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Zero Carbon Exemptions: Who wins?June 2014

The government restated its commitment to zero carbon homes from 2016 in the Queen's speech, but with a proposal to exempt small developments by small scale house builders. Small developments (with a promise that the definition of small will be consulted on) will be exempted from meeting the zero carbon standard, but who are the potential winners and losers in this shift and what actually might they being exempted from?

Currently there are limited details on the proposal, but it appears that small developments would be exempted from needing to work with ‘allowable solutions’; the mechanism by which any remaining carbon emissions after energy efficiency and on-site renewable systems have been incorporated into a design strategy can be off-set by the house builder. Our assumption is that the house builder will still be required to comply with the energy efficiency and CO2 emission reduction standards set within the building regulations, but will not need to meet the target of 'zero carbon' homes.

Undoubtedly some in the house building industry will see this as a win. They consider that new homes are already very energy efficient compared with older homes, and that the definitions and methods of demonstrating compliance with the proposed zero carbon standards are too complex. Certainly the Zero Carbon Hub has faced a significant challenge in proposing and then negotiating a definition that the industry could agree with.

Will this exemption make much difference to the small scale house builder? It is hard to see how. If the intention is to ease the burden of delivering technically complex solutions, the builder will still have to achieve the reductions in CO2 emissions required by the building regulations and the debate and issues around the performance gap go on. Alternatively if the intention is to ease the cost of development, again it is hard to see how this will help significantly. Depending when payments into ‘allowable solution’ schemes are required, there may be some benefit, but ultimately the house purchaser will still be funding the costs.

The losers in the long run will however be the government as their ability to achieve the commitments to reductions in CO2 emissions will be further reduced, the purchasers of the newly constructed homes as they could have enjoyed nearly zero carbon homes and the associated low running costs, and all the other organisations that will need to make up the shortfall!

The real debate should be around the existing housing stock and how government and industry can make substantial progress with improving the energy efficiency of our current stock of homes. However, we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that today's new homes are tomorrow's existing stock.