.

“This is a very complex issue, and it will take years to build up the amount of data needed to make sure we can do this better. However, as a rule of thumb we should aim for [air change rates of] 10 litres per second (l/s) per person and CO2 concentrations below 800 parts per million.”

She confirmed that studies had shown the risk was higher indoors when ventilation provided less than 3 l/s per person and that household transmission was a particular concern. She also explained that the virus thrived in cool, dry and dark conditions – so controlling relative humidity should also be considered.

The industry will also have to find ways of proving it is delivering the ventilation performance required in buildings and demonstrate its compliance with higher standards that will emerge including the revised Part F of the Building Regulations. Commercial buildings are already being targeted to ensure they have more ventilation capacity in readiness for the next potential health emergency.

 

Ventilation solutions will also be challenged to remain effective when buildings become more airtight to reduce heat and energy losses. It is much easier to measure energy performance than ventilation effectiveness – so there will have to be much more measuring and monitoring of air quality to ensure we get that balance right.

And everyone in our industry has just had a timely reminder of why this work is so important and that it has all too real social consequences.

Philip Barlow was the south London coroner who presided over the inquest into the death of nine-year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah, which was directly linked to air pollution. In his subsequent Prevention of Future Deaths report last month, he called for new legally enforceable lower air pollution limits in line with World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines to prevent as many as 40,000 excess deaths in the UK every year.

Ella developed acute asthma and is the first person in the world to have air pollution listed on her death certificate. Barlow said she had been exposed to nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter (PM) pollution well above WHO guidelines – primarily from traffic close to her home and school.

Harmful
Currently, UK limits on some harmful particulates are twice as high as those recommended by the WHO.

“The evidence at the inquest was that there is no safe level for particulate matter and that the WHO guidelines should be seen as minimum requirements,” said Barlow. “Legally binding targets based on WHO guidelines would reduce the number of deaths from air pollution in the UK.”

The pandemic was a wake up call on many fronts, but not least for our industry on how we deliver indoor environments that meet our aspirations for a healthier and lower carbon future. The Prime Minister has moved the goalposts, but that does not mean his new target cannot be achieved.

Our industry can play a major part and it is up to our skilled professionals to design, build and operate truly future-proof buildings that not only contribute to a lower carbon future, but also help to protect people, particularly the most vulnerable, from the worsening effects of indoor and outdoor air pollution.

Who wouldn’t want to work in an industry that is setting out to do all that?