• Planning guidance for 2020-21 says all building projects and refurbishments should be net zero carbon
  • But experts question substance and feasibility of goals
  • NHSE did not confirm whether it consulted sustainable buildings experts before setting goal

Green building experts have questioned the feasibility of NHS England’s “ambitious” target for all NHS new builds and refurbishments to be delivered to net zero carbon standards.

Its recently published NHS planning guidance for 2020-21 stated: “All NHS organisations must ensure all new builds and refurbishment projects are delivered to net zero carbon standards.”

NHSE has not clarified what this means in detail (see below), but it is thought to refer to both the total impact of the construction and subsequent life-cycle of buildings, and can potentially include making necessary carbon-offset payments.

However, the Association for Environment Conscious Building chair Gary Wilburn — a director of HBW Architecture — queried the substance behind the goal, adding: “There’s nothing wrong with having ambitious targets. The practicalities of achieving them are another matter.

“[The goal] is plausible but it needs a hell of a lot of money, time and expertise. To achieve net zero in an estate of properties with an asset base that the NHS has is one mountainous task.”

Mr Wilburn questioned whether those currently servicing heath sector estates had the right skills and mindset to construct and refurbish to the necessary standard. “I believe we have the people to do such things in the UK. But we’ve got employ them in the right places to do a proper job,” he said.

An “enormous” shift in culture and political support was required to actually deliver low carbon public sector buildings on a large scale, Mr Wilburn said.

However, this is happening in some areas of the public sector. Cities such as Exeter, for example, have released detailed sustainability plans that factor in buildings designed to “Passivhaus” efficiency standards — which mean they require very little energy to stay at a comfortable temperature.

Jon Bootland, chief executive of the UK Passivhaus trust, which advises on extremely low carbon design and refurbishment, said there was no reason new NHS buildings could not be built to low carbon standards.

But retrofitting existing stock was much more difficult and expensive, with older buildings presenting particular challenges, he said.

Mr Bootland said for old estate ”it becomes quite tricky because of the architectural detailing, the building form, the shape, etc. And the more difficult it is, the more costly its likely to be”.

More than 50,000 buildings in Europe, from gyms to laboratories to homes, have been completed to Passivhaus standards — a world-leading marker of energy efficient design. The guidelines have been adapted for the needs of healthcare buildings, but so far only one hospital has been constructed to the standard — an acute unit in Frankfurt, Germany.

No healthcare buildings have been accredited in the UK, but architects performed a Passivhaus feasibility study for a Coventry general practice surgery last year.

In 2010, the NHS sustainable development unit — now part of NHSE — estimated the health service could lower its carbon emissions by 12 per cent by 2020 if it refurbished and rebuilt all NHS stock to low carbon standards.

Asked by HSJ  last week what proportion of NHS stock currently met low or net zero carbon standards, it did not answer.

Meeting ‘net zero carbon’ standards

Sustainable public sector buildings have been a headline goal for more than a decade. In his 2008 Budget speech, chancellor George Osborne said he wanted all public sector buildings to be net zero carbon by 2018.

The Department of Health and Social Care publishes sustainability guidance for healthcare buildings online, but much of this dates from 2013. The department told HSJ responsibility for this advice has since transferred to NHS England/Improvement.

NHSE/I said it would include new environmental guidance in its “estates and facilities management stretch” programme, due out later this year. But it was not able to confirm what guidance was currently available to NHS organisations.

It also declined to say whether it had consulted any sustainable buildings experts, or performed any cost analyses on its zero carbon building plans, but a spokesman shared guidance for providers on green planning. This document does not mention sustainable buildings.

NHSE announced a major sustainability push in January. The plan, For a greener NHS, asked providers and staff to reduce the use of plastics, polluting vehicles and certain anaesthetic gases. It has also appointed an expert panel to consider and set a target date and route to the NHS becoming net zero carbon.

The organisation has also issued a call for evidence for an upcoming “net zero plan” that would see the entire organisation slash its carbon emissions. The deadline for responses is 22 March 2020.


HSJ Strategic Estates Forum

The HSJ Strategic Estates Forum, now in its 3rd year, takes place in London on 12 March 2020. This is a high level strategic forum that brings together estates directors, sustainability and transformation partnership estates leads and trust board leaders responsible for the estates function who are developing strategic plans for their organisations and local health economies. The focus of the forum is on issues such as availability of and access to capital, tackling backlog maintenance, utilisation of the estate and role of technology in infrastructure development. The forum builds on the Naylor Report and highly anticipated 2019 spending review.

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