Betting on the general election? Think again

This post was written by Julia Evans, BSRIA Chief Executive

This post was written by Julia Evans, BSRIA Chief Executive

There are number of ways of predicting the outcome of the general election and an equal number of ways of being wildly incorrect. Bookmakers across the land are considering the 7th May to be a field day equal only to the Grand National in terms of punter cash finding its way through the betting shop door and not finding its way out again.

The one thing that seems sure is that the outcome is likely to be uncertain with both a three way coalition and a rerun of the election in the Autumn both being seen as possibilities.  So, where does that leave construction and building services?

Just as education and the health service are perennials in political manifestos so construction has some constant themes. Although construction rarely makes front page news there are a number of issues that seem likely to make the political headlines. Maybe for reasons of one-upmanship, as in who is promising to build the most houses? It’s the Liberal Democrats, since you ask; who are promising 300,000 new houses a year and an assurance that they’ll all be energy efficient. Or the startling alignment and collaboration between the three main political parties who are promising to work together on climate change, which in itself is surely not a bad thing?

But what of the perennials that effect construction?

Representation at senior levels seemed threatened at one point by questions being asked about the continuation of the role of Chief Construction Advisor, this is now resolved at least for the next two years. However other things are less easy to solve – the impending skills shortage, the delivery of low carbon retrofit and the lurking influence of increasing devolution will all play their part. As will continuing pressure on late payment practices, poor treatment of supply chain and the weakening of centrally funded research programmes.

The uncertainty caused by the impending election has been felt in the slackening of demand for construction since the turn of the year, the recent results of our quarterly consultants survey suggested that there has been a halt in new work as we wait for a new government. This has also been seen in a reduction in the immediate pre-election period of house building starts just at a time when we need to be addressing the national shortfall.

So back to my punt at the bookies, I think I will put my money back in my pocket and find something more predictable to spend it on, maybe something in preparation for the barbeque summer?

BSRIA Residential Network launch

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This blog was written by Saryu Vatal, Senior Consultant and Researcher for BSRIA Sustainable Construction Group

The BSRIA Residential Network was launched on the 11th of September, kindly hosted by the Wellcome Trust and well attended by over 50 delegates, comprising of both members and invited guests.  Ian Orme Business Manager for the Sustainable Construction Group welcomed the delegates and introduced briefly the intention of the network and how BSRIA would like to engage with all stakeholders to help make residential development better.

The event was chaired by Richard Partington of Richards Partington Architects, architect advisor for the Zero Carbon Hub and co-chair of the steering group for their Performance Gap project.

The day started with a summary of the current policy context for energy efficiency standards in new homes and challenges and opportunities for low energy retrofits.

The recently concluded Performance Gap project for the DCLG provided a starting point for discussing issues that impacted new build residential developments. For this project, an extensive evidence gathering and review exercise was carried and over 60 issues were identified as contributing to the gap between the designed and measured energy use in homes.  Of these the ones prioritised for action and further research, along with the shortcomings in skills and knowledge highlighted through the end-to-end process review of over 20 new developments,  formed the core of the Hub’s recommendations to the Government.

Rick Holland was present to give an update on the Government’s continued support for funding research into construction processes via Innovate UK (previously Technology Strategy Board), both for domestic and non-domestic buildings.

A major programme from this funding stream looking at Building Performance Evaluation is coming to a close at the end of September and early stage findings from meta-data analysis were presented by Ian Mawditt of Fourwalls.  This focused on the common issues found with the design, installation and operation of MVHR systems and data from whole house co-heating tests. The final findings will be disseminated via Innovate UK and will include information from all projects across the seven funding tranches.

The analysis of key design specifications that would impact the performance of the mechanical ventilation systems raised some interesting observations about common assumptions made at early design stages.  Common themes from the commissioned air flow rates were also discussed.  The performance of homes built to Passivhaus standard was notably better, which emphasised the importance of process control on site, but also highlighted the fact that, when needed, the industry was able to deliver a high quality product (homes).

The presentations of the day concluded with a summary of how BSRIA would like to engage with its members to try and address various shortcomings identified through research.  Members are invited to put forward areas where there is a need for additional support, in the form of training, guidance and impartial technical expertise.

Calculator leaned on a little house with red roofA panel discussion was facilitated by the event chair in which a range of topics were discussed.  These included issues around the effective design, installation and modelling of district heating in residential and mixed use schemes and variations in standards and assumptions between the EU and the UK.  Ashley Bateson was able to provide an update on standards being developed by CIBSE.

The conflict between supporting innovative technology and the confidence in product and performance data to allow these to be accepted into mainstream and within compliance tools was also highlighted as an area of concern.

The impact of users on the actual energy performance in homes has not been included in some key research projects although in reality this has significant impact.  While this lies beyond the scope of a developer’s influence, key decisions about the complexity of services, controls interface and handover procedures all contribute towards the usability of homes.  Instances of how internet based tools and were successfully employed in some projects to engage with occupants to develop a feedback and learning mechanism were highlighted.

There were concerns voiced about the problem of overheating in new and newly refurbished homes, especially when dealing with vulnerable occupant groups like the elderly.  The Zero Carbon Hub are working on a project looking at the evidence and aim to help develop the assessment standards and methods for evaluating and mitigating risks in new homes.

BSRIA sees itself well-placed to engage with its members and the wider industry to help address the various shortcomings and areas of concern highlighted.  Subsequent network events have been planned to focus on specific topics in detail and we are seeking feedback from members to help structure our efforts in the most effective and useful manner.

Presentations from all speakers can be found on the networks page of the BSRIA website.

UK Budget response from Andrew Eastwell, BSRIA Chief Executive

Andrew Eastwell, BSRIA CEO

Andrew Eastwell, BSRIA CEO

In a budget that is so close to an election there was never going to be pain inflicted that would upset the electorate and so measures required to compel anyone to spend money on energy saving was not going to feature in the Chancellor’s speech.   On the contrary, with Labour repeating their pledge to freeze energy prices the likelihood was that taxes on energy would be reduced – and with it the inevitable consequence that payback times on energy saving measures would become longer.

This is indeed what happened where the Chancellor quoted a figure for reduction of national energy costs of £7bn through a £1bn “special protection” aimed mainly at manufacturers with high energy intensity operations, steel mills, paper producers and chemical manufacturers. This package is intended to “protect… from the rising costs of the Renewable Obligation and Feed-in-Tariffs”.

A freezing of the Carbon Price Floor does also have a small benefit to householders – estimated at £15 per year.

One surprise however was a concession given to CHP which now has an exemption from the Carbon Price Floor for electricity generated.  It is aimed mainly at manufacturers using this technology but presumably will benefit other district schemes as well.

The Chancellor indicated that there would not be a reduction in renewable energy investment but since so much of that is driven by private investor money it remains to be seen how they will react to the plain intent to begin to offset the differential between UK energy prices and those in the USA.  Mr Osborne noted industrial energy costs were half the price in the USA compared to UK.

Elsewhere the statements regarding the efforts to increase house building were largely a restatement of previous announcements such as the proposed new garden city at Ebbsfleet and additional housing in Barking and Brent Cross.  What was intriguing was a proposal to give individuals a new “Right to Build” – backed with £150m of finance. The details of that will be interesting indeed as previous ministers with construction responsibilities have been keen to increase the volume of self-build homes.

Overall the budget did have a feel of being “Northern friendly” with reference to earlier consideration of HS2 construction beyond  its current plan, extension of enterprise zone tax breaks for a further three years and £270m to guarantee funding for the Mersey Gateway bridge.

Certainly the construction sector will welcome efforts to move the centre of effort further out from the London basin so that resources locked up in people, land and facilities can be fully exploited without the additional costs of working in the hothouse of the South but a budget designed for green development?  I don’t think so, that will have to wait until unpalatable policies can be applied with four years to go before a vote!

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