Delivering on the decarbonisation agenda in the built environment in Wales — Frameworks to build a better Britain

The latest BRE roundtable discussion took us to Swansea. Things are tough in South Wales at the moment: the future of the steel industry at Port Talbot is precarious and on the day of the discussion it was announced that Ford plans to close its Bridgend works with the loss of 1700 jobs by September 2020. Electrification of the main railway line from London was supposed to reach well into Wales but has stalled on the East side of the Bristol Channel. The planned upgrade of the M4 around Newport has also been scrapped.

Office of National Statistics figures from 2018 show how far Wales has fallen behind the rest of the UK in the productivity stakes – the Gross Value Added figures for Wales are 17% below the UK average. These statistics also show the gulf in productivity between Wales and the best performing parts of the UK, with productivity in London 50 percentage points higher than in Wales. The fiscal deficit in Wales – the gap between the money it brings in through taxes and transfers from Westminster – is marked.

Frameworks to build a better Britain

The fifth in our Frameworks to build a better Britain series of articles and podcasts: roundtables and interviews with planners, architects, policy-makers, and construction experts. Explore the previous roundtable events in this series.

Communities in West Wales – and Swansea felt to some allied to the West rather than to Cardiff – are amongst the poorest in the whole of the European Union. But in challenge there lies opportunity and the members of our roundtable felt that Wales has the wherewithal – both the expertise and the will – to create a better future. And a future in which carbon plays a smaller part.

In this roundtable perhaps more than any of the previous five there was a palpable sense of frustration. A sense of frustration that the answers to many of the problems of our built environment were now pretty well known and that the time for deliberation was over. It was time for action. The knowhow is unquestionably there and if those with individual expertise are allowed to get on with it then much progress could be made. For example, Wales is well on the way to the goal of achieving 70% of its energy from renewables.

Wales is also the first legislature in the world to enshrine in law a duty which falls on public bodies to safeguard the well-being of future generations. Thus it has a Commissioner for the “As Yet Unborn,” Sophie Howe.

Our roundtable was held in the award-winning Active Building Centre on the Swansea University campus. The Centre is a pioneer in the technology that supports energy systems by integrating renewable tech for heat, power and transport. An interview with Simon McWhirter, head of engagement at the Active Building centre can be heard here:

BRE Swansea Roundtable

The session was opened by the new CEO of BRE Group, Gillian Charlesworth. “I’m familiar with the built environment having spent the last 15 years at RICS [the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors],” she said. “I’m fully aware that the issues we will discuss today can only be dealt with through people, expertise, collaboration and strong ideas. Many challenges especially around carbon can appear intractable. But this industry must build its influence to bring about necessary change. It is surely possible for the talent within the industry to influence from the ground up. It’s through this sort of event we can achieve this.”

The initial provocation was made by Milica Kitson, the Chief Executive of Constructing Excellence Wales. Milica explained that her organisation was funded by the Welsh government but is now reliant on the construction industry in Wales for its support. The Welsh government and CE Wales do not always see eye-to-eye. “By 2050 Wales will be among the best places to live, learn, work and do business,’ said Milica. “That’s our goal. And to get there we have a target to reduce carbon emissions by at least 80% against the 1990 baseline.

“To deliver the seven goals of the Future Generations Act and the decarbonisation plan we will have to change everything: the way we plan, the way that we budget, the way that we deliver. We must take a whole new approach to the built environment.

“We have to go back to the two construction industry reports of the 1990s – Latham and Egan – and think about their conclusions. They considered why the construction industry was the worst performing industry in the UK; their overall summary, that lowest priced tendering and a lack of focus on the customer and end-user, no focus on value, was what had to change. So not too different, when you think about the Future Generations act and decarbonisation.
“Our challenges are long term thinking and planning. Government and the public sector are renowned for seeking ribbon-cutting opportunities but we must get beyond this. Politicians will always want something delivered in their term of office but this must change.

