“Building standards are not sufficiently ambitious; they are overly complex and compliance is poor.” The 2018 Hackitt Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety identified worrying deficiencies in the current system of building regulation. While clearly well-intentioned, the regulations can be difficult to navigate and, as demonstrated by the tragedy at Grenfall, are not always fit for purpose. This article considers two key areas subject to reform in the coming years – fire safety and carbon emissions.
Building regulation – an overview
The earliest recorded building regulations in England date back to 1189. Problems caused by densely-packed housing in London – from rights to light to badly-sited privies – could only be dealt with communally. As now, one of the greatest hazards was fire; indeed, the Great Fire of London precipitated new building regulations in London which are the basis of many of the standards still in place today.
Scotland was the first country in the UK to adopt national regulations in 1961. England and Wales followed shortly after.
The control of building regulations in the UK is devolved with varying degrees of autonomy for authorities in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The focus of this article will be on conditions in England, but we can assume, in most cases under discussion, that other jurisdictions in the UK will follow suit.
From a design perspective, the most important aspect of the building regulations are the approved documents, giving general guidance on aspects of building design and construction.
The documents are not legally prescriptive. They do not contain legal text on how to meet the requirements; rather, they communicate the minimum standards for compliance, and the common methods and materials used to achieve these.
The approved documents are contained within 16 separate headings, each given a letter (Part A to Part R). These can be found online at https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/approved-documents
Changing landscape of regulation – Part B Fire Safety
I won’t go into too much detail on Grenfell here – it has been rightly covered extensively elsewhere – but it would be remiss to overlook the impact of the devastating fire on the regulatory environment.
To many, the tragedy highlighted the inadequacy of the Building Regulations – specifically when applied to high rise buildings and local authority housing. The Government appointed Dame Judith Hackitt to conduct a wide-ranging review leading to detailed proposals for action by the Government, building control bodies, professionals, developers and the construction industry generally.
The Building (Amendment) Regulations 2018, banning the use of combustible materials in the external walls of high-rise residential buildings higher than 18 metres, came into force on 21 December 2018. This was just the start of what is becoming a root and branch reform of building safety. On 20 January 2020 Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick announced “the biggest change in building safety for a generation” including:
- A new Building Safety Regulator to be created within the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) with immediate effect to raise building safety and performance standards, including overseeing a new, more stringent regime for higher-risk buildings.
- Clarified and updated advice in relation to cladding simplifying the language and consolidating previous advice into one place.
- Importantly, the Government makes clear that building owners need to do more to address safety issues on residential buildings whatever the height. “The Expert Panel believes ACM cladding (and other metal composite material cladding) with an unmodified polyethylene filler (category 3) presents a significant fire hazard on residential buildings at any height with any form of insulation.”
- More emphasis on the responsibility of building owners for the safety of their buildings. The anticipated Fire Safety Bill will clarify that building owners and managers of multi-occupied residential premises of any height must “fully consider and mitigate the risks of any external wall systems and fire doors in discharging their duties under the Fire Safety Order.” They may currently be the ‘Responsible Person’. In future they are likely to be legal duty holders following the implementation of the proposals in the Hackitt Review.
It is clear that the issue of fire safety is front of mind for the Government – the regulations are only like to get more stringent for residential buildings, and not just for high-rise above 18 metres. Construction professionals should take note of recent advice from the Government as this is a changing area and should not wait for confirmation of regulatory changes to act.
Regulations in flux – Part L conservation of fuel and power and bits of Part F ventilation
The UK has set an ambitious target in law to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. As shown by the recent Appeal Court ruling on the third runway at Heathrow, the implications of this are far-reaching.
Homes account for 20% of the UK’s carbon emissions. Given the life of new dwellings being built now and in the next decade will extend beyond 2050, it is understandable that improving energy efficiency standards for new homes is a major priority.
