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Legislation - let's get real

Updated: Aug 3, 2020

I would like to write that, like a cork pulled from a bottle, the election of a majority government has released a flow of legislation that the construction industry has been thirsting after for a while now.

While we have seen the proposed update to Part L (dwellings), not much else has been forthcoming. Part L for non-dwellings is due, as is updated legislation on ventilation (which seems more pressing in the light of a growing body of evidence on the harm air pollution causes to humans).

Unfortunately, it feel more like we’re still holding the bottle of ketchup upside down and waiting for something to appear. It’s frustrating, and I can’t help feeling it’s all going to end in an all-too-familiar mess.

The main reason is that government seems to have learned nothing from past iterations of construction-related legislation. The pursuit of easy answers and lowest-common-denominator solutions is being signalled by what’s coming out of government at this point. For example, in the proposed Part L update, the Fabric Energy Efficiency Standard (FEES) would be removed. Instead, government wants to make the most of a decarbonised electricity grid with the use of an overall carbon performance for buildings.

As a number of leading engineers and architects have pointed out, that would mean a house built under the new rules could be less energy efficient than one built under Part L 2013. In theory, a new home might look more carbon efficient, but might actually use more energy. That makes life more expensive for homeowners and puts more pressure on the grid – even if it is low-carbon.

Time and again, we see that legislation on building performance is written as though there is some easy answer; a single technology that will solve the whole problem and then a government department can tick the box ‘done’. But we all know things are never that simple. And one of the worst outcomes of this type of legislation is that it also leaves massive loopholes that the unscrupulous will happily leap through – never mind the insulation, or the design for efficiency; we’ll switch everyone to electric heating.

While that might sound like good news for manufacturers of heat pumps, they know only too well that if their equipment is used in homes that aren’t fit for purpose it is their technology that will take the blame. Heat pumps don’t work will be the cry. The fact is they do work but need properly designed homes in order to deliver effective heating.

It is to the construction industry’s credit that some major contractors are making more commitments to achieving zero carbon well before the government’s 2050 deadline. This is very good news. But without legislation to create a firm – and high – basic standard of performance I don’t think that the industry will change.

** This blog appeared on the Mitsubishi Electric Hub in March 2020:

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