Managing sustainable projects now

“Close the skills gap and use building regs as a lever for change if we’re to meet zero carbon targets”

As leaders prepare to gather for COP26, Jim McArdell, Head of Projects at Sero outlines the challenges for zero carbon building and looks at some of Sero’s projects that are progressing the green building revolution in Wales.

In a post-pandemic UK, the focus on adequate and fit-for-purpose living environments has never been greater. While the right to a high-quality home has of course always existed, as millions of us adjust to hybrid working models, the aspirational home-seeking market is soaring. Against a backdrop of an estimated two billion new homes needing to be built globally by 2100, and looming 2050 net zero targets – there has never been a more apt time for a refreshed focus on the way we’re futureproofing new homes.

Society has, largely, moved beyond the ‘nice-to-have’ mentality when it comes to good quality, affordable housing, but there’s still a huge amount of work to do. We know that the contribution of the built environment to global greenhouse gas emissions is huge. Ensuring that housing meets zero carbon standards is complex, but it’s also a low hanging fruit in relation to wider decarbonisation targets. Building homes to these standards can be cost competitive – even for the mass market. Yet despite this awareness, and the wider acceptance of the starkness of the climate emergency, we still only see a small proportion of new homes being built to above minimum requirements when it comes to overall energy efficiency.

There is, therefore, still work to be done on the part of governments to continue using building regulations as a lever to move beyond the ‘improved’ to the ‘overhauled’ if we’re to build healthier, happier communities. What’s more, through our own projects, we’re experiencing first-hand the skills gap that too often goes hand in hand with innovation, which must be addressed if we’re to meet the increasing demand for cutting edge homes.

Our developments in Wales, supported by Welsh Government, are good live examples of zero carbon housebuilding. Parc Eirin is one such project; a collaboration with Pobl, Morganstone and Tirion to develop 225 two, three and four bedroom high-quality homes. Here, we’ve worked to integrate an advanced renewable technology solution for heat, hot water, electricity and vehicle charging, all linked to a ‘Sero Life’ platform which gives residents a simple, low-cost, low-carbon solution.

Already, we’ve completed phase one of six, with 46 homes occupied and residents now fully benefiting from low carbon living. Phases two and three are also already underway, with full completion expected mid 2022, but the first completions expected later this month. The final phases, we anticipate, will then be complete by early 2023.

Likewise, over at Parc Hadau, our sister company Sero Homes is delivering around 35 net zero carbon, beautifully designed homes in Pontardawe. Again, the scheme has low energy fabric, with significant photovoltaic generation and energy storage, together with an ecologically sensitive layout and landscaping, making it one of the largest true zero carbon developments in the UK to date.

These homes will be similar to Parc Eirin but with an even higher specification. This involves more PV, larger batteries, even better performing building fabric, lower energy consumption and generation of energy. Work is expected get underway shortly, with an anticipated early 2023 completion date.

We’re also supporting Wates Residential and Cardiff Council to deliver 214 new homes for sale and rent at our Eastern High development. Built with the full suite of low/zero carbon technologies and control, the scheme will deliver high quality, low energy homes built with a ‘fabric first’ approach. The project is incorporating borehole heat pumps, battery and thermal storage, and PV. These are all integrated within the homes behind intelligent controls, installed and operated by Sero.

Crucially, the project is also a demonstrator for our important VALUER research which is funded by BEIS. This is aiming to evidence value differences between high and low energy homes, which we hope will result in mortgage lenders offering new green finance products to bring lending potential into line with a home’s carbon output and green credentials. The principle here is that the low carbon tech in each home, combined with reduced energy bills, will be realised through additional lending and more favourable valuations – a lending/building disconnect that has existed for too long.

Each of the above examples marries low carbon design and smart energy management for the best outcome for both consumer and the environment. Our projects are seeking to join the dots that surround the low carbon puzzle; from simple design and installation right through to smart ongoing energy management and affordable ownership models.

But industry can only go so far in contributing to net zero targets. One systemic, key challenge that must be remedied – quite aside any glitches and teething problems that form part of any innovative new housing scheme – are the actual skills required to make the ‘new normal’ a success. As a nation we face a significant challenge to find the right skillsets to go alongside the low carbon and energy management technologies. Here, we’re not simply talking about the installation process, but the required ongoing maintenance of complex systems. This includes how a system’s parts interact, operate and coexist seamlessly for the rest of a home’s life.
To use a car analogy, whereas previously we might have considered electrical and mechanical as separate trades, the home in effect now functions as its own coherent system, requiring a much more holistic ‘system engineer’-style role. Similarly, architects may traditionally have had a hugely instrumental role in carrying out high-end layout design, but now we’re seeing previously separate disciplines merging, with more emphasis on overall coordination needs.

To give an example, even the sign-off process for one of our homes looks hugely different to how it would for a traditional newbuild, with a much longer testing period required. This means a requirement for specialist commissioning engineers to oversee robust sign-off and legacy procedures.

Clearly, then, there are many moving parts to the zero-carbon puzzle making it a difficult area for any quick fix solutions. That said, as our own projects are showing, there are pockets of great practice springing up all over the country. It must not be forgotten that, largely, the tech in housing already exists to fully decarbonise new housing stock. The focus must now turn to accelerating and consolidating progress, standardising ‘innovative’ measures through levers such as building regulations, and industry and government working together to ensure the existence of a future-fit workforce.

Now it she time to make it happen and it is our hope that discussions at COP26 reflect this urgency.