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Time to break down the barriers stalling water efficient housing

Chartered Institute of Building

3 min read Partner content

When environmental sustainability is talked about in construction circles, the focus is invariably on carbon and energy and it’s rare that water conservation is mentioned in the same breath. This is not surprising when this is also the case in society more widely. So, this Water Saving Week (13- 17 May) the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB) is stepping up efforts to get the conversation flowing like the very stuff we all need to survive.

Water is a finite resource and population growth, increasing demand and climate change will affect the availability of future water resources. According to the charity Waterwise, the UK could be hit by severe shortages by 2050, if water efficiency is not prioritised.

The built environment sector has an influential role to play in supporting water conservation efforts, not only by looking at how it uses water throughout the construction process, but by creating buildings, particularly new homes, that are water efficient. This means installing white goods, taps, showers and toilets that use minimal water while maintaining the performance levels consumers expect, while also including water reuse and rainwater harvesting to reduce demand on local drinking water resources. For existing buildings, it means taking a whole building approach to retrofit that considers water use alongside energy as standard. Let’s also acknowledge that by using less hot water, households will make savings on energy too, as heating water accounts for a substantial proportion of energy consumption.

There are a range of reasons why a water saving revolution isn’t already happening on the scale needed, many of which require policy intervention to overcome. Higher standards for water using fixtures and fittings are necessary to ensure they’re high quality and value for money, while building regulations need to evolve to reflect the need for new buildings to meet a more ambitious level of water efficiency. Any new legislation must not delay projects or significantly raise costs, so ongoing consultation with industry and innovation will be required. 

The Government’s Plan for Water, updated in April 2023, talks about a review of water fittings regulations, guidance on creating water neutral developments, and a review of building regulations, but the lack of specific actions or timelines is a concern, and over a year on there’s been little communication on progress.

Experience tells us that the key drivers for change in housing standards are incentivisation and legislation and without them improvements are slow to materialise or may not happen at all. If the built environment sector is to play its part, then clear and specific regulations that apply across the country, a clear timeline for implementation, a reasonable lead in period, and a means to recognise developments that are both meeting the standards and going above and beyond on water efficiency, will all be essential.

The recent Water Ready Report from the Future Homes Hub calls on Government to publish a ten-year roadmap, setting out increasing water efficiency targets implemented through Building Regulations in 2025, 2030 and 2035 and this is something we support. It would provide the industry with certainty to invest, innovate and deliver more water efficient homes. 

Historically there has been a disconnect between policymakers, the water industry, the construction sector, and product manufacturers, which may have prevented strong action from taking place. The Water Ready Report, is a good indication that this is now changing.

Water conservation and the role of planning and building regulations is a topic that has been kicked into the long grass for too long and it’s time for action if we’re to avoid disruptive, short-term restrictions like the hosepipe bans in the south east in 2022 and 2023, and more serious widespread shortages in the future.

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