The new London Plan: a positive step towards a green future

Green transition 16 November 2020 Phil Kelly

Designed to map out London’s strategy for eventually becoming a zero-carbon city, the new targets and requirements included in the plan helpfully encompass a wide range of carbon reduction methods for buildings, in line with current thinking and understanding within the construction industry.

6 min

In October 2020, several updated London Plan guidance documents were made available, to support the new London Plan due for publication next year. These outlined some important new developments, all geared towards better integrating and improving the original London Plan. Designed to map out London’s strategy for eventually becoming a zero-carbon city, the new targets and requirements included in the plan helpfully encompass a wide range of carbon reduction methods for buildings, in line with current thinking and understanding within the construction industry. 

“Be seen” Energy Monitoring Guidance

One of the most important changes in the emerging London Plan is the addition of the “Be seen” stage of the “Be lean”, “Be clean”, and “Be green” energy hierarchy, requiring better predictive modelling at design-stage, combined with monitoring and reporting of the actual operational energy performance of buildings for at least five years post construction. This pays heed to the belief within the industry that to truly achieve net-zero carbon buildings, better understanding of the actual operational energy performance of buildings is urgently needed; bridging the ‘performance gap’ between their design and actual energy use. Ramboll are already leading the way in this regard through our work with the Better Buildings Partnership and implementation of both NABERS and CIBSE TM54 assessment methodologies for better operation energy predictions, supporting our design-for-performance approach.

Except for public buildings, which are required to display their Display Energy Certificate (DEC), there had previously been no requirement for the wider construction industry to monitor and report on their buildings’ energy outputs, making this requirement to better predict and monitor performance a hugely positive step forward for the industry. Instead of waiting for industry bodies to update their publications every few years (which are naturally largely outdated due to lags in publication timelines), data will now be continuously updated, which in only a few years will provide us with large databases providing invaluable information and benchmark data from which to better develop sustainable and green strategies. 

Whole-life Carbon Assessments 

When it comes to reducing the carbon emissions of a building, the London Plan had previously focused entirely on the operational phase of the building. Equally, if not more, important phases such as construction, refurbishment and end of life were rarely considered. Fortunately, however, the new London Plan has acknowledged this missed opportunity, now requiring the whole life cycle carbon emissions to be calculated and reported. Importantly, these emissions are those which result from the construction and the use of a building over its entire lifecycle, including its demolition and disposal. 

This requirement is a hugely valuable development in the plan. By thinking in terms of whole life cycle carbon rather than purely operational carbon, a development’s full carbon impact can be captured, right from construction to end of life. With London now setting this all-important standard, it can act as a great framework for the rest of the UK, resulting in more benchmark data and best practice information being shared and eventually improved upon. Whilst the standard currently requires only the calculation of lifecycle carbon, rather than setting quantative limits, these can be compared to recent publications by RIBA and LETI, paving the way perhaps for minimum performance standards to follow in future iterations.

Circular Economy Statements

Another important change in the plan is the requirement to submit Circular Economy Statements. Presently, the built environment sector in London consumes 400 million tonnes of material each year and accounts for 48 per cent of waste, making it critical that the life of buildings are extended, and materials at the end of their life are recovered and reused to help reduce the demand for virgin materials and waste produced. Requiring the submission of Circular Economy Statements, which demonstrate how a development will incorporate circular economy measures into all aspects of the design, construction and operation process, therefore helpfully encourages the much-needed circular economy approach within the industry. 
Importantly, the requirement for submission is accompanied by draft guidance, providing a table format, recommended structure and outline of what the statement should look like. By encouraging people to actively think about how we can reuse and repurpose buildings, there will be less resources wasted and greater resource efficiency, paying heed to the notion that we must be thinking about buildings not in the now, but in the next 50 years.

With its emphasis on whole lifecycle thinking and management, rather than just the operational phase, and increased focus on carbon neutrality, these new developments align well with Ramboll’s own sustainable buildings market study in 2019. This explored drivers and trends related to sustainable development in the construction sector, finding ways to design, construct and operate buildings that improve their environmental sustainability, but also the internal environment for users. 

It is important to remember that these developments are a first step in the long road towards achieving reduced carbon emissions, and it is hoped other planning institutions across the UK will follow in the plan’s footsteps. However, with the groundwork laid, it is vital that we do not lose sight of ways to improve upon these plans, considering any missed opportunities within these developments that invite new ways of thinking. For example, while these documents highlight the importance of embodied carbon, there are no targets towards whole lifecycle carbon rather than just operational. Without any financial incentives and rewards, this limits their impact. Additionally, with the great shift towards electricity over the next decade, the plan would also benefit from acknowledging the need for energy (thermal & electrical) storage technology. Capacity is already waning on the electrical grid, with coal power stations increasingly being shut down, which could lead to an increase in blackouts. 

Overall, these new developments are a huge step forward for the construction sector. Methodically articulating the City’s aspirations, the introduction of new targets and requirements addresses the most critical objective of the plan, to help London eventually become a net-zero carbon city. An impressive framework for the rest of the UK to follow, these developments should hopefully help improve the quality of the built environment that we will pass on to future generations. 

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