We were all finally put out of our misery this week when the Code for Sustainable Homes was officially scrapped – but the completed Housing Standards Review will bring other sweeping changes for the house building industry.

For those who haven’t read the book, ‘Who Moved My Cheese’ is all about dealing with that irresistible force – change. Doing what we do, we have to get used to it as parliaments and policies come to an end and a new challenge appears. Indeed Code itself was a new challenge for us and the house builders and designers some 8-9 years ago.

Housing Standards Review

The Deregulation Act 2015 received Royal Assent this week and will become law this autumn. The headline for many was always going to be about the Code, but ever since the government set out with the heady ambition of scrapping some 90% of existing housing standards, in turn removing much of the ‘regulatory burden’ on the housebuilding industry, we knew the story would not end there.

Rightly or wrongly, the government has asserted the case that excessive regulation was squeezing the life out of house building. It was, they said, the reason we have not been building enough homes. The announcements this week are the result of the housing standards consultation, and address wide ranging issues from parking and brownfield development, to solar roofs and building regulations.

So what has happened this week and what does it mean for us all?

Code for Sustainable Homes – New Applications

It felt like death by a thousand cuts but finally Code is gone. We shouldn’t moan too much as it kept (and will keep) us very busy. But are we sad to see it go? Not entirely. Did it help us build more sustainably – absolutely. Is there a better way? Probably.

When the new bill is made into law this autumn, the climate change act 2008 will itself be amended. The result is that local authorities will not be allowed to require a Code level for new planning applications. Further to this local authorities have been strongly urged not to include any requirements for Code in the interim period.

The one caveat may be around RSL’s – who may still use the Code under existing contractual arrangements resulting from the affordable funding programme 2015-2018.

Code for Sustainable Homes – Existing Applications

For those applications already in the system which have a Code condition, these will still need to be assessed in the same way, including a post construction certification. BRE and Stroma will continue to offer assessment tools, process and assessors so that these legacy assessments can complete.

This means that in reality we could be managing Code assessments for some time – certainly the next 12-18 months. Indeed the Code’s defunct predecessor Ecohomes still assesses legacy assessments today, although this standard was not owned by government in the way that Code is.

The New National Technical Standards

Those parts of the Code addressing water efficiency, access and security will essentially slip into building regulations under ‘The New National Technical Standards’. These are new, optional building regulations which will be inserted into the Building Act. Local authorities are free to enforce these optional regs locally, over and above those existing building regs. The new technical standards will be live from 1st October 2015.

New space standards will also be included, closely based around the existing London housing standard.

Furthermore, a new ‘Part Q’ of the building regulations will be announced covering security, meaning that planning policies around this issue are no longer required.

So what of energy? The big driver here is the zero carbon homes standard – the government has committed to all new homes being zero carbon from 2016. The only tool they now have at their disposal is the next round of building regs, which should provide the framework and methods for demonstrating compliance.

In the meantime, local planners are still able to require a Code Level 4 standard for energy.

Zero Carbon Homes and Small Developments

The announcements this week give us some further detail around the zero carbon requirement and in particular what it means for smaller developers. Small developments of 10 or less homes will be exempt form the ‘allowable solutions’ element of the standard.

What are they? Allowable solutions will be brought into building regulations, and will allow a developer to offset some of the carbon produced from their site by contributing to low carbon generation elsewhere. This takes care of the last 20% or so of emissions which would then allow a building to be rated ‘zero carbon’. In an acceptance that this could prove a costly addition for small builders, this portion will be lifted.

Conclusions

It will certainly be interesting to see how many Code conditions we read in the next few weeks and months. In theory there shouldn’t be any, but we know we will certainly be busy with a raft of existing assessments in the short term.

It is important to note that the changes only relate to new homes. The Code for Sustainable Homes was built by the BRE, but the Government owned it to do what they will. Other standards for new non-domestic buildings, will see no change, as standards such as BREEAM are privately owned and planners will still be free to enforce them. Likewise the relatively fresh BREEAM Domestic Refurbishment scheme will continue to drive sustainable retrofit work.

Effectively, about 30% of the existing Code issues are still available for local authorities to address through the building regs. Some may say these were the most crucial, and useful to keep. Other issues have either become obsolete by virtue of industry and manufacturers taking the lead (i.e sustainable materials) or have delivered little value to either builder or occupant.

Questions remain unanswered. What about the London Plan, which currently mandates that new buildings meet strict emissions targets across all 32 boroughs? How do we jump from Code Level 4 energy performance to zero carbon in 18 months?

What about housing associations and asset managers who attach great value to the sustainability of buildings? Occupiers are demanding it, and corporate social responsibility policies demand it. What will they hang their hats on? BRE has announced it’s new housing standard – the Home Quality Mark. It will be interesting to see what reception it gets, and the crucial uptake.

Whatever happens we’ll keep you posted here. See you next time!

Pete