Analysis: The return of green housebuilding policy

Almost five years after the Code for Sustainable Homes was ended, sustainable housebuilding is back on the government's policy agenda, writes Josephine Smit.

Code for Sustainable Homes level 5 homes developed by housebuilder Hill at Athena, in Eddington, the neighbourhood being created by the University of Cambridge in north west Cambridge (PIC Hill)
Code for Sustainable Homes level 5 homes developed by housebuilder Hill at Athena, in Eddington, the neighbourhood being created by the University of Cambridge in north west Cambridge (PIC Hill)

This autumn’s party conference season has seen both Conservative and Labour making commitments to greener building. At the Labour Party conference delegates backed a green new deal targeting net zero emissions by 2030, including a programme to retrofit social and council housing and public buildings. At the Conservative Party conference, housing secretary Robert Jenrick reaffirmed the government’s commitment to a planned Future Homes Standard for England. "No new home will be built in the country from 2025 without low carbon heating and the highest levels of energy efficiency," he said.

The housing secretary’s speech was followed by the first moves towards making that happen, with the launch of a consultation on changes to Part L of the building regulations, governing conservation of fuel and power in new homes and Part F, which governs ventilation. The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) describes this change to the building regulations as, "a meaningful but achievable uplift to energy efficiency standards," and plans to follow this with further improvement in 2025.

The consultation, which is open till January next year, sets out two options for carbon reduction, with MHCLG expressing its preference for the second. The first option is a 20 per cent reduction in carbon emissions, which it expects to be delivered using high energy efficiency requirements for the fabric of the home. The second option combines renewable energy technology, such as photovoltaic panels, with lower fabric efficiency requirements to achieve a 31 per cent reduction in carbon emissions.

This is intended to help the housebuilding industry and England’s homes progress towards the Future Homes Standard in 2025. The government expects an average home built to the 2025 standard to have 75-80 per cent less carbon emissions than one built to current energy efficiency requirements, through the adoption of both low carbon heating systems and a far more energy efficient fabric.

The built environment sector has seen such ambitions before. The Labour government introduced a Code for Sustainable Homes and zero carbon homes policy that would have seen homes built to zero carbon standards by 2016, had it not been dropped by its successors. "Many in the industry are still scarred by the scrapping of the Code for Sustainable Homes and zero carbon homes policy in 2015," said John Alker, director of policy and places at industry network the UK Green Building Council. "Government must learn lessons from that, and be absolutely rock solid in its commitment to this agenda."

Still, the industry has broadly welcomed the move. "There is much work still to do on the detail of these announcements, and there are further challenges ahead associated with addressing the performance gap, unregulated energy and the embodied carbon of new developments. But at long last it appears as though we are heading in the right direction," said Alker.

The government’s preferred option for the 2020 regulations is some way above the energy requirements of level 4 of the Code for Sustainable Homes, which extended from level 1 (lowest) to level 6 (highest and zero carbon), while its other option is broadly similar to that of code level 4. "But we’ve moved forward since the code," stressed Gwyn Roberts, head of housing and policy at building science advisor BRE, pointing to such factors as the continuing decarbonisation of the electrical grid and evolving thinking on sustainability itself. "In the past sustainability predominantly meant energy efficiency, but there is a wider holistic piece that is really important in limiting unintended consequences," he added.

That broader approach can be seen in MHCLG’s National Design Guide, issued alongside the building regulations consultation. It is also evident in BRE’s own Home Quality Mark, a benchmark for residential development that recognises influences including public transport and local amenities, alongside home energy efficiency. Developers using such tools could have an advantage in meeting the government’s emerging aspirations, added Roberts. "In many ways the Home Quality Mark can help to provide a framework and tools to deliver quality and it could demonstrate how a development complies with the design guide."


What the Future Homes Standard means

MHCLG has set out its early thinking on the Future Homes Standard. It says a home designed to the standard could have:

  • Triple glazing
  • Standards for walls, floors and roofs that significantly limit heat loss
  • A low carbon heating system using heat pumps – particularly air-to-water and air-to-air – heat networks, and, to a lesser extent, direct electric heating.

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