The UK has some of the oldest and leakiest housing and property stock in the world. At the same time we have a stiff target of reducing carbon emissions (by 34% by 2020 from a 1990 base). Sounds gloomy, but this giant problem could also be a saviour in revivifying the UK economy. 'Greening' the world's buildings is going to mean big business for those firms with the right skills and knowledge. Not just builders but the whole supply chain, from architects and product designers to lawyers and plumbers. Estimates put the market for low carbon building technologies in our region, the West Midlands, at around £1.7 billion.
The need for "low impact building", through both "retrofitting" older properties with new technologies and new builds, is urgent. Those carbon targets, rising energy prices and some looming legislation (from 2016 all new housing needs to "zero carbon", and from 2018 the Energy Act makes it unlawful for landlords to lease residential or commercial buildings with an Energy Performance Certificate rating of an F or G), makes change inevitable. And yet the response from industry and landlords is still hesitant and limited.
A clear commitment is needed from Government. A coherent and consistent regulatory and legislative landscape for sustainable building needs to be in place to secure the issue, to reassure everyone involved that schemes like the Green Deal are not a fad but the new reality of property development and home ownership. UK industry in particular needs to be given the necessary confidence that demand for refurbishment products and renewable and low carbon technologies is ongoing, that all the investment in research and development is worthwhile, and that recruiting and training a new legion of experts and installers makes sense.
SMEs are a missing link. With the ongoing recession in construction you'd expect firms of all sizes to be chasing the new opportunities but instead smaller firms are reluctant to make any investment in new approaches and up skilling when budgets are tight; large contracts remain out of reach, and potential partners are put off by their lack of green technology know-how. But the potential remain huge for those firms willing to commit themselves to the low impact buildings market, and provide an important supply chain of innovative sustainable approaches and solutions for the big contractors. To make this happen firms need to get advice and support to make the change. For example, in the West Midlands - where construction and related firms have seen the biggest decline - Coventry University is running the Sustainable Building Futures (SBF) project for small to medium sized businesses to help them make themselves competitive for the future (until June 2015). Co-financing from the University and the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) means the help is all provided free for eligible organisations.
There is still a skills and knowledge issue in the UK. There are question marks over whether the quality of installation of new technologies can be guaranteed, and with products available at reasonable cost and sourced from UK suppliers. Higher Education has a role in embedding the training requirements for these 'new' skills into existing programmes, as well as being a source of informed opinion on new technologies and their suitability.
The scale of the "greening" project facing us in the coming years means the UK is well-placed to become the expert. Learn some lessons and get the offering right and there's no reason we can't play an important role on a world stage.