The Government set its stall out in the Spring Statement last year with a commitment to introduce a Future Homes Standard by 2025. Under the Standard all new homes will incorporate world-leading energy-efficiency levels of performance and low-carbon heating systems. Alongside this a commitment has been made that new homes will not be able to connect to the gas network.
As always, the devil is in the detail. Building regulations set requirements for insulation levels and other aspects of sustainability. In October, Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick launched a consultation on changes to Part L (Conservation of Fuel and Power) and part 6 of the regulations for new residential buildings. The document outlines proposed changes to the building regulations in 2020 to establish “a meaningful and achievable stepping stone to the Future Homes Standard”. The proposals aim to achieve a 75-85% reduction in carbon emissions over what would be achieved under the current regulatory environment. The methods for achieving this dramatic reduction might include use of heat pumps, triple glazing and heat retaining standards for walls, floors and roofs.
The consultation, which closed last month, is the first stage of a two-part process of change. It is expected that the non-domestic standard consultation will be published soon, as well as some additional details for changing the standards for building work in existing homes and non-domestic buildings.
The consultation is in England only, although the stated commitment to net zero carbon emissions by 2050 is UK wide and is enshrined in law so we would expect other parts of the Union to follow suit. The consultation includes:
- Options to uplift standards for Part L in 2020; and changes to Part F. The Government acknowledges that newer homes are already far more efficient than existing but it is proposed that a further uplift is needed to make the necessary step change.
- More stringent transitional arrangements to encourage quicker implementation. Developers working on large schemes with several phases will have to build to the latest standard whatever was in place when they were granted planning approval. This is likely to be fairer to SME developers who tend to be working on smaller, shorter-term projects. At present, housebuilders can build homes to the standard in force when they started work on a development, even if new, stricter standards are introduced before it is finished.
- In an effort to simplify the rules, local planners will no longer be able to demand higher energy efficiency standards than those set out in Part L. This could have implications for local energy reduction targets such as the London Plan, which currently requires lower carbon emissions than Part L for new homes on major schemes.
- The consultation includes proposals for revising the Approved Documents for Part L and F, to make them easier to navigate, and to support efforts to simplify Approved Documents more generally. This includes incorporation of the technical requirements of the Compliance Guides for Parts L and F into the Approved Documents and restructuring the suite of guidance for the energy efficiency of dwellings into a single document.
- It also suggests ways to improve compliance, performance and providing information set out in Chapter 6 including providing guidance to improve build quality and reduce the performance gap; developing a new style Part L compliance report.
- The Future Homes Standard is presented as part of the same consultation but includes few details beyond the ambition to achieve a 75-80% reduction in carbon emissions beyond existing standards.
Implications for developers
Lighting, ventilation, solar heat gain and possible overheating all have the potential to impact the Government’s ability to meet its emissions reduction target. Part L of the building regulations for new homes currently only sets legally-binding restrictions for overall carbon emissions and space heating energy demand. The proposed changes to the regulations give more emphasis to carbon emissions from hot water and ventilation. They also require designs to avoid unwanted solar gains. Developers must consider these issues at the design stage.
The consultation recommends adoption of Standard Assessment Procedure (SAP) 10, the most recent Standard Assessment Procedure for energy rating new build homes. Developers should make sure they are familiar with what is required by SAP 10. Given the intention to remove all new homes from the gas network, it is also important to start work on non-gas strategies and begin implementing this before 2025 to make sure contractors have the necessary skills.
A (very) brief word on Brexit
It is unclear as to what, if any, the impact of Brexit will be on building regulations but, given the Government’s direction of travel in the two areas discussed in this article is toward more stringent regulation, it is unlikely that the UK’s departure from the EU is likely to change much, at least in the short term.
It is clear that change is afoot in the world of building regulation. The reaction to Grenfell has led to some very immediate changes in relation to fire safety which cannot be ignored. It is however the changes to the regulatory guidance for new buildings made necessary by the Government’s carbon emissions targets which are likely to have the more wide-ranging impact in the next five years.