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New hub needed to focus on existing buildings

Published: 14th November 2014

The Zero Carbon Hub has been hailed as the body to turn to ensure only the most energy-efficient buildings are constructed.  Isn’t it time for a similar body to tackle existing buildings?

One of the great triumphs of genuine private/public co-operation has been the work of the non-profit Zero Carbon Hub.  Ever since its formation in 2008, it has proved to be the acknowledged entity to which everyone turns – companies and Ministers alike to consider how best to progress towards ensuring that only the most energy and carbon-efficient new buildings are constructed.

But the vast majority of the buildings we shall be living and working in forty years from now have already been built.  Precious few of these are even vaguely zero carbon; most waste bucketfuls of energy every day.  By common consent we have one of the oldest, and certainly one of the least energy efficient, building stocks in the entire western world.

It is clear that one of the main challenges over the ensuing decades will continue to be to dramatically improve the energy performance of these buildings.  This will need to happen at a rate long aspired to.  But – as has been shown in the case of the flagship Green Deal Finance policy – right now falling woefully short of event is cost-effective (let alone technical) potential.

 

Upgrading 26m buildings

What we need is another officially recognised hub, this time to deal with the challenge of upgrading the energy performance of the UK’s 26m existing buildings.

Granted there is already a plethora of organisations in this field, covering a multitude of different interests and activities.  But the blatant absence of a single focal point of reference greatly increases the levels of duplication of work and effort, and dilutes the impact of most activities.

At present, dialogue between Government and the suppliers of energy efficiency goods and services is dislocated and dysfunctional.

There is a very large number of companies, organisations, trade associations and individuals with both commercial and altruistic interests currently involved with improving the energy efficiency of the existing stock.  The sum of their experience is greater than the parts, especially each taken separately.  But at the moment there are far too many voices for policy makers to engage with effectively or efficiently.

Creating an acknowledged hub for existing buildings would provide a single point of reference for this long-established sector.  It would avoid unnecessary disparate, diverse and above all duplicating activities.

What might the new hub do?  It would:

  • Provide valuable support to Government in the development of strategy and policy, bringing to this a joined up and independently moderated approach from across the sector;
  • Offer practical insight – and piloting and testing – into how policies and instruments would be taken forward in practice, seriously reducing the current risk of “unintended consequences”;
  • Develop and exchange best practice, providing a centralised building refurbishment showcase;
  • Drive demand for deep retrofit, smoothing the supply chain pathways;
  • Identify and address supply chain deficiencies; and
  • Provide a realistic medium and long-term upgrading trajectory, offering confidence that early work will not need to be undone or redone later.

Above all, the new hub can assemble, moderate and reconcile the different perspectives and contributions from across the entire sector.  It can identify requirements and define solutions to key technical, commercial and social barriers.

 

Frequent calls for a hub

Over recent years, there have been many others who called for such a hub.  The Government’s former chief construction advisor, based at BIS, Paul Morrell, was a tireless advocate.  The public/private entity, the Green Construction Board, regularly promotes its desirability – and commissioned and published a convincing report in 2013 from the consultants Cyril Sweett/Verco, setting out how it should work in detail.

Back in 1999, earlier generations of policy makers created just such an entity with the Energy Efficiency Partnership for Homes (personal declaration:  I have been its deputy chairman).  As recently as 2009, a value-for-money analysis by KPMG emphasised this was an obviously effective experience upon which to build.

The new hub will not need to be created by Government.  I am confident that this is an entity that the private sector is spontaneously capable of putting together.  What it will required from Government is simply a formal recognition as the official body with which it will deal – just as with the Zero Carbon Hub for new buildings.

And, just as occurs with that entity, I am convinced that this will ensure that stakeholders will coalesce around the new Hub, and be prepared to work through it.  Particularly if the myriad directorates and departments within both central and local government both recognise, and then utilise, the hub as the focal point around the challenges and potential opportunities of buildings refurbishment.

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