Five Key Takeaways From the Resi ESG Conference

The Resi ESG conference took place in London at the beginning of May and it was encouraging to see so many attendees from across the property sector.  Whilst ESG has been high on the agenda for a while, along with the government’s target for net zero emissions by 2050, it is sometimes difficult to know where to begin and what to prioritise.  Here, we have outlined five of the most significant messages from the conference, supported by alarming statistics, showing that immediate action is needed from everyone involved.

1. Data

One common theme emerged in many of the presentations and discussions: data.  Data is needed across the sector in order to prove the need for, the cost of, and the impact of, any ESG measures.  While we can start heading towards net zero from today, it’s equally important that everything is measured to allow useful statistics to be gained in order to prove the effectiveness and the impact we are making.

Jeff Endean from Cast called for a focus on data-led improvement, with SMART targets set at corporate and project levels, and then monitored to gain an understanding of what works.  There was also an agreed notion that data should be shared amongst the industry to allow education and to establish best practice.  Net zero should not be a secret kept by those who can afford its implementation, but rather a coordinated effort that is accessible by all.

Data also needs to be collected post-occupation, with more than one mention of residents and their improper usage being the reason properties don’t perform as well as they should.  This also relates to communication and engagement with home users, which is discussed in detail later.

2. Retrofitting

Existing homes are nowhere near the energy efficient or cost saving level they should be in relation to today’s standards.  Retrofitting requires new features and systems to be installed in order to produce savings and reduce emissions, e.g., improving insulation and replacing outdated heating systems.  80% of homes that exist today will still be here in 2050, and the average EPC rating across England is D.  This means that a huge amount of retrofitting will need to be done, with an estimated cost of £65 billion to get all homes to an EPC rating of C or above by 2035.

New build homes are generally more energy efficient and are more likely to have a good EPC rating, but most of them will still need to be retrofitted at some point in the future, due to the continued installation of gas fired boilers.  Last year, over 1.7 million gas boilers were installed in the UK, compared to just 67,000 heat pumps.  The government is aiming to ban all new builds from being installed with gas fired boilers by 2025, with their eventual phasing out by 2035, but if developers continue to install them between now and then, that’s over 6 million more homes that will need costly and time-consuming retrofitting.  Paul Dipino from Joseph Homes went so far as to say that there is now “no excuse” for developers to be installing gas boilers in new build properties.  

While retrofitting will need to take place for most existing buildings in future, there are ways in which the extent of retrofitting can be mitigated by future-proofing new builds as much as possible.  Sue Riddlestone of Bioregional called for developers to sign up to the #EndGasNow campaign, pledging to refrain from the development or promotion of new projects that involve the installation of new or replacement gas or fossil fuel-based heating systems.

3. Decarbonisation

Net zero all comes down to the c word: carbon.  Carbon is split into embodied and operational carbon, with embodied carbon produced during the construction processes, and operational carbon the collective CO2 emissions produced for a building to run, largely energy and water usage (covered in depth here).

While UKGBC best practice is to focus on the production and construction of buildings, as most carbon is in the structure, operational carbon is far easier to address by balancing any carbon impacts from running the building with carbon credits from energy efficient features, such as operating from renewable sources.

A much wider awareness and understanding around how operational carbon is measured and the targets that need to be hit in order to achieve net zero is needed.  Marion Baeli from PDP pointed out that people don’t discuss the energy intensity of their home in the same way that people discuss the energy capacity of their electric cars.  In 2017, a new build bungalow had an average energy intensity of 143 kWh/m2/year.  In order to reach net zero, we need to be aiming to reduce this to 50 kWh/m2/year across all property types when retrofitting, while UKGBC recommends an energy intensity of 35-40 kWh/m2/year for new builds. 

4. Certification

Getting a property or development ‘green certified’ is largely still voluntary in most countries, rather than government mandated, but it is still a positive idea to get sustainability criteria assessed and certified, not only to decrease environmental impact, but to encourage investors and occupiers.  However, Alexandra Nolay from PfP explained that there are over 50 ESG certification schemes, with none completely suited to or aimed at the residential sector.  Fitwel was mentioned as one of the better options, but each method comes with its own advantages and disadvantages, while none of them are all-encompassing.

UKGBC mentions that it is important for accreditation to exist to prove that a building is zero carbon, either in terms of construction or operational energy.  This needs to be transparent, easily accessible and third party accredited, in order for approaches to be shared between developers and able to stand up to public scrutiny.  The verification process needs to evolve in order to make this a quick and painless option to consider.

A cohesive global building system is required, which would unify targets and requirements across the board, allowing for clearer, comparable ratings.  This regulation would certainly encourage industry change for the better, especially if accreditation becomes a regulatory requirement.

5. Communication/Engagement with Home Users

Although much of the responsibility for reducing carbon emissions from the built environment lies with builders and developers, an underlying theme throughout the day was that home users need to also do their part.  Despite features being installed in properties to help reduce their environmental impact, it often comes down to the occupiers to utilise these systems efficiently and correctly.

It ultimately comes down to an attitude of “can’t” or “won’t”, with some residents simply not knowing how to use their systems properly, and others refusing to engage with them if it is deemed to remove their option of choice and control.  The Head of Sustainability at Cala, Kathryn Dapre, reported frustrations with homeowners who have ripped out water volume controlling showers or turned off the MVHR system.  There was a general agreement that there is “a need to make sure people know how to use their homes properly” (Sue Riddlestone, Bioregional), but also to educate residents as to why these systems and features are there, and the importance of the impact they can have.

Providing this information in a digestible, easy to understand, yet comprehensive way can be a challenge, but using a platform such as Spaciable can help to communicate with and engage home users.  Information can be presented in a more traditional Home User Guide or Sustainability Guide, or more interactively with workflows and videos.  With an editable suite of FAQs, you can ensure that the answers are always available, along with a library of maintenance and user manuals.

Conclusion

It is safe to say that this topic is not going away, with more requirements and regulations being introduced, along with ambitious targets to get closer to that all important net zero.  Everyone has their part to play, from buyers and renters that need to be more discerning and demanding about the kind of properties that they require, to the developers and builders, who need to make more of an effort to not contribute to the problem, but be part of the solution.

Bibliography

1. www.politicshome.com/members/article/uk-needs-to-retrofit-26-million-homes-by-2050-to-reduce-greenhouse-gas-emissions

2. www.gov.uk/government/publications/green-home-finance-accelerator/information-about-the-green-home-finance-accelerator

3. www.bioregional.com/news-and-opinion/bioregional-end-gas-now

4. www.classicfolios.com/blog/achieving-net-zero-on-your-next-site

5. assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/853067/energy-consumption-new-domestic-buildings-2015-2017-england-wales.pdf

6. www.fitwel.org

7. www.elmhurstenergy.co.uk/what-is-retrofit-in-construction

8. www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/housing/articles/energyefficiencyofhousinginenglandandwales/2021

9. www.theecoexperts.co.uk/boilers/uk-gas-boiler-ban

10. www.ukgbc.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/11/UKGBC-Whole-Life-Carbon-Roadmap-Summary-for-Policy-Makers.pdf

11. www.savills.co.uk/blog/article/305591/commercial-property/impacts--the-different-types-of-green-building-certification-methods

12. www.ukgbc.org/ukgbc-work/verifying-net-zero-carbon-buildings

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