Paved with good intentions?

Two recent articles in Building caused quite a stir when they reported on Carbon Trust research into today's new wave of low carbon buildings. Five years spent following over 30 major projects from design, through construction and in use revealed an inconvenient truth - low carbon buildings simply aren't performing as promised.

In a little under ten years, all new buildings will supposedly be "zero-carbon". But our analysis has highlighted the glaring gap between design and actual energy consumption. Even many of the "flagship" projects featured in the Low Carbon Buildings Programme have struggled to better "good practice" benchmarks for carbon emissions defined twenty years ago. Astonishingly, some of these buildings are using as much as five times more energy than their designers originally estimated.

I've been lucky enough to meet the clients, designers and engineers on these projects and there's no lack of commitment or enthusiasm to deliver low carbon buildings - on average they committed to better than halve the regulatory minimum.

So why isn't this being achieved in practice?

All too often, designers focus on regulatory compliance rather than delivering a building with low running costs. Complexity is often the enemy of good performance. One high-profile public building with four different renewable and backup heating systems was so difficult to control that the gas boilers seemed to be running instead of the heat pumps for most of the year.

Without the right metering installed, building managers often find it impossible to diagnose and solve problems like this. But almost every project has problems here. Why? One reason is the tendency for contractors to hand over the keys and walk away, rather than stay involved during an extended handover. This leads to some real howlers - didn't the installer of the gas meter we saw placed inches from a wall so it was impossible to read ask themselves what it might be for? And who signed that off?

The consequences of all this can be costly. In one case, poor commissioning of a building's systems added £10/m2 to the client's energy bill in the first year. And tightening Building Regulations should deliver big savings in new buildings. But if these aren't achieved in practice our analysis suggests the cost could be as much as £5bn over the next decade.

I think the problems are deep-rooted and structural. The Government needs to reaffirm its commitment to decarbonising the UK's buildings - and it needs to be prepared to use a big stick to create demand if necessary. But it strikes me that won't be enough - we also need a step change in the way our buildings are designed, delivered and operated.

Here's how.

Firstly, we need to better understand how our buildings are really performing to create a true market in low carbon buildings. We support the UKGBC and others in calling for the roll-out of Display Energy Certificates across the UK's non-domestic buildings to reveal the best and worst performers.

With DECs as a common language, clients could confidently specify the energy performance they want - and hold designers to account for achieving it. As DECs are prominently displayed, occupiers of gas-guzzling buildings would face a risk to their reputation. Investors could finally quantify the elusive link between sustainability and value - and so mobilise the capital needed to decarbonise new and existing buildings. And only with real data could the government use taxation as an effective lever to cut carbon by penalising the worst offenders.

Secondly, this fiercely competitive industry needs forums in which to share and learn tough lessons. Carbon Buzz is one new initiative to pool data that compares design and actual energy consumption from different designers. It's already providing valuable insights, but it needs to be at a much greater scale to have real impact.

But most importantly, we need new ways of working that align the interests of landlords, tenants, designers and investors in the actual energy performance of their buildings. One potential model is a unique partnership between the Carbon Trust, investors Threadneedle and developer Stanhope. Low Carbon Workplace is different because it requires occupiers to commit to eco-friendly operation, and provides them with ongoing support to help them to achieve certification and recognition to the new Low Carbon Workplace Standard.

Two years ago our report - Building the Future, Today - showed how by 2050 we could cut the carbon from the UK's non-domestic buildings by 80%. And there are success stories - we worked with Hampshire County Council who cut the carbon from their office in Winchester in half in a major refurbishment. But if we are ever to realise the potential benefits of more efficient buildings, we will need to see changes throughout the sector. I've highlighted a couple of promising initiatives that might show the way forward - I hope they are just the beginning.