New technology paves the way for a green revolution

We reflect on the need to embrace evolving technologies to allow the construction industry to play its part in the national decarbonisation agenda. 

A key priority for me at Helix is to explore the latest technical innovations with our clients to meet ever-evolving building standards and to help deliver on our clients’ green agendas. We recongise that we must keep up with the latest developments in all areas and constantly challenge how we do things. This underpins our aim to continually improve the quality of our design and construction projects, and set a green standard of best practice for our schemes. So what are the key considerations?

Hydrogen boilers such as these from Worcester Bosch and Baxi are being trialled in pilot studies at present

Countdown to 2050

A pressing technical challenge facing the UK in delivering the government’s net zero-carbon target for 2050 are solutions to help households to decarbonise. Around a third of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions come from our homes, with the majority – an estimated 25 million properties – using natural gas boilers for their heating and hot water requirements.

Gas heating is no longer permitted in new homes from 2025, so finding an alternative is vital. For our clients, we need to ensure replacement solutions not only reduce emissions, but are practical and cost-effective to install – especially in a retrofit scenario.

It seems likely the most appropriate solution for 2025 will be all-electric systems for new builds. Energy efficiency can be further enhanced with technology such as air-source heat pumps and photovoltaic panels, both featuring in our current schemes, such as in the 14 new affordable homes for our client West Kent Housing Association in Swanley, and a proposed development in Moreton-in-Marsh, Gloucestershire. Future Building Regulations will look to incentivise electric systems, so we should expect to be delivering more and more developments which incorporate these technologies.

The retrofit challenge

But what about existing homes? How can they be adapted to reduce their carbon footprint? It is estimated that nine million homes will be ‘hard to treat’ – which, in plain English, means it could get costly and complex to replace a natural gas system with a different hot water and heating solution. Consider for a moment, how will local authorities tackle this type and scale of work?

The industry has several technologies ready to deploy to drive towards 2050, one being hydrogen boilers. There is a way to go, but hydrogen gas fuel is generally considered as the simplest substitute for natural gas boilers. In fact, gas boilers sold after 1996 were legally required to sustain gas content including 23% hydrogen, so an evolution towards hydrogen is a logical step.

Hydrogen boilers utilise the same infrastructure as gas boilers and don’t require radiators to be increased in size due to their similiar output efficiencies. This means current radiator or underfloor heating technologies remain an option, providing an advantage over, say, air-source heat pump technology which would require much larger radiator sizes to provide the same output, or underfloor heating. 

Hydrogen future

Our Managing Director, Nic Davies, and I recently attended an insightful Housing Forum webinar that concluded that hydrogen boilers could, indeed, provide a workable solution to replace natural gas boilers.

There is much to recommend this option, but it will by no means be the ‘silver bullet’ solution for all situations. Hence, at Helix, we are continuing to explore all available avenues as we strive to play our part in delivering the UK’s ambitious net zero-carbon targets.

What is particularly heartening is the eagerness of our clients to learn about the various heating options available to them and to understand the technology behind them. We look forward to working with them and giving them the benefit of our wealth of knowledge and expertise in this area.

I am a firm believer that we can only innovate when we collaborate. So I am always open to new ways of doing things and actively encourage colleagues and partners to share their ideas with me so that, together, we find the very best solutions to meet each individual client’s needs and objectives.