Home truths

Peter Bonfield, chief executive of the Building Research Establishment, is helping industry meet the government’s zero-carbon goal for 2016. George Coupe reports

There are few challenges more demanding than the Olympics — for the competitors and those who stage them.

Dr Peter Bonfield has experience of both. As a former racing cyclist he coached the ladies triathlon team for Athens and is now a member of the Olympic Delivery Authorityfor London 2012, responsible for procurement and sustainability on construction projects.

But he is not worried about 2012. ‘We are making really good progress there,’ he said. He is more concerned about another deadline in 2016.

Five months ago Bonfield, 43, was appointed chief executive of the Building Research Establishment (BRE) which is providing the technical backing and research for the government’s Code for Sustainable Homes, launched in April. The code demands that all new houses built in the UK by 2016 should satisfy the new ‘zero-carbon’ standard. This means the energy requirement for heating, lighting and operating all electrical appliances inside a home is small enough to be compensated for by renewable power generation. Tall orders do not come more Olympian than that.

‘I commend them [government] for what they are doing with the Code for Sustainable Homes,’ said Bonfield, ‘but I think the government… should be setting more stringent requirements for existing housing stock too.’

He said housebuilders and their suppliers, as well as manufacturers of appliances from stereos to washing machines, have a lot of work to do if the UK is to meet the 2016 deadline. ‘It’s a big, big challenge. In 10 years time we can’t build homes the way we do now. Putting block-on-block, or brick-on-brick on site is no longer an option.’

The key, he said, is new technology. BRE is working with a range of companies to develop products and processes that achieve the environmental sustainability demanded by the code, which is based on BRE’s EcoHomes standard.

‘There are very few organisations around the world that deliver holistic sustainability in construction — working with government departments to help set policy, regulation and standards, across to big corporate clients for construction and working down through the supply chain,’ said Bonfield. ‘So we have a helpful mix of private and public customers who we can link to deliver that sustainability.

‘This is a key area for the construction industry and requires new ways of thinking and delivering and understanding how it all integrates.

‘The fact that government has set a timeframe and given performance requirements but has not been prescriptive of how it is done gives the industry a chance to respond, innovate and develop new engineered solutions. It is still, though, a massive challenge.’

As well as new regulations, there is a growing market among buyers for environmentally-friendly homes. Many housebuilders, realising ‘the writing is on the wall’ as Bonfield puts it, are beginning to develop products to meet the code, some of which have been built at BRE’s Innovation Park, in


‘On the park we have built code level four, five and six homes, and we did it some five months after the code was launched, and that was a Herculean effort. Three of the homes perhaps are products that you can buy now, but for the mainstream it is still a way off. But housebuilders are now looking for solutions that allow them to deliver against the code. They have recognised they have to change.’

Level six demands that the building is energy-efficient enough that the total needs can be countered by the renewable power generation. The priority in building the house is to create airtight buildings to achieve thermal efficiency. ‘When you build very airtight homes and you think carefully about efficiency and take into account solar gains, then really the heating requirements for the house are tiny. It’s more about cooling. So the requirement for renewables on some of these homes is quite low,’ said


The houses on the Innovation Park use a range of materials including wood, concrete, steel and structurally insulated panels. But, as Bonfield said, thermal efficiency does not depend on the choice of materials, it is more to do with the engineering and construction processes required to make the building airtight. He said there will probably have to be a move towards offsite construction, where new methods can be applied to engineer sections of a building to a degree of precision that, when assembled, will achieve the required thermal efficiency.

‘The move towards offsite construction is a probability. The key is to deliver an airtight building. That requires a fundamental re-think in the engineering, design and the construction method.’

So how fast can volume housebuilders make this change? ‘The next house on the Innovation Park is being built by Barratt, a top-three volume housebuilder. It has done some things out in the field but is now saying it wants to have a go at building a house that meets the code. It is looking at a concrete, pre-cast solution at the moment. That is the mainstream, a big change,’ said Bonfield.

He said BRE is working with the manufacturers of household appliances to reduce their energy requirements but said there is also a demand for innovative systems to make homes more suitable to the way we live. ‘There is a whole new need for technology and engineering approaches in these homes.

It’s all very well building airtight homes but they need to be healthy homes, so having mechanical heat exchangers and things like that are really important.

‘Increasingly the population is becoming more aged, so assisted-care technologies that send information to your GP are required, as well as motion sensors so people can check on you if you are really infirm. There is also a need for simple things like switches that you can operate if you have arthritis.’

Meanwhile, he said micro-renewable technologies that are available for domestic use need to go through ‘several generations of innovation to become really efficient and effective’.

Bonfield said his staff is working in all these fields, which offer huge new markets for engineers. ‘We are working with companies from the far east whose innovation rate is fast, who are new entrants to the construction market. These are the ones we all know of but who understand the opportunities and needs of construction.’

BRE was privatised 10 years ago, and is now wholly owned by the BRE Trust.

It has no private equity shareholders and its profits go to the charity. It is concerned with all areas of construction, including improving the resilience of buildings to floods. But more than 70 per cent of its effort is aimed at improving environmental sustainability in new and old buildings.

So does Bonfield think that the government should be doing more to force us to make our homes less taxing on the environment? ‘Absolutely,’ he said. ‘Government has great power and influence to drive things forward. The Code for Sustainable Homes is a brave and a right policy but that’s the starting point, and it will reflect in due course what that means for existing housing stock and we’ll help.

‘The sector of the housing market that is privately owned is the big challenge. How do we persuade you to spend money on improving the sustainability of your home rather than some new block paving for the driveway? It’s quite a challenge, but we need to do something about that.’

Bonfield said there is a new force in the corporate world driving sustainability in construction at a pace that is outstripping even government and some environmental organisations.

‘M&S, for example, is a huge construction client, and is a pioneer driving change. There are others in automotive, hotels and entertainment, FTSE100 companies who are moving their businesses towards sustainability. They are driving the agenda faster than government. If you look at the NGOs and the Greens, who have been pioneering things in the past, in some instances these big corporates are looking behind and watching some of these NGOs struggling to keep up.’

The move towards sustainability in construction is good news for engineers, said Bonfield, and those developing new technologies. ‘The construction industry offers a new range of opportunities because of sustainability, whether it’s renewable technologies, communications technologies, new engineering designs, civil engineering, that have not been there before,’ he said.

‘There are demands and requirements because of sustainability. Construction is going to become a leading force in engineering.’