Meeting the climate challenge

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As the UK makes tentative steps out of Covid-19 lockdown with government measures to revive the economy, our climate change crisis has not gone away and is accelerating. The chancellor’s £2bn Green Homes Grant scheme to incentivise home insulation is a step in the right direction, but it’s not clear how this will fit into a much larger programme that will be needed to address all of the UK’s underperforming buildings.

The built environment is responsible for almost 50 percent of carbon emissions, therefore the challenge is to dramatically improve all existing houses and other buildings. IMA looks at thermal efficiency and positive benefits of polyisocyanurate (PIR) and polyurethane (PUR) insulation and how this essential product can help the UK’s housing stock adapt to the impacts of a changing climate.

Unless a building is properly insulated, it will never meet the energy performance standards necessary for the UK’s net zero carbon targets. Other aspects of the design and materials of a building also play a part in its overall performance and this must be recognised by the government’s Future Homes Standard, which will apply to all new homes from 2025.

Balancing aspiration with reality is always an enormous challenge when dealing with political initiatives and the latest Green Home Grant retrofit-scheme is no different. It’s limited one-year timeframe and the specifics of how it will be implemented, measured and accredited have yet to be finalised. It is crucial that further incentives for energy saving are planned and introduced immediately this one comes to an end.

Likewise, the Future Homes Standard plans to ban fossil fuels from domestic heating from 2025, without undue additional cost to the householder. But with just five years to achieve this, just saying ‘it is to be so’ is not enough. The government must introduce a comprehensive plan of action if they are to achieve the target.

What is more achievable and therefore more reliable in the context of energy performance, is to ensure the installation of high quality, highly thermally efficient PIR insulation. If homes and buildings are to become more energy efficient, good insulation is fundamental to offsetting increasing energy costs. With a clear emphasis on the design of a building’s envelope, the versatility and benefits of PIR and PUR insulation come into their own when professionally and correctly installed, whether that be for new buildings or refurbishment projects. Once installed the product will continue to perform across the lifetime of the building.

UK targets

With the government’s commitment to bring all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050, many independent bodies are now looking at ways in which buildings can be more energy-efficient and outlining the measures that need to be taken to meet decarbonisation targets efficiently. It is well accepted that insulation is the single most important aspect of the specification of energy efficiency measures into a building.

The government must commit to improving the efficiency of UK homes, by providing clear regulation and standards that ensure future housing stock meets the minimum of EPC (Energy and Performance Certificate) Band C or higher. The government must recognise this as a huge infrastructure project designed to radically change the way we build and use the best and most suitable materials to create our buildings’ fabric.

In respect of sustainable building design, tighter U-values in walls, floors and roofs is arguably the distinguishing aspect when it comes to creating an energy efficient, high-performance building envelope.

Available in a variety of forms, PIR and PUR insulation is a highly effective solution, achieving the thermal performance that is integral to a thermally-efficient, sustainable build. With lambda values as low as 0.021 W/mK, this type of insulation ensures designers can achieve the highest insulation values from a material with minimal thickness. It is why PIR insulation, with its exceptional performance, has become a mainstay in residential, commercial and refurbishment projects.

Fabric first

In terms of insulation, with a fabric-first approach, attention must be paid at the installation phase to ensure continuous insulation, minimal thermal bridging and higher levels of airtightness. These aspects must be addressed during construction, to assure the finished building performs efficiently and as designed.

If a high performing product such as PIR/PUR is not installed correctly, it could compromise not only the performance, but a building’s thermal efficiency. Contractors, therefore, need to make sure levels of site supervision are of a good standard and installation instructions adhered to.

Many insulation manufacturers, from individual companies to trade bodies, are fully committed to adopting sustainable design and installation methods to meet the UK’s net zero climate change targets. When it comes to installation, it helps that initiatives such as good practice guides (available from IMA) and practical advice from manufacturers are available to all stakeholders. Key initiatives such as these ensure that when PIR/PUR materials are used the theoretical performance is translated into reality on site.

A fabric-first approach, which includes insulation such as high-performance PIR, is the secret to achieving more thermally efficient building envelopes. Not only will the approach remain an essential route to meeting the net zero targets, it will assure the construction industry builds better for the future, for the benefit of both homeowners and the environment.

This article first appeared in Housing Management and Maintenance online

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