Last year, the government announced its ambition that all new non-domestic buildings in England should be zero carbon from 2019 (reducing to 2018 for new public buildings, and 2016 for new schools and colleges). It has launched a consultation on zero carbon buildings.

The main thrust of the consultation is concerned with the definition of a zero carbon home. However, the government may adopt the same definition of zero carbon for non-domestic buildings as for domestic buildings, and so the provisions in the consultation relating to homes cannot be ignored by the commercial sector. The government believes that the broad principles of the domestic approach should translate to non-domestic buildings. However, it recognises that the diversity of the non-domestic stock means that it is unlikely that it would be practicable or reasonable to apply the domestic solution in exactly the same way and to the same extent across the full range of non-domestic building types.

The consultation paper states that non-domestic buildings account for approximately 16.5 per cent of the UK's total carbon emissions. The paper acknowledges that non-domestic buildings are extremely varied in terms of the size and shape of the buildings and the use to which they are put. The term covers everything from offices and hotels, to factories and warehouses, hospitals and schools, from small newsagents' kiosks to supermarkets and out-of-town shopping malls. This leads to a huge range in the level of energy consumption, in terms of both the total emissions and the proportion attributable to different elements (e.g. heating, lighting, cooling and appliances). The size and location of the development will also have an impact on the range of near-site or offsite energy solutions that may be available.

The paper states that the government understands the need to take into account the fact that non-domestic buildings may be built speculatively. This means that it may not be possible for a developer to ascertain in advance what level of emissions might need to be dealt with. There is also far more chance that a non-domestic building may be subject to a change of use or a change of occupier that would impact on the energy use. This may make it difficult for the developer to take pro-active decisions towards, for instance, installing renewable energy systems.

The fact that much of the non-residential sector is leased means that capital costs are borne by the developer/landlord, whereas the benefits of lower fuel bills are received by the tenant. The short-term nature of many leases provides less incentive for the tenant to invest in energy-saving equipment and the developer may find it difficult to recoup the costs of its investment through increased rents.

The government states that it is looking to attain a better understanding of issues which are specific to non-domestic stock. These include issues such as real energy use in different types of buildings, the split between gas and electricity and the split between regulated and unregulated energy use for different sectors. It is also looking for examples of good practice. In addition, it is looking to collate data gathered from the production of Energy Performance Certificates to gather more accurate information around the intrinsic energy performance of a building.

There is already a commitment for new domestic buildings to reduce their carbon emissions by 25 per cent from 2010 and by 44 per cent from 2013 (in each case as a reduction from Part L of the 2006 Building Regulations). The government proposes to consider similar phased reductions for non-domestic buildings to enable industry to begin to make progress towards achieving the zero carbon ambition.

The government is seeking views on its policy objectives for tackling emissions from non-domestic buildings. These are to:

  • ensure that new non-domestic buildings do not add to emissions (therefore increasing the challenges of meeting the greenhouse gas targets);
  • future-proof non-domestic buildings so as to avoid expensive retrofit requirements later;
  • be technically feasible and economically and financially viable;
  • help businesses reduce their fuel bills;
  • promote innovation;
  • fit within an appropriate regulatory framework; and
  • support the government's wider climate change and energy policy objectives, particularly around renewables.

The consultation paper also asks whether the government should exclude some elements of energy use from the definition of the zero carbon standard for non-domestic buildings, such as energy for industrial processes.

The paper discusses whether there should be a single sustainability assessment tool for non-domestic buildings (akin to the Code for Sustainable Homes), as opposed to the range of tools currently available (e.g. BREEAM). It concludes that the government does not intend to develop a single tool, but instead proposes to set criteria that all such assessment tools should meet.

At the end of the consultation paper there is a "timeline to zero carbon", setting out the various dates and milestones. The Department for Communities and Local Government intends to carry out a separate consultation on non-domestic buildings later in 2009, in light of further analysis and any new evidence presented as a result of the present consultation. The second consultation will cover issues such as timing, including whether there should be any intervening milestones between here and 2019, and will include an impact assessment.

For more information, and to respond to the consultation, visit the government's website. The consultation closes on 18 March 2009.