It’s time for the industry to forget “Fabric First” and focus on real decarbonisation

The journey toward net zero, while still in its infancy, has at times felt like a marathon and a sprint, laden with challenges, evolving strategies, and a collective urgency that intensifies with each passing year.

Government initiatives such as Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund (SHDF) and ECO3 & 4 have spearheaded the race towards net zero, yet, as we navigate the path to a sustainable future, the focus has been predominantly on ‘Fabric First’ approaches and reducing energy demand, with minimal attention to the pivotal aspect of reducing fossil fuel-powered heating which delivers true decarbonisation.

As global temperatures rise, this imbalance should prompt a reassessment of our strategies and an accelerated push toward comprehensive decarbonisation, especially in the realm of social housing.

Fabric first: a foundation, not the finish line

The ‘Fabric First’ principle, prioritising the insulation and energy efficiency of the building, has been a cornerstone of sustainable housing initiatives for some time. While this approach has kickstarted the journey towards net zero, it’s also understood that insulation alone won’t suffice in meeting the UK’s 2050 climate goals.

This focus on building fabric has been important, but has inadvertently sidelined efforts around the critical issue of decarbonising heating systems. This oversight is significant, considering heating accounts for a substantial portion of a building’s carbon footprint.

The EPC C dilemma

Current Regulatory Position Statements (RPSs) aim for properties to achieve an Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) rating of C by 2030. Achieving this target is undoubtedly a step in the right direction. However, it’s possible to reach this milestone without addressing the elephant in the room: replacing gas boilers with heat pumps or other electrified heat sources. This loophole allows for a superficial tick in the compliance box, without genuinely tackling the carbon emissions from conventional heating systems.

Rethinking fabric first

Murmurings within the social housing sector suggest a growing scepticism towards the ‘Fabric First’ ideology. Some critics argue that in our quest to insulate, we may be over-specifying the amount of fabric needed such as internal and external wall insulation, especially in scenarios where electrified heating solutions like heat pumps are considered.

This overemphasis not only risks misallocating resources but also neglects the pressing need to replace fossil fuel-based heating systems with greener alternatives.

We’re against the clock

As the clock ticks closer to 2050, the deadline for achieving net zero looms larger. We must accelerate decarbonisation efforts across the sector now and stop the well-meaning discussion about the best way to achieve it. Electrification of heat, through products such as air source heat pumps, is a proven way of removing fossil fuels from our homes and other assets today. We must now choose to adopt these technologies at scale.

In the past three years since the UK government declared a climate emergency, there has been a period of lost opportunity. Many social housing providers have been slow to get out of the starting blocks, yet now is the time to gain increased momentum and focus on our net zero goals.

Spreading the cost

An integral part of this acceleration involves financial strategy. The challenge is not only to enhance the pace of decarbonisation but to do so in a manner that spreads the cost over as long a period as possible. This approach aims to mitigate the immediate financial burden on social housing providers, making the transition to greener alternatives more feasible, and making smarter use of existing budgets. For instance, funds allocated boiler replacement programmes could be better spent through a heat pump installation programmes instead, topped up by SHDF funding, to allow landlords to continue to replace old and inefficient heating for tenants, but with the added benefit of delivering decarbonisation at the same time.

SHDF 3.0: a beacon of hope?

The upcoming iteration of the SHDF Wave 3, is anticipated with bated breath. The hope is that this new phase will pivot more towards targeting the decarbonisation of heating systems directly, addressing one of the most significant sources of carbon emissions in the housing sector. This shift in focus could lead to the implementation of more sustainable heating systems in the social housing sector, helping us progress towards our net zero target.

Our role in steering the course

Navigating the complexities of property asset decarbonisation requires expertise, strategic planning, and a deep understanding of both the challenges and the solutions at hand. Here at Net Zero Collective, we are at the forefront of this, advising and supporting clients on how to best decarbonise their property assets.

Our team of consultants play a pivotal role in the social housing sector ensuring that our clients are in the best position to tackle the decarbonisation race head on.

As we stand at the crossroads of climate action and sustainable development, the journey to net zero demands more than just incremental changes; it calls for a revaluation of our strategies, that we champion innovative solutions, and make an unwavering commitment to accelerating our efforts.

A fabric-first approach is a foundation for decarbonisation, but it is not the finish line. Prioritising sustainable heating systems will be essential to help us achieve our goal.

The decarbonisation race is underway, and it’s a race we cannot afford to lose.