The unintended consequences of decarbonisation

Sewell Group’s building retrofit expert Steve Dam examines some of the ways in which decarbonisation plans can sometimes do more harm than good to your estate, and how to avoid taking a wrong turn on your journey to net zero.

All decarbonisation is good…right? In our experience the answer is not so clear! Whilst well intended, the desire to do the right thing and responses to short term funding can lead to missed opportunities and unintended consequences within a wider estate – in turn, these can actually compound an existing problem, lead to higher operational costs and even result in a worse environmental impact than doing nothing! We’ve highlighted some of the common pitfalls…

Faith in green technology

It isn’t too hard to understand the belief that the newest heat pump or solar panel technology is a magic bullet for solving decarbonisation challenges. Whilst it is true that green technologies offer a way to electrify and take fossil fuel out of the energy mix, we have seen first hand how unintended consequences can occur if not designed as part of a whole building approach. Careful consideration of building efficiency and inherent maintenance and operational costs is essential to ensure that the technology works efficiently and delivers environmental benefits. Get this wrong and the running costs and environmental impact can leave your building in a worse position than when it started – both in financial and carbon cost terms.

Forgetting lifecycle & building user needs

Linked to the above is awareness of the existing building lifecycle and maintenance plan. There is no use in upgrading component parts of a building under the guise of ‘sustainability’ when underlying elements are flawed or due to be replaced before the improvement ‘returns on its investment’. We have witnessed examples of solar panels on roofs which needs replacing and multi-million-pound heating upgrades proposed on floor structures that can barely be walked on. The whole-life cost and environmental impact of ‘green interventions’ has to be considered in context of the setting to make sure it can deliver its intended benefit.

Focus on one path

Another common decarbonisation pitfall we see is the tendency to rely on a ‘single professional voice’ for all of the answers. Property and construction work relies on so many professionals, each with expertise to bring to any given situation, and we have witnessed how failure to engage the holistic team can lead a project towards initial high hopes and speedy delivery but can ultimately fall apart when other professionals disprove feasibility on promised returns or technical capability. Early engagement of a team who understand your full estates strategy can help mitigate problems before engaging technical specialists.

Not making decarbonisation decisions early enough

Whilst funding and logistical challenges of delivering decarbonisation interventions are always a challenge, leaving all of the decisions until the last minute and until legislation catches up is also a risk. Having a detailed awareness of existing baselines of information is critical to ensuring that the building and estate can move forward when the time comes. This may start with a simple strategy and feasibility study, or it may be as detailed as a suite of design concepts ready to procure. Just because the improvement isn’t affordable now doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be considered as part of a longer term plan – a good decarbonisation plan will acknowledge this and ensure awareness and skills are ready to respond.

Going straight to delivery before establishing a ‘whole building plan’.

It’s tempting to want to rush in for capital funding to bring your plan to life, but if you don’t prepare properly, your scheme may not give you the results you hope for.

We’ve heard of projects which have had to return millions of pounds of capital funding because they didn’t properly analyse the costs, and one organisation who didn’t have electrical capacity to power their new heating system!

Funding such as that provided by Salix to public sector organisations can provide you with the funding to engage specialists to give the advice and skills you need to prepare a heat decarbonisation plan, which is then a gateway to being granted the capital funding for your project. With funding available to enable you to plan, why not take advantage of it to give your project the highest chance of success?

How we can help

Sewell Group combines a multidisciplinary approach to public sector estates with expertise in

  • Strategic estates planning
  • Lifecycle maintenance and costing
  • Decarbonisation and net zero
  • Construction delivery and facilities management
  • Compliance advice and audits

We can look at your estate holistically, helping identify long term needs so that decarbonisation plans seamlessly fit with service need and building lifecycle requirements, avoiding the pitfalls of a tunnel-vision approach.

We’ll look at the whole life of your building, looking to help improve its sustainability in a lasting way, instead of chasing short term goals.

Keep an eye out for the Government’s latest round of support to public sector clients through Salix funding, enabling the public sector to access grant funding to support the development of a Heat Decarbonisation Plan – the first steps towards a Net Zero estate and an essential precursor to forthcoming Public Sector Decarbonisation Scheme (PSDS) capital funding which can enable these projects to progress.

Want support to get funding, produce a decarbonisation plan, or work out where to go with your sustainability strategy? Contact Steve Dam on