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This time they are serious

A raft of new regulatory measures and the appointment of a products regulator, alongside stricter rules on payment, demonstrates just how serious the government is about reforming the built environment sector, according to the Building Engineering Services Association (BESA)

BESA chief executive David Frise

The Association’s chief executive David Frise (pictured above) believes developments since the start of the year should dispel any lingering doubts that the Government means business when calling for root and branch reform of the construction industry and its supply chains.

“The industry has a history of ‘seeing off’ previous attempts at reform going back several decades, but this time it feels very different,” he says. “The appointment of a building products regulator has added to the pace of change set by the Hackitt Review. The Cabinet Office has also considerably tightened rules around late payment to try and relieve some of the pressure on supply chains.”

The Future Homes Standard has evolved into a Future Buildings Standard and the Government’s response to the consultation responses it received includes ambitious new performance targets for both residential and commercial buildings from 2025. Significantly, the new standard includes plans for non-domestic buildings to be subject to improved ventilation requirements and monitoring of indoor air quality (IAQ) to make them better equipped to deal with future health challenges as a result of lessons learned during the current pandemic.

New homes will be required to achieve 75-80% lower carbon emissions than current levels and be “zero carbon ready” by 2025; and even homes built this year will have to achieve a 31% reduction in carbon footprint compared with the levels set in 2013 by the last revision of the building regulations.

Extensions

Existing homes will also be targeted. Any extensions or major repairs will have to meet a number of low carbon targets including improvements to windows and insulation as well as the installation of heat pumps and other energy efficient technologies. These are all part of “interim” building regulations designed to help the industry prepare for the 2025 regime.

“The implications for the building engineering sector are profound,” says Mr Frise. “The role of mechanical ventilation is now getting the recognition it deserves. The new regulations will specifically focus on improving air change rates in all types of buildings while also insisting on the use of mechanical ventilation with heat recovery systems in homes to ensure good air quality can be achieved without driving up energy use.”

The standard, which is being developed in tandem with revisions to Parts F and L of the building regulations, will also set out to tackle the growing problem of buildings overheating. This will be one of the sector’s key challenges in the years and decades ahead. It is responsible for almost 2,000 deaths every year in the UK, which is expected to rise to over 7,000 by the middle of this century due to climate change, according to government figures.

In responding to the consultation findings, the Government noted the need for additional cooling capacity, ventilation and indoor air quality (IAQ) monitoring in high-risk commercial buildings such as offices buildings and gyms.

“This is one of the most important lessons our policy makers have learned during the pandemic,” explains Mr Frise. “The advice given to increase ventilation rates to tackle viral loads was simply not possible for many building managers because their systems were already at full capacity.

“In future, commercial buildings will be required to have an additional 50% capacity available that can be called into action when needed.”

These measures represent a concerted attempt to drive up building quality right across the board and is happening in tandem with the ‘green industrial revolution’ launched by the Prime Minister and backed by £12bn in government investment, which could create up to 250,000 new jobs. 

Decarbonising the heating and cooling sectors sits at the heart of this 10-point plan, which includes a pledge to tackle energy efficiency in hospitals, schools, and other public buildings through the £1bn Public Sector Decarbonisation Scheme.

The Green Homes Grant for homeowners has now been extended by a year until March 2022, but the Construction Leadership Council wants to go further and is calling for a national education programme to persuade the British public to spend £525bn on home improvements. This would need an additional 500,000 people to join the industry’s workforce – doubling the present numbers over the next 20 years.

The biggest hospital building programme in a generation is also underway including six confirmed major projects worth £2.7 billion due to be delivered by 2025. The Government’s Health Infrastructure Plan aims to use more standardised design elements and make use of modular construction methods to speed up delivery. Eventually, the plan is to deliver another 30 new much needed hospitals over the next decade.

Critical

The COP26 climate summit to be held in Glasgow this November will also have a heavy focus on buildings after its president Alok Sharma announced plans to include a ‘built environment day’. In a letter to the World Green Building Council he said that “action to decarbonise the buildings and construction sector is critical to meeting our Paris Agreement goals”.

A new net zero building package worth over £3 billion will focus on making our “homes, schools and hospitals greener, warmer and more energy efficient, whilst supporting up to 50,000 jobs by 2030”, said Sharma.

And over at the Department of Education (DfE), the tender process has begun for its £7 billion school building programme to be delivered over the next decade. More than £1 billion is to be released shortly to fund the first 50 projects with construction due to start in September.

BESA is generally supportive of the many changes outlined in the new standards and conscious that this could represent huge business opportunities for its members. However, it continues to stress that poor payment practices and the use of onerous contract conditions to pass risk down supply chains continue to make life difficult for the specialist firms on which these reforms depend.

The news, therefore, that the Government’s Prompt Payment Code has been toughened-up with signatories now obliged to pay small firms within 30 days – a halving of the current target – has received a cautious welcome.

“Reforming payment has to go hand-in-hand with the push for higher and more ambitious building standards,” said Mr Frise. “The Government’s decision to tighten up the code is welcome coming, as it does, in the wake of several firms, including some of the country’s largest contractors, being suspended from the code for failing to even match the 60-day target.

“However, we have seen many, many false dawns on the payment front. Without a healthy flow of cash through supply chains, especially now, it will not be possible to even get close to some of the targets set by the proposed new standards.”

Signatories must now pay 95% of invoices from small businesses within 30 days from July 1.

Opportunities

All of which promises exciting economic opportunities for the building engineering sector; from the creation of ‘green’ jobs to being instrumental in tackling the climate crisis. 

Mr Frise also believes the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us some important technical lessons that we can use to improve the health and wellbeing of all building users.

“The way building services supports critical infrastructure is now more widely understood and the part played particularly by ventilation in tacking virus transmission means our engineers are now regarded as having a vital healthcare role because they are instrumental in helping supress the spread of infection,” he says.

“However, with opportunity comes responsibility and our industry’s competence and compliance will be under scrutiny like never before. This unprecedented focus on the built environment is not just about delivering enormous volumes of work and driving the economic recovery, it is also all about improving quality right across the sector to root out the poor practices highlighted by the Hackitt Review and opened up to shaming scrutiny by the Grenfell Tower public inquiry,” adds Frise.

“This potential acceleration in workload must also be accompanied by a concerted effort to improve quality and accountability on every single project – and that is something BESA and its members welcome wholeheartedly.”

 

17 February 2021

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