Editor’s Friday analysis: Its a race to zero for more construction companies

Photo: Jeremy Drew of Newland Homes – the first traditional UK housebuilder to sign up to the United Nations’ Climate Neutral Now pledge
Newlands Homes, First dig Twickenham 10th  June  2021copyright Neil Phillips

Can housebuilders deliver net zero carbon homes? Some already are – but there’s no official definition of a zero-carbon home, and there needs to be, says Nicky Godding, Editor of Business & Innovation Magazine.

According to the National Federation of Builders, ministers haven’t yet set out a roadmap to get to net zero homes, or even defined what a net zero home is. According to Rico Wojtulewicz, the Federation’s Head of Housing and Planning Policy: “We have always said that if the government can decide on a national standard of housing, for instance one such as the international low energy design standard of the Passivhaus, then the industry can plan the route to achieving that.”

But he warns that change has to be deliverable. “Let’s work out a pragmatic way to achieve zero carbon homes – and the first question that needs to beanswered is what is a carbon neutral house? Is it one on district heating? Does it use ground or air source heat pumps? Is it made of wood? Is it airtight?

“The method of construction and materials used have to be thought through. Rushing towards a solution will create problems in the future. We need to work out a pragmatic way to get to the end goal and identify what that goal is.”

And he warns that while academics can come up with novel construction methods and materials, that doesn’t always mean they will do the job. “Whatever the industry decides, the solution needs to be one which can work at scale.”

In the meantime, more of the region’s construction companies are signalling their commitment to sustainability.

Gloucester-based Newland Homes, which is building houses across the South West, said yesterday it was marking its 30th year in operation this year by becoming the first traditional housebuilder in the UK to sign up to the United Nations’ Climate Neutral Now pledge.

The company, which turns over more than £60 million annually, is currently building 22 low carbon and zero carbon properties on a former plant nursery site at Kidnappers Lane in Cheltenham.

This follows its first zero carbon homes development in Tickenham, North Somerset, where the company is building 32 detached homes fitted with technology such as air source heat pumps and high-performance solar panels. It’s also building 43 zero carbon homes at Chapmanslade near Frome. Properties have been orientated to maximise solar gain and will be constructed with high levels of insulation.

Newland Homes’ Development Director, Jeremy Drew, said: “More people are realising that low or zero carbon homes are not just nice to have, but increasingly important.”

But building a zero-carbon home is a significant extra cost that can add up to 10 per cent to the build cost of each house, according to Jeremy. This might be one of the reasons that the bigger house builders have yet to commit to building low or zero carbon homes in quantities.

Jeremy added that signing up to the United Nations’ Climate Neutral Now pledge was a significant undertaking for the business, involving a fundamental step forwards in Newland Home’s mindset.

“By signing the Climate Neutral Now pledge, we made a commitment to measure our greenhouse gas emissions, implement means to reduce them, to consider offsetting, and to report our progress annually. The construction industry is estimated to contribute 10% of global greenhouse gases, so as a sector we have to be at the forefront of change.”

Vistry Group PLC, a top 5 house builder which has big offices across the South West and Midlands, has also committed to ambitious carbon reduction targets.

The house builder is funding research at the University of Exeter to explore the impact of climate change on homes and housebuilding in the future.

The analysis will look at two climate-related risk scenarios – a rise of 2?C and 4?C – to understand the implications of rises in temperatures. The results will influence the way future houses are built, the materials used, and how they are powered.

Alex Roberts, group sustainability manager at Vistry, said: “We are delighted to work with the University of Exeter, which carries out world-leading research on climate change, to explore these scenarios. This climate analysis will enable us to confidently make the right decisions going forward to the benefit of all our stakeholders. These meaningful results will help us identify the risks and opportunities of future changes, both in terms of physical climate impacts and policy, so that we are well-prepared, innovative and can communicate our strategy and direction in a clear way.”

An Abingdon company is building what it says is the most sustainable private residential development site in the country at the moment.

Greencore Springfield Meadow 3 copyGreencore Construction, which is based at Culham Science Centre, is building 25 zero-carbon homes at Southmoor, between Oxford and Swindon.

According to Managing Director Ian Pritchett, they are even more energy-efficient than the well-known Passivhaus design standard.

Greencore Construction was set up in 2013 by Ian and his colleague Martin Pike to build high performance, low carbon buildings using natural materials (predominantly hemp, lime and timber). To date the company has built 50 houses, including the 25 it is building at Springfield Meadow, and has plans to build a total of 500 climate positive houses over the next five years.

Ian said: “Most building materials have embodied carbon because the processes needed to produce them includes quarrying, firing and transporting, so they are responsible for CO2 emissions. But there are a class of building materials that come from plants, such as wood, hemp and woodfibre which reverse that.

“They absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and turn it into cellulose which locks up carbon. When we decide what we build with, we try to balance those two things so we have at least as much carbon locked up in the bio base materials as are emitted from the high energy materials, and that’s how we can achieve zero.”

Springfield Meadow isn’t the only zero carbon housing development in Oxfordshire. Elmsbrook, at North Bicester, was the UK’s first eco-town.

Elmsbrook BicesterA joint venture between property company Fabrica and developer Crest Nicholson, a total of 40 per cent of Elmsbrook will be devoted to green spaces, including allotments, sport areas, recreational facilities, cycle and walking paths.

The 400-home development is the first phase of Bicester’s eco-town that will eventually provide 6,000 homes and associated infrastructure.

Jeremy Drew at Newland Homes hopes that the standards set by smaller, traditional housebuilders such as Newland Homes, will in time be followed by the bigger housebuilders. “It’s the nudge theory,” he said. “Once we start it, others are likely to adopt the same policies once they can see the financial and social benefit.”