UK Green Building Council report: Materials are the key to a sustainable future

  • 24 Apr 2017

Callum Tasker from e-tailer Construction Materials Online, examines the impact of the UK Building Council Report, as well as providing insight on how the construction industry can help tackle the national problem of energy efficiency by using the right materials.

More than one home every minute will need to be refurbished in the UK between now and 2050 according to a new report published by the UK Green Building Council (UKGBC). With the Government facing increasing pressure to cut carbon emissions by 80% before the mid-century deadline, the report states that over 25 million existing homes do not meet the insulation standards required, with significant blame being placed on heating draughty buildings.

Outlining several recommendations, including setting staged targets for refurbishing buildings, reintroducing zero-carbon standards and recognising energy efficiency as a national priority, the report positions the problem as an opportunity to help stimulate innovation across the construction industry –  whilst promoting benefits such as warmer homes, lower energy bills and more comfortable living. 

While the targets are certainly ambitious, construction materials play a pivotal role in helping to improve the UK’s home energy standards, so what changes can we expect to see when it comes to industry and product innovation? And what materials and standards are already helping to create a more sustainable future? 

Out with the old 

The insulation market has already evolved in response to changes in customer and construction demand, even before the publication of the UKGBC report. The process of retrofitting or refurbishing a property is no longer the disruptive, lengthy task it once was, with many manufacturers now promoting the sustainable value of their materials from production to installation. 

Most new insulation materials meet building regulations with minimal thickness, making the process of laying, cutting and installing relatively easy.  They also provide excellent compressive strength, even when compared to their traditional counterparts. But this doesn’t just apply to floors and walls, with the same quality and ease of installation also possible in most new forms of roofing insulation, meaning retrofitting or refurbishing a home can be completed quickly and cost effectively. The long-term benefits outweigh the initial investment required, and include helping to drive up a property’s value and significantly reducing long-term energy costs

Alongside new industry thermal insulation requirements, contractors are also now under more pressure to achieve the increasingly stringent U-Values demanded of them, with end user demand for more sustainable building materials on the rise. Specifiers are now turning to eco-friendly, sustainable and natural insulation alternatives as a means for hitting these energy efficiency targets, with qualifying products flying off the shelves. Just some of the innovative options available include wool, hemp and cellulose, as well as recycled products made from cotton or plastic. 

While the initial investment may be higher, sustainable products can provide an equal level of efficiency, and are still considered cost-effective in the long-term due to the associated reduction in energy bills. With this comes a fall in the amount of fossil fuels required to heat the home as well as other environmental benefits, making sustainable products a popular choice for both new builds and retrofits, and if adopted in all national construction projects, it will arguably go some way in helping to hit the ambitious targets outlined in the UKGBC report. 

Setting new standards  

It’s not just the refurbishment of existing homes which requires urgent attention, with the UKGBC report also calling for the Government to reintroduce the Zero-Carbon Standard for all new homes from 2020. Drawing attention to the national need for the construction industry to focus on building sustainable, high quality, energy efficient homes as part of the Government’s Infrastructure Agenda, the standard is just one of hundreds of new industry regulations, initiatives and rating systems introduced to assist in the construction and demonstration of sustainable energy consumption. 

The UK Government appears committed to integrating green building specifications and codes into construction practices, to reduce carbon emissions and fuel poverty. Certification schemes and standards such as BREEAM, Passivhaus and the Home Quality Mark are quickly increasing in uptake, and are fast becoming trusted industry indicators of success.   

For each standard, a developer must provide credible and verifiable evidence of how a property meets a series of strict criteria, with focus on all elements of a build supply chain, from design and planning, to material procurement and long term energy efficiency. This includes hitting targets which cover a building’s performance, such as heating demand, cooling demand, primary energy demand, and air changes per hour.

The materials industry has reacted accordingly with thousands of innovative, sustainable solutions flooding the market, alongside a resurgence in traditional building methods and new building practices. For example, timber framing has experienced a revival in recent years, and is accredited as being the most economical and efficient method of construction, with timber build programmes being completed up to 30% faster when compared to standard processes. 

Roofing is also an area which has continued to innovate, with hundreds of sustainable materials now available that do not compromise on the quality or design of a project. These include unbreakable synthetic slates, which leave no waste during installation, lightweight polymer tiles, made from reclaimed products which were otherwise destined for the landfill, and green, living roofs, with plants pre-grown in the UK – all are becoming popular choices for both commercial and domestic projects. 

Looking to the future 

Energy efficiency is now a national infrastructure priority, with materials playing the most important part in achieving a sustainable future, and despite the UKGBC’s target being more than slightly ambitious, it has helped to shine the light on the type of products and building processes needed to help do the job.

As national deadlines quickly approach, political, social and economic pressures will increase on all those involved in a build supply chain, from engineers and suppliers, to contractors, architects and even homeowners. In response, manufacturers will continue to innovate as they strive to satisfy the growing national demand for comfortable, affordable, efficient and healthy buildings.

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