“We are also talking about The Treasury here, too. Attitudes towards budgets – Capex, Opex – that will have to change and I am not convinced that politicians and the political system can actually change that much in that period of time.
“Also the public sector is under extreme pressure at the moment, not just in Wales, and it is going to get worse for them. Resources are scarce and the increasing demand for social services is soaking up what they do have.

Part 1

Part 2

“Secondly, to solve challenges we must use data, facts and evidence. We’ve done a lot of things to buildings in Wales and across the UK over the last five years or more to improve their energy efficiency, and a lot of it was wrong. All organisations wanted to do was spend the money – ‘Let’s sort these houses out, we’ve got to get these people out of fuel poverty.’ And all we did was seal up the houses and made people even more sick. Nobody properly understood basic building physics. So that is all having to be put right now. We’re not learning from good and bad practice. Nobody is really talking about this openly and how much it’s costing to put right.
“We’ve got the oldest building stock in Europe. What do we really know and understand, about the different energy systems talked about in the decarbonisation plan and about the effects of those things in our old buildings. That brings us back to data, facts, evidence.
“Then finally the biggest challenge of all is the behaviours culture generally. In our industry we still are relying on contracts to drive changing behaviours. We think that if we have a collaborative contract everything will be alright. All we’re really doing is managing industry fragmentation with a stick approach. There are few incentives out there for the industry to work collaboratively.
“So, in summary for me, something big has to give. Generally it takes a crisis, a real crisis such as a natural disaster, war, or financial collapse for this level of change to happen but then a lot of us believe that climate change is that disaster. I’m not convinced that enough people believe that climate change is that disaster.”

Colin King, the Director of BRE in Wales has over 40 years in the construction industry and had sympathy for Milica’s views. “My passion is the existing built environment and not jeopardising what we’ve already got. We have the oldest, wettest buildings in the whole of the Western World. I get nervous about governmental drives towards decarbonisation on buildings which actually aren’t physically capable of delivering that improvement and I believe that setting one target for the whole build environment, housing-wise, is a dangerous game to play. I think that there are opportunities in pushing certain houses much harder, but certainly being very careful of the 30% of our existing building stock which was built before 1920. At what cost is that decarbonisation? I used to help manage and maintain the Cardiff Council stock when we had 26,000 houses and the risks that came with those of getting it wrong. It’s been done badly too many times before to start reinventing bad decisions.

“It’s as if we really learnt nothing in 20 years: the model that has to change is the classic lowest priced and with lowest price comes highest risk. I provide technical support to the Welsh Government as their senior technical advisor on housing standards and building regulations. We need targets and they need to be challenging, but let’s not forget the people who have to deliver this. The social housing sector, the risk that they have to their tenants and their whole structure. And cost. It can’t be down to end cost; financial or people. Let’s decide what we’re going to do and let’s do it. We’ve got enough white elephants and we’ve done pilots until we’re sick of them. Let’s decide what the answer is and let’s just do it whatever that is We’ve prevaricated long enough.”

This sentiment was mirrored by Gareth Nutt from Neath Port Talbot County Borough Council who felt very on the sharp end of putting ideas into practice often with limited resources. “I am also fed up with demonstrators,’ he said. “It’s time that we decided to scale up. It’s time that we decided what route we want to follow and to put our resources behind it. There will always be a tension between gearing up for increasing numbers of affordable houses against what is affordable in the long term. A trade-off between not having an energy bill or the rent that you’re paying today. It’s the quantity against potentially – I won’t say quality – but against the low carbon agenda. There is a lot of frustration but also positivity here. We have got the operability in this part of the world to make a bit of headway. It’s not just Specific (the academic and industrial consortium led by Swansea University, focused on developing and evaluating solar energy technologies for buildings that generate both heat and electricity) we’ve also got the Hydrogen Research Centre in Neath Talbot. And we’re looking there to store our energy potentially in to hydrogen, and then to use that in vehicles. There is a lot of innovation happening – we must harness that and get some momentum behind it to start scaling up and moving away from one-offs.”

Professor Phillip Jones is the Chair of Architectural Science and Chair of the Low Carbon Research Institute and the brain behind Solcer the first energy positive house in the UK. “Over the past four decades we’ve been talking about the same thing and we haven’t got very far. We still have demonstrations and committees pushing the problem into the future. We designed and built Solcer and it works – we know how much it costs, how much it saves. Let’s get on with it.

