Eco-construction or green building seeks to reduce the environmental impact of buildings through a set of techniques, materials and technologies. This will contribute to enhancing its environmental performance by: optimising energy efficiency; limiting water consumption; making maximum use of recycled, recyclable and non-toxic materials; incorporating biodiversity enhancements such as green rooves; and generating as little waste as possible during the construction process and subsequent occupation, renovation and eventual demolition.

However, there is evidence to suggest that buildings do not perform as well when they are completed as was anticipated when they were being designed. The difference between anticipated and actual performance is known as the performance gap. For example, findings from energy efficiency studies over the past 20 years have shown that actual energy consumption in buildings is often twice as much as predicted and can be up to fivefold higher than calculations carried out for building regulations compliance.

It is also expected that almost 90% of the existing building stock in the UK will still be in use in 2050, and so there is likely to be a policy focus on what can be done to reduce the environmental impact of existing buildings. Although uptake of well-established individual technologies that could improve building performance has been comparatively slow, newer and smarter technologies are emerging that may be adopted more readily and easily, and be more economical for retrofitting to existing housing.

The objective of reducing a residential building’s use of energy and resources through design, construction or retrofitting is a longstanding one, reflected in various environmental construction standards, such as the Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design (LEED), Green Star, and the Building Research Establishment’s Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM). Most buildings certified with environmental efficiency rating tools are assessed on several design and construction elements or components: materials, energy, water, transport, waste, land use and ecology, management, innovation, pollution, and health and well-being of residents.

Developed in the 1980s, BREEAM was the first environmental rating assessment method for buildings that has gone through several iterations and was the basis for the UK Government’s Code for Sustainable Homes. This was withdrawn in March 2015 for new developments, although some of the performance standards were integrated into the Building Regulations, such as parts L and G.

Other European countries, particularly Germany, have made eco-construction a national priority as part of implementing sustainable development goals. The environmental performance of buildings will become a greater priority for UK developers and the Government as climate change and global resource pressures affect energy and water provision and costs in coming decades.

A POSTnote on this subject will summarise the key criteria affecting the environmental performance of buildings and the challenges and opportunities for improving the UK housing stock to meet likely future standards.

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