Candidate for Mayor of London Rory Stewart speaking at Futurebuild expo at the ExCel Centre in London. Photo by @CratusComm via Twitter.

This year’s Futurebuild expo at the ExCel Centre in London was packed with over 450 exhibitors and thousands of visitors coming together under the slogan “Responding to the emergency”. There’s no longer any doubt about the need to go net zero; the effort centres on how to get there.

“You can see there is a change this year, a groundswell of change coming, and this is where you can see the impact of it and get a sense of what the future looks like,” said Jamie Johnston of design outfit Bryden Wood.

New materials were showcased, including organic replacements for plastic and concrete such as timber products, mycelium, straw and hemp, and CO2-absorbing paint.

There was also new software, for example GreenPass, which models the effect of using real microclimate data of different interventions on a neighbourhood design scale to mitigate and adapt to climate change most cost effectively.

But still there is little action.

“There is a skills gap”, said Russell Smith of energy efficiency consultancy Parity Projects.

“It’s a funding gap,” argued Superhomes’ John Doggart.

“It’s a lack of business models,” said Michael Crawford of Facilities Management – and Energiesprong’s Ian Hutchcroft agreed.

All of these organisations are operating in the retrofit market, potentially the largest there is along the road to zero carbon in the built environment.

Not enough skilled tradespeople

Parity Projects is part of RetrofitWorks, a multi-stakeholder cooperative of small to medium enterprises. It works in collaboration with local councils and community-based organisations.

Its model, as Smith explained it, “is to produce a whole house plan, and then do whatever is affordable at the time, leaving the rest for when more funding is available”.

The firm has been working on the Mayor of London’s plan to deliver about £3.5 million (A$6.8 billion) of local retrofit projects. It has now acquired the credentials for wider application, and potentially there are thousands of projects up for grabs.

The problem in London, Smith said, was that, “unfortunately”, procurement is handled for the Mayor’s office by Transport For London “which doesn’t understand buildings”.

“But also, there aren’t enough skilled tradespeople able to do eco-retrofits. Further education is still teaching people how to do it the old way and they are too slow to change. There is not enough stimulus from the market telling colleges to make this change,” he said.

But part of that stimulus may have just arrived in the form of a new, publicly available standard for energy efficiency retrofits, PAS2035, and several organisations were at the show offering training in this and other relevant standards.

Whole house retrofit

Energiesprong has greater ambitions than RetrofitWorks: to deliver a whole house, passive house standard retrofit in one go. Part of a pan-European project, the solutions the firm is developing are specific to each country, because of the different vernacular architectures.

In the UK, partners include the Institute of Engineering and Technology and the London Mayor’s Retrofit Accelerator Programme, where, despite having several hundred projects under their belt, Hutchcroft said they are still developing solutions for the many different types of housing.

“We aim to have solutions for each decade from the 1920s through to the ’70s. But, in a sense, every building is different. We’re gathering data and working with the supply chains and markets so that suppliers have sufficient market incentives and confidence to invest in order to scale up to meet the potential demand. We reckon we’re still about a year away from this, but we are optimistic.”

He spoke of teething problems with monitoring retrofits, “but this is to be expected. We are learning fast”.

For decarbonising heating in existing homes considerations include new fuels such as fatty acid methyl ester, hydrogenated vegetable oil and pyrolysis oil, thanks to proposals by OFTEC, the trade organisation for the liquid fuel heating industry, as a low-cost solution.

Facilities management

For larger buildings, Michael Crawford was pushing the value of extended conversations vertically throughout facilities management companies and developers, from the national through to the local level, to develop specific technological solutions for each case based on occupancy health and well-being, as well as energy savings.

“I have conversations at national and local levels to develop bespoke solutions specific to each building,” said Crawford.

“We are now past the BIM, using data analytics, AI and machine learning from a range of cloud-based sensors. We can work with existing BIM where it has been installed, but this would be a parallel system that will eventually become obsolete.”

R&D in construction

Research and development continues, for example, with a residential retrofit assessment platform for near zero energy and CO2 emissions, known as ReCO2ST, which was showcasing pilot schemes in London, Cadiz, Spain, Switzerland and Denmark.

The UK Construction Innovation Hub, a project in the government’s research and innovation industrial strategy, was demonstrating how it planned to transform the construction industry in new build and retrofit with a £72 million budget. Project members were at Futurebuild with the Active Building Centre – based on the SPECIFIC carbon negative building in Swansea – and the Transforming Construction Network Plus.

Its director Jacqui Glass said it was “about tackling those problems which have dogged us for years, of productivity, lowering carbon, and building more efficiently”.

“We must take advantage of the digital opportunities and make sure our construction projects are doing the best they can for the future.”

Dr Ahsan Khan, Director of Research and Innovation at Active Buildings said there was a wealth of different solutions.

“We know what we have to do, the challenge is to bring everybody together to have the same conversation,” he said.

“Mainstreaming net zero requires true leadership and the speedy development of new business models,” according to Jennifer Saifi, Assistant Private Secretary to HRH The Prince of Wales on the Prince’s “Harmony in business” agenda.

Transforming Construction Network Plus is also addressing this: on its stand was a new digest explaining how the value proposition from construction companies needs to radically change, and how it can do this by adopting new forms of business models.

Most of the technical pieces are in place for net zero construction. What Futurebuild demonstrated was that finance and people have to catch up.

David Thorpe is author of the books Passive Solar Architecture Pocket Reference and Energy Management in Buildings  He also runs online courses such as Post-Graduate Certificate in One Planet Governance. He is based in the UK.

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