M-RCBG Associate Working Paper No. 228

Building the Future: Lessons for a Buildings Breakthrough

Rt Hon Chris Skidmore OBE 
Grace Girling 
Simon McWhirter 


The buildings that are our homes, workplaces, providers of services, and our public amenities are also one of the greatest contributors to our emissions, both in their construction and in their daily use. As the Mission Zero Buildings Network set out in its first report, Mission Retrofit, the challenge of decarbonising our building stock for the future is largely one of dealing with a legacy of buildings built without regard to the environment, or the opportunity to ensure that these buildings are both efficient and cost effective to run. For too long this legacy has been ignored: limited government action has ensured that the UK is the poor man of Europe when it comes to improving our homes. A lack of energy efficiency measures, combined with an over dependence on gas for heating has meant that our homes and buildings are colder, produce more emissions and cost their owners more in energy bills. As a result, our existing buildings are responsible still for over a quarter of all the UK’s emissions.

This legacy of inaction has also stymied the opportunity for the UK to establish a new modern industry that produces modern methods of construction that place energy efficiency and low emissions first. The Net Zero Review highlighted the fact that despite knowing what needs to be in place for buildings to be net zero compliant by 2050, over 1.4 million homes have been built in recent years that will be required to be retrofitted in the future, costing householders tens of thousands of pounds.

There now needs to be no excuses for not ensuring that our new homes and buildings are fit for the future. This second report, Building The Future, from the Mission Zero Buildings Network sets out what needs to be achieved if we are to deliver a future generation of buildings that both do not need to be retrofitted and will deliver on our net zero commitments; at the same time as leaving people and businesses less vulnerable to the changing climate, and with lower bills, not dependent on rising and volatile fossil fuel prices.

The report is the culmination of a series of evidence roundtables and written evidence submissions that has been gathered by the Network. The Network represents some of the UK’s leading construction specialists, who have a dedicated interest in delivering on net zero commitments. The Network is Co- Chaired by Deputy Chief Executive of UK Green Building Council (UKGBC), Simon McWhirter, and includes Amazon, Barratt Developments, Centrica, Electric Heating Company, Grosvenor, ISG, Landsec, Lloyds Banking Group, Natwest Group, Paragon Bank, Suez and The Phoenix Group.

While the first report, Mission Retrofit, focused on existing buildings in the UK, this report highlights the need to take immediate action to ensure that we have the sustainable policy frameworks in place to give certainty to an industry to build net zero buildings that undoubtedly will still be in place by 2050 and into 2100. It also highlights the opportunity for the UK to become an international leader in zero carbon new-build construction and design, to ensure that the rest of the world is able to deliver new buildings that are low- emission. While new buildings in the UK will represent 20% of all buildings by 2050, for the Global South, and many emerging economies, this figure is reversed: 80% of the buildings that will be standing in 2050, have not yet been built. Currently, estimates suggest that globally there will be a demand for over 3 billion new dwellings. Many of these will be in cities, that presents future challenges around the future of habitats, but the reality is that we must act now to ensure that we build low carbon buildings that are both resilient and adaptable for the future. At a time when the world is building the equivalent number of buildings to the total of the city of Paris every few weeks, we need to ensure that not only in the UK, but also globally, we have the legislative frameworks, the necessary standards and regulation, the means to develop supply chains in low carbon materials, and methods of construction to meet the demand that is rapidly increasing.

This demand, and the need for leadership on delivering on this demand, should be a prize that the UK should seek. Already the UK has leading experts and organisations that have worked hard to demonstrate what is needed to produce the homes and buildings of the future. It is UK-led organisations such as UKGBC, CIBSE, RIBA, LETI, the Future Homes Hub and others that are leading on future frameworks such as UKGBC’s Zero Carbon Roadmap, the Net Zero Carbon Homes and Buildings Standards and the Future Homes Delivery Plan. It is UK companies such as Barratt Developments, with their ZED House, developing new residential properties, and commercial organisations, such as Landsec, that have already built the first net zero commercial property in operation, Grosvenor, that are focusing on wider sustainable development across the life cycle of their buildings and across the entirety of their supply chain, and Amazon investing in lower- carbon concrete and steel technologies.