“On retrofit we’ve applied the same whole house approach. Again we know the supply chain implications and the skills required. But we must have a stable industry to support it – with government subsidies coming and going we have no professionalisation of the industry. The last time we looked in depth at the problem we recommended 40% carbon reductions and the government, like the one in England, went for 8% because the volume house builders threatened to stop building in Wales. I hope this time we’ll have more impact.”

A number of participants pointed out that low carbon solutions for houses – either in new build or retrofit – required behaviour changes among those who lived in the buildings. Adjustments were often necessary when people live in airtight environments with mechanical heat ventilation systems. Simply opening windows would often negate the positive effects.

Ceri Doyle, CEO, Newport City Homes explained that she was responsible for 10,000 homes and had active plans to build 250-300 new dwellings a year. She was especially concerned about the deterioration of city centres and pointed to a recent scheme in the centre of Newport. “It was a small development which utilised local partners. We couldn’t take it to an EPC A standard, but we have made it as energy efficient as we can, in addition to supporting and training tenants on the benefits and practices of living in a ‘sealed’ building with mechanical heat ventilation. We were challenged for conducting social engineering because the lettings policy for the premises would only offer homes to individuals who didn’t own a car and need to be in the city centre for the purpose of education, training or employment. We did restrict the individuals who became tenants, rather than using the common housing register. The issues we faced illustrate some of the cultural challenges we will face in the future.”

Martin Nicholls, Director of Place at Swansea Council made the point that Swansea had recently returned to housebuilding for the first time in nearly 30 years. The path to carbon virtue is not easy. One calculation suggested that if Swansea wanted all its existing properties to be brought up to an Energy Performance Certification A grade then 50% would have to be demolished.

BRE Swansea Roundtable

“A sealed, passive house does not fit the lifestyle of a number of tenants. Another challenge is the supply chain. We did everything we could in terms of supply chain engagement but the timber frame came from Ireland, the windows and doors from Belgium and the insulation from Czechoslovakia. But by slightly changing the specification we have now achieved just short of 90% from Swansea and locality based SMEs.

“The aspiration for us is between 1000 and 2000 new units over the next five years and we have to achieve our Welsh Housing Quality Standard by 2020, which we haven’t quite yet done. The risk around the sort of more aggressive decarbonisation agenda would mean we could be taking some of the things off or changing the priorities that we only recently brought up to standard that was set ten years ago.”

John O’Brien, BRE’s Associate Director for Construction Innovation was keen that the industry should show more ambition. It has hold of the ball and should now run with it.

“We are an ageing industry when it comes to skills but the good thing is that the people we’re working with are young and not even coming from construction anymore. They’re coming from digital and other industries and seeing opportunity. We need to create those factories that are producing systemised houses that are efficient, performance managed, quality checked as they leave the factory door, and therefore certain to perform as promised.

BRE Swansea Roundtable

“Should we be pushing for BPC A on existing stock? No, B maybe. We need to lower our fabric intervention measures for the quality of the home and whether it’s non-traditional or traditional. But then look at how you get the grid to make up that difference. We’re doing a similar project on smart grid, looking at the people who are coming through and we know we can generate, we know we can store but what do we do with it then? And we’re working with people who want to be the Uber of trading electricity. This is an exciting area and full of promise. We need to look at our industry and ask other people, especially the young, with other skillsets ‘what would you do in this situation?’. Otherwise you end up with the madness of repeating the same exercise over and over and getting the same result.”

Finally, what’s good for Future Generations will always be open to interpretation. Ryan Stuckey, a practising architect in the South Wales valleys and Programme Director in Architectural Technology at the School of Architecture in Swansea made the whole panel smile when he said: “I’ve sat in three planning appeals for housing developments in the last six months. At all of these both sides of the argument used the Future Generations Act in their defence.” That surely will change with time as what exactly ‘Doing The Right Thing’ is becomes more and more apparent when it comes to the UK’s built environment.