The new London Plan

Phil Kelly, Head of Sustainability and Building Physics, Ramboll UK discusses the new London Plan, an important step towards carbon neutrality

In advance of the London Plan’s full publication next year, several updated London Plan guidance documents were provided in October 2020. These helpfully outlined important changes to London’s strategy for eventually becoming a zero-carbon city, with the new goals and requirements including a wide range of carbon reduction methods for buildings. Importantly, the need to embed carbon-neutral practices has long been an aim within building design, making the plan a helpful contribution to industry-wide consensus.

Whole-life Carbon Assessments
When it comes to reducing carbon emissions, the London Plan had previously only focused on the operational phase of the building. However, the new London Plan has acknowledged the need to also take the equally important construction, refurbishment and end of life (i.e. demolition and disposal) phases into account, thus requiring the carbon emissions arising from the whole lifecycle of a building to be monitored and reported.

This requirement marks a huge improvement, as the total carbon impact of a building is no longer being overlooked. With London now setting this high standard, more of the UK may well follow suit, leading to more data and best practice information being shared and further green improvements. Whilst the standard currently requires only the calculation of lifecycle carbon and does not set numerical carbon limits, it will hopefully pave the way for minimum performance standards to follow in future London Plan updates.

“Be seen” Energy Monitoring Guidance
The ‘Be Seen’ requirement is another important improvement to the London Plan. It mandates better predictive modelling at design-stage, combined with monitoring and reporting of buildings’ energy performance for at least five years post-construction. This reflects a belief in the construction industry that decarbonisation will best be served by noticing any gap between a building’s design and its actual energy use. Working with the Better Buildings Partnership and implementing both NABERS and CIBSE TM54 assessment methodologies for better operation energy predictions, at Ramboll, we are already seeing the benefits of this approach.

This marks significant progress because, other than for public buildings, there had previously been no obligation to track the amount of energy being used by buildings. Data will now be constantly updated, rather than provided every few years through industry publications, whose publication time-lags lead to outdated data. Soon, this will allow us to have large amounts of benchmark data that will facilitate further innovation in green buildings strategies.

Circular Economy Statements
The requirement to submit Circular Economy Statements is also a game-changer in terms of construction sustainability. Currently, 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 lifespans of buildings are extended, and end of life materials are recycled. Requiring developments to incorporate circular economy measures into all aspects of the design, construction and operation process will thus encourage lower carbon emissions.

Importantly, guidance is being provided with the Circular Economy Statement requirement in the form of a table format, recommended structure and outline of what the statement should look like. By encouraging reusing and repurposing buildings, there will be greater resource efficiency, reflecting the growing feeling that we must be thinking about buildings in the long-term.

The updated London Plan guidance documents, with their emphasis on whole lifecycle management and planning, rather than just the operational phase, and increased focus on carbon neutrality, align well with Ramboll’s own sustainable buildings market study in 2019. This study explored sustainable development trends in construction, finding ways to design, construct and operate buildings that improve their environmental sustainability.

These changes to the London Plan are, it must be said, the first step towards achieving reduced carbon emissions, and other UK planning institutions should hopefully follow suit for change to happen on a wider level. It is also crucial that we continue to find ways to improve these plans, considering any missed opportunities that could invite further innovation. For example, there are no targets towards whole lifecycle carbon usage rather than just operational carbon usage, so without any financial incentives to change, the impact on carbon emissions may be limited. The plan would also benefit from acknowledging the need for energy (thermal & electrical) storage technology, as reduced capacity on the electrical grid and the move away from coal could lead to an increase in blackouts.

Overall, the new London Plan documents are a huge step forward for improving building design, with the new targets and requirements going a long way in addressing the most critical objective of the plan: for London to become carbon neutral. These developments provide a strong framework for other cities to adopt and should help to improve the sustainability of the built environment that will be passed on to future generations.

Phil Kelly is head of Sustainability and building physics at Ramboll UK