Indeed, one of the key aspects of this report is to produce vital lessons for building the future, that highlight not merely policy recommendations, but real-world examples of how UK companies and organisations are already producing and operating net zero innovations and pilot programmes of work that have enormous potential to be scaled up both nationally and internationally.

While this report has been in production, at COP28, the final details of the Buildings Breakthrough were launched, with 28 countries committing to taking forward a wider commitment that near-zero emission new buildings would be the new normal by 2030. This is a welcome commitment, but it will require both policy and legislative certainty, and alignment between countries on how to create common, interoperable standards, supply chains and low carbon materials that can help deliver this shared goal. It is an exciting initiative led by France and Morocco that has the potential to deliver real impact on reducing emissions. This report has therefore also been written with the intention of informing how the Buildings Breakthrough internationally, as well as the UK government nationally, can best deliver on its commitments by 2030. Both the challenges and their solutions are not merely UK specific but are shared problems that the Network believes can best be solved through collaboration and sharing best practice. For this reason, this report not only focuses on policy solutions, but lessons for a Buildings Breakthrough that we have identified in the Network that can deliver rapid, real-world change if they are taken up sooner rather than later.

This new report seeks to both set out what is needed from a policy and regulatory perspective for the UK to lead internationally on how to design, construct and operate new buildings that will be fit for a net zero purpose. It makes clear recommendations on current policy, that has been informed by recommendations in the Net Zero Review. Part One of the report sets out in background what has been achieved so far, and the progress, or lack of, on delivering what is needed and has been recommended both by the Net Zero Review and the Committee on Climate Change on new buildings.

Core to this is achieving a Future Homes and Buildings Standard that is fit for purpose. While there has been much criticism of the standard at present, this is justified as it is critical that we get this right if the UK is to lead on how to deliver new net zero homes. This is an opportunity, as Part Two of the report sets out, for the UK and its companies and organisations to export and inform the rest of the world on how to deliver both residential and commercial dwellings that are net zero in the right way. The economic advantage, in addition to the environmental benefit, is huge, if the UK takes the decision to lead on net zero new buildings.

Part Three of the report sets out the challenges to deliver on new buildings, both residential, commercial and public buildings, and what is the role of the government and the private sector in delivering the necessary legislation, regulation, planning and standards, the enforcement of these standards, in addition to how to ensure that we have the low carbon materials of the future, as well as ensuring the circular economy and reuse and recycling is embedded into a vision that ensures we meet the necessary embodied carbon standards across the lifecycle of a building, and that new buildings by their nature are not adding to the problem by replacing poorly-performing existing buildings. Part Three also focuses on the key issues that future buildings must also meet: how to exist in a future world whose environment is rapidly changing. How will these buildings be both resilient and adaptable to future demand and change?

This report should therefore be viewed as a first attempt to provide a template and framework to all those involved in the Buildings Breakthrough on what needs to happen, and when it needs to take place. Part Four sets out the key ‘Lessons for a Buildings Breakthrough’ that provide the real-world examples of what can be achieved if ambition is set high enough. Each of the lessons is not a simple best practice example, but rather informs how to meet a specific challenge head on, whether that be in the form of developing a standard, enforcing the standard or in the methods of construction, or the innovation needed to develop those future methods, that have been drawn from the expertise and knowledge of the Mission Zero Buildings Network.

We have no time to waste. We know now, unlike previous generations in the construction industry, why we need to achieve net zero buildings, and we know also how we need to achieve net zero buildings. There can no longer be any excuses not to build the buildings of the future fit for a net zero purpose, that will not cost future generations more to retrofit. If we do not, we will not only have failed them, we will have failed to meet an opportunity for the UK to lead a global challenge which it is well placed to demonstrate leadership and to deliver the buildings breakthrough we need.

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