Time to put indoor air quality at the heart of refurbishment

BEAMA Strategy Director Kelly Butler explains why the new government should have IAQ and ventilation high on its list of priorities.

Ventilation, or rather its primary function of delivering acceptable levels of Indoor Air Quality, has been somewhat in the spotlight over the past few years.  It is a pity that it took a tragic circumstance [the death of two-year-old Awaab Ishak from a respiratory condition caused by mould in his parent’s flat] for the topic to end up in the national media.

However, the introduction of Awaab’s Law – contained within the Social Housing (Regulation) Act in 2023 – will enshrine IAQ in law, right?  Maybe yes, maybe no.

Within the Act, there are new measures to ensure damp and mould are recognised as reportable health hazards, which will make quite a difference to the way social housing providers consider ventilation and IAQ.  So, in that sense, we have a ‘yes’.

But what about the private rented sector though?  That’s where we currently have a quite clear ‘no’, given the last Government’s lack of progress in extending the Decent Homes Standard to this area of housing – which incidentally represents the largest percentage of homes that are not classed as decent.

The good news is that the new Government has made minimum energy efficiency standards and indoor air quality a dual ambition for the private rented sector.  The former can lead to the latter, if we believe in the retrofit framework for energy efficiency, which requires ventilation to be reviewed against the increased risk associated with measures installed, such as insulation or double glazing.

However, do we always need to wait for this level of investment when it comes to occupant health?

We await swift progress on these private rented policy ambitions, but maybe now is the time to reflect on how to ensure not only action plans for IAQ, but also effective implementation, in the shape of competent ventilation design, installation and commissioning standards.  It is a simple fact that any installer involved in retrofitting measures into homes, including extensions and refurbishment, should carry some level of competency for assessing indoor air quality and identifying solutions where needed.  The risks of not specifying the right ventilation and installing and commissioning it correctly are just far too great – which is how we got to the need for Awaab’s Law in the first place.

Competency

There is currently a quite worrying level of confusion in relation to learning and being accredited for competency.  We hear all the time of installers attending NICEIC or BPEC training and assuming that makes them competent. But it does not!  Yes, it is important to learn the principles of ventilation but actually you can only be assured of some level of success if you either complete the Approved Document F (Ventilation) checklist or participate in a Competent Persons Scheme – preferably both.  And this is the root of the problem, because plumbers, electricians, even retrofit installers either do not see the value of competency or do not recognise the role they have to play when it comes to occupant health.

As an industry, we have been pushing for over a decade for more stringent requirements of competency in terms of re-visiting the Minimum Technical Competences and using strong regulations to force compliance.  If it cannot be achieved through voluntary means, then we need to have it regulated to happen.  We are now part of the review of Minimum Technical Competences for Ventilation, which is positive, but we are engaging with Government right now to ensure that when the new regulations come in to force in late 2025, they will start to force the issue through mandatory compliance via Competent Persons Schemes.  There is just too much risk in not taking this action, not only for private rented but for all homes.

Let us see how seriously this new Government takes Indoor Air Quality -there is a strong argument that it should be top of the pile for both the Department of Local Government, Housing & Communities and the Department of Health.  The latter would do well to take on board that according to a report released in 2023, poor housing in England alