Zero-carbon housing: a change management perspective

In many organisations change is undertaken within individual ‘silos’; by departments or divisions that tend to have differing interpretations of the aims and objectives, their own priorities, attitudes and culture, and with limited interaction and coordination between them. Over time this can lead to significant problems, particularly at the interfaces, where a mismatch often develops between the requirements of one stakeholder and the products or services provided by another. When urgent or radical change and transformation is involved these stresses can become acute, seriously threatening the overall strategic plan.

This same pattern can also be found on a macro scale within industries and market sectors. When, in 2009, the British Government decided to require all new homes to be 'zero carbon' by 2016 (a plan subsequently abandoned), such stresses were already evident in the UK construction industry.

The article below, a version of which was published in the January 2008 Journal of the Royal Society for the Promotion of Health (now the Royal Society for Public Health), considered the challenges involved and outlined the need for a change management approach.


Zero-carbon construction

23rd August, 1986. The date marked the opening of the Energy World exhibition at Milton Keynes, featuring over 50 homes all built to energy efficiency standards at least 30% higher than required by the 1985 Building Regulations. One of the leading events in the Government's Energy Efficiency Year, the exhibition attracted a great deal of interest within the UK and overseas, from both the general public and the construction industry. Despite the success of the demonstration there was little enthusiasm for change. The future of nuclear power may have looked bleak following April's Chernobyl disaster, but the UK energy landscape was relatively benign. The energy crises of the 1970s had largely faded from memory, North Sea oil and gas were flowing, and few people had heard of the concept of global warming. The enhanced standards were not adopted by Government or the industry, except within Milton Keynes itself.

Twenty years after Energy World the situation looks very different. North Sea production is in decline, world energy markets are increasingly unpredictable and fuel prices have risen substantially. Global warming is recognised as being real and dangerous, political parties of almost all colours are turning green, and carbon taxes are on the agenda. Even nuclear power has rallied its supporters.

Against this background, the construction industry has suddenly found itself in the front line, with the energy efficiency requirements of the Building Regulations the primary weapon, and new housing the main target. This became dramatically apparent during the 2006 Pre-Budget Report, in which the Government announced their 'ambition' that all new homes should be 'zero carbon' within a decade, i.e. that they should generate zero net carbon emissions from energy use, over the course of a year.[1] No other country has yet committed to a similar target. That it should be the UK to choose to to do so, a country not renowned for its advanced energy efficiency standards, resulted in a certain amount of scepticism. So how well is the industry, and the Building Regulations, prepared for the challenge?


Potential solutions

The first step towards zero carbon is likely to be a 25% improvement in energy efficiency requirements for new homes from 2010.[2] In 2006 the use of energy in the home accounted for around 30% of final energy consumption in the UK.[3] This, in turn, caused 25.5% of the nation's carbon emissions.[4] Although the figures for new housing differ, on average 61% of this energy was used for space heating and 23% for water heating.[5] These two areas are ones in which the technology and techniques to make radical cuts have already been well proven, notably in Scandinavia, Germany and Switzerland. Over 6,000 homes, as well as a few schools, offices and other buildings have been built to the German Passivhaus standard, for example, which is able to maintain comfortable temperatures despite eliminating the need for conventional central heating, while in many buildings solar panels can supply up to 80% of annual hot water requirements. The use of low-energy lighting and A++ rated appliances will also help to cut the remainder, but closing the gap down to zero carbon will require significant use of renewable electricity generation technology, unless the questionable practice of carbon offsetting is to be permitted.


Industry progress

Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, and in contrast to the reaction to Energy World, much of the industry does now seem ready to embrace the zero carbon concept, even if some of the practicalities are being avidly debated. The evidence indicates, however, that considerable changes will be required for this to become a reality.

In 2004, concern over compliance with the Building Regulations lead to the Energy Saving Trust, on behalf of the Energy Efficiency Partnership for Homes, commissioning a survey to investigate the issue.[6] A varied sample of 99 homes across England was selected, all built to the 2002 Building Regulations energy efficiency requirements.[7] The results confirmed that the problem was real, with many of the buildings not being built to their planned specifications. Boilers of lower efficiency had been substituted (although a few of higher efficiency had also been used), pipe insulation was missing, double glazing had been installed with the inside pane on the outside, and many houses leaked air excessively. Residents had also contributed to the problem, replacing many of the low-energy light fittings with less efficient alternatives. Under the 2002 regulations the impact of these deviations could be calculated in three ways; the survey assessed the homes using two of them. Taking just the boilers and air leakage into account, 59 of the homes (60%) performed below their specifications using the SAP rating approach.[8] Using the Carbon Index approach, only 40% of the buildings would have met building regulations standards as they were designed, and only 36% of them complied with this method as they were built.

The biggest shock, however, came from a further report in 2006, also commissioned by the Energy Saving Trust.[9] Interviews with 59 building inspectors, charged with enforcing the Building Regulations - which are mandatory legal requirements - revealed that there was not only a widespread lack of professional interest in energy efficiency, but that it was treated with ‘a feeling of triviality’. The subject was seen as ‘not life threatening’ and was ‘low in the priority ranking’ for many building control organisations, with inspectors unlikely to take steps to ensure enforcement, even though, in comparison with other parts of the regulations, compliance was generally judged to be poor. A few steps have since been taken to address some of these issues. Additional training for inspectors has been put in place. The Climate Change and Sustainable Energy Act 2006 has increased to two years the time limit for bringing prosecutions for breaches of energy efficiency requirements, and a consultation on implementing this was launched in August 2007.[10] Lack of time to prosecute was cited as an issue in the 2006 report, although as it was outweighed by lack of motivation this may make little difference by itself.

Meanwhile, calls by the industry for more fundamental reform of the Building Control system in England and Wales seem to have been accepted by the Government in principle. One of the catalysts for this was the heavily criticised way in which the 2006 revised energy efficiency requirements was handled.[11] A report for the Department for Communities and Local Government, published in March 2007, found that compliance issues following this change were a recognised concern and that, for a variety of reasons, the current system as a whole was ‘no longer fit for purpose’.[12] It is to be hoped that the associated ‘comprehensive and wide ranging review’[13] launched by the Department will provide the basis for a workable and effective regulatory system.


A change management approach

At a more fundamental level, the move to zero carbon requires the industry to construct a new kind of building; not just involving unfamiliar technologies, but one in which much greater attention to detail is required, both in the design and in the levels of craftsmanship employed, and where apparently small deviations in execution can significantly affect energy performance. It may perhaps be likened to a factory moving production from family saloons to Formula One racing cars. Such a change would not be made without first developing and implementing a far-reaching programme of change, involving staff, managers and a range of outside stakeholders. The fractured nature of the construction sector makes this need all the more acute.

Building low carbon homes will certainly involve training staff in the use of unfamiliar techniques, products and processes - however this will be inadequate in the absence of a change in attitudes and culture. This should involve all sectors of the industry - building inspectors, designers, operatives, management, suppliers, estate agents, clients and others. They first need to appreciate the implications of global warming and the contribution that low carbon homes can make in cutting emissions, increasing comfort and reducing energy bills. They also need to know how low carbon buildings work, how they are designed, the standards required, the interactions between these elements, and the impact that deviations will have on performance. The level of knowledge required will differ between audiences, but the need is readily apparent from the reports and surveys mentioned in this article; operatives omitting insulation, plumbers installing the wrong boilers, building inspectors feeling that such matters are trivial, and home owners replacing low energy light fittings.

The industry's willingness to engage with the zero carbon challenge is encouraging, as is the prospect of an improved Building Control system. However, the importance of a comprehensive cross-industry change programme to tackle attitudes and culture - spanning training, education, publicity and other communication activities - should not be overlooked. Without it the transition will surely be painful, standards are unlikely to be achieved, and the Government's timescale will be in severe danger.

This paper was accepted for publication in The Journal of the Royal Society for the Promotion of Health (now the Royal Society for Public Health) and the final (edited, revised and typeset) version of this paper was published in The Journal of the Royal Society for the Promotion of Health, Volume 128 No 1, January 2008, by Sage Publications Ltd, All rights reserved. © The Royal Society for the Promotion of Health.


January 2011 update : Five years on

As of January 2011 the Coalition Government remain ‘committed to ensuring that all new homes post-2016 can be zero-carbon’.[14] Despite this, nearly 5 years after the initial announcement, there is still no decision about what zero-carbon will actually mean in practice.

The industry itself, through the work of the Zero Carbon Hub, have proposed that zero carbon should be achieved by a mixture of three factors: Energy Efficiency (for example through minimising heat loss through the fabric of the building), Carbon Compliance (on-site energy generation) and Allowable Solutions (making up any shortfall, up to a maximum of 30%, possibly including an option of paying cash ‘compensation’ into a fund instead of having to achieve zero-carbon).[15]

In respect of the Energy Efficiency component, the Zero Carbon Hub have proposed that energy used for heating and cooling energy should be no more than either 39kWh/mē/yr (for flats and mid-terrace houses) or 46 kWh/mē/yr (for all other homes)[16] — a long way short of the industry-leading voluntary German Passivhaus standard of 15kWh/mē/yr, but avoiding the mandatory need to adopt the more advanced techniques and technologies involved, such as high levels of airtightness, triple glazing and heat recovery ventilation systems.

If such a flexible scheme is adopted, economics will undoubtedly be a very significant factor in determining developers’ choices.


March 2011 update : Zero-carbon definition abandoned

In a surprise unilateral move, in March 2011 the Government abandoned the recognised definition of zero-carbon homes — that they should emit net zero-carbon emissions over the course of a year — that the industry had been expecting to have to meet, and for which there had been broad backing from across the sector.

While there will still be a zero-carbon requirement, it will no longer apply to all energy used. It will apply to emissions from heating, lighting, hot water and building services, but not to built-in electrical appliances such as hobs, ovens, or washing machines, nor to equipment that is plugged in. The plans were detailed in the Government’s ‘Plan for Growth’, published at the time of the 2011 March budget.[17]

In the same document, the Government also endorsed the Zero-Carbon Hub’s approach and recommendations ‘as the starting point for future consultation’, detailed in the January 2011 update above.



  1. Pre-Budget Report 2006, HM Treasury, 6 December 2006.[Back]
  2. Building a Greener Future: Towards Zero Carbon Development (consultation document), Department for Communities and Local Government, December 2006.[Back]
  3. Digest of United Kingdom Energy Statistics 2007, (primary fuel input basis - table 1c, page 21), published by the Office for National Statistics on behalf of the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, ISBN 9780115155208.[Back]
  4. Energy Trends March 2007, published by the Office for National Statistics on behalf of the DTI. Calculated from table 1 page 22 and table 5.2 page 68.[Back]
  5. Domestic energy consumption by end use 1970 to 2005, table 3.6, published July 2007 on the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform web site.[Back]
  6. Assessment of energy efficiency impact of Building Regulations compliance, 10 November 2004, prepared for the Energy Saving Trust / Energy Efficiency Partnership for Homes, by P Grigg, Principal Consultant, BRE Environment.[Back]
  7. Approved Document L1 - Dwellings (2002 edition).[Back]
  8. The Government’s Standard Assessment Procedure for Energy Rating of Dwellings, 2001 edition (SAP 2001), published on behalf of DEFRA by BRE.[Back]
  9. Compliance with Part L1 of the 2002 Building Regulations (An investigation into the reasons for poor compliance), for the Energy Efficiency Partnership for Homes, by Christine St John Cox, Future Energy Solutions, 3 May 2006.[Back]
  10. Getting Tough on Cowboy Builders, Department for Communities and Local Government, 7 August 2007.[Back]
  11. Reform the Regs, Alex Smith, Building Magazine, 2005 issue 42.[Back]
  12. Achieving Building Standards: Final Report, Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) (LTD), for the Department for Communities and Local Government, March 2007.[Back]
  13. The Future of Building Control, Department for Communities and Local Government, 29 March 2007.[Back]
  14. Ministerial Statment on Zero-Cabon Homes, Hansard, 27 July 2010.[Back]
  15. An Introduction to the New Definition of Zero Carbon for Homes, Zero Carbon Hub, 2010.[Back]
  16. Defining a Fabric Energy Efficiency for Zero-Carbon Homes, Zero Carbon Hub, 2009.[Back]
  17. The Plan for Growth, HM Treasury / Department for Business Innovation and Skills, 23 March 2011.[Back]


Read the updates

► January 2011: Five years on
► March 2011: Zero-carbon definition abandoned



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© Copyright Mike Briggs 2007-2017, all rights reserved. All images are protected by copyright. • Business change and transformation solutions