Ireland has committed to decarbonisation. Can its built environment deliver?

By Kevin Brannigan, Neil Granger

Ireland’s commercial real estate industry is on the cusp of a significant transformation as it prepares for the introduction of the Minimum Energy Performance Standards (MEPS) aimed at decarbonising the built environment. In addition, those in Northern Ireland may soon have their own Minimum Energy Efficiency Standards (MEES), based on the UK system for regulating energy efficiency in buildings. Are both regions ready to act on those goals?

TFT’s Dublin office lead, Kevin Brannigan, and Senior Director Neil Granger recently contributed a piece for React News outlining the challenges facing Ireland when it comes to decarbonising its existing buildings.

You can read that article here.

New decarbonisation legislation: why now?

Incoming legislation and enforcement are part of international efforts to mitigate climate change by enhancing building performance and reducing embodied carbon in the construction and maintenance of buildings. The adoption of MEPS in particular presents a unique set of challenges and opportunities for Ireland. Navigating those will require a nuanced understanding of the country’s building stock and infrastructure, as well as taking lessons from other markets.

The MEPS is rooted in EU directives for member states to set minimum requirements for energy performance of new and existing buildings, and also to drive renovation which creates more efficient buildings. The Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD) requires member states to establish energy certification schemes for buildings, meaning all buildings newly constructed, sold, or rented out must have an energy performance certificate (EPC) which provides data including energy consumption and carbon emissions. Furthermore, the Energy Efficiency Directive also requires member states to set out a long-term strategy for the renovation of buildings, with the aim of improving their energy efficiency.

But how do these directives interact with the built environment industry, and what is the state of the market for new technologies, tools and practices which will help create more efficient buildings?

The full picture of decarbonisation

The current standard of sustainability reporting in the real estate industry is a primary concern. Reports which do not provide actionable insights, repeating only best practice advice against industry standards, often leave building owners no wiser as to how they should improve their assets.

Each building presents a unique and complex picture of performance. Finding scope to improve requires a multidisciplinary approach.

TFT analysis combines sustainability expertise with building surveying and engineering skillsets to offer detailed reports which focus on how buildings can improve. Our goal is to bridge the gap between theory and practice, creating more valuable buildings today, with future resilience built in.

As we anticipate the finalisation of the MEPS legislation, several practical challenges emerge:

1. New habits and new technologies

The transition to decarbonisation requires moving beyond like-for-like replacement at the end of a building’s lifecycle. For instance, Scotland’s forthcoming ban on combustion in buildings highlights the shift towards electric solutions, such as heat pumps, rather than pure gas systems, or connection to low carbon heat networks. These are common technologies in some European markets, but have been seen as emerging technologies here in Ireland, and in the UK.

Whereas the concept of upgrading systems rather than simply replacing them is not standard practice, building owners in Ireland need to factor this into their maintenance programmes and noting where void periods can allow timely upgrades to keep their buildings ahead of the curve and avoid more costly works further down the line.

2. Supply chain and skills

One reason why heat pumps are seen to be novel in the Irish market is because we do not have as sophisticated a supply chain and are still working out how best to retrofit these systems in our building stock. In regions which embraced heat pumps already, like Germany and Scandinavia the technology has become an established part of the building stock.  

Ireland’s shortfall in specialist skillsets and a market for the products themselves is something the government can address by investing in training for these areas of expertise. Meanwhile, building owners can be proactive to get advice from their consultants and project teams on learnings from established markets, but will likely face higher initial costs to bring those technologies in effectively.

3. Infrastructure and grid capacity

Ireland’s commitment to decarbonise its built environment is limited by its infrastructure capacity and flexibility. Both urban and rural areas will confront similar infrastructure challenges, including the need for significant additional electrical infrastructure which will be limited by available city centre space, and connectivity in rural locations.

The overall readiness of the grid is a key concern: how many all or part-electric buildings can be served by Ireland’s power output? Outside Dublin, all-electric buildings are rare, and any available capacity will soon be taken up as forward-thinking developers seek to get ahead of the market.

Learning from other policies for decarbonisation

The transition to MEPS offers a chance to learn from established markets. Scotland’s forthcoming Heat in Buildings Standard (HIBS) and MEES in England and Wales provide useful precedents for both domestic and non-domestic, noting that further consultation is ongoing, specifically on the implications of HIBS for non-domestic buildings.

There is a consensus among consultants that the way HIBS is applied to commercial buildings is not currently well defined. In particular, there is a lack of detail on how to deal with heritage buildings, which present a major opportunity to improve our sector’s performance as a whole.

Moreover, the broader policy recommendations towards net zero carbon, such as those proposed by the Green Building Councils and British Property Federation (BPF), offer a broader view for a roadmap to integrate sustainable practices into the real estate sector, drawing from initiatives in Europe and in North America. Embracing whole-life carbon, creating a base of skilled support for new solutions, and properly incentivising investment remain challenging but there are good ideas for making progress.

Cause for optimism

While we hope legislation will set the pace and encourage a higher-performing built environment overall, we also see a clear commercial and strategic benefit to seeking more ambitious targets independently.

Staying ahead of the market, and ahead of occupier expectations, is essential to avoid assets being seen as poorer quality or ultimately becoming stranded. The industry’s progress to mitigate these risks over the decades ahead will propel (and be propelled by) by technological advances and legislative frameworks that are yet to come.

By demanding actionable reporting and focusing on the specific challenges of today’s buildings, stakeholders can pave the way for future innovations and industry advancements.

Whether you are preparing for the implementation of MEPS, or seeking a more strategic, holistic approach to improving your buildings, TFT is on hand to provide detailed, actionable analysis that sets you up for success.

Are you part of Ireland’s transition to a more sustainable built environment? Are you looking for support to understand these goals and adapt existing buildings to meet them?

Get in touch with Kevin Brannigan and Neil Granger to find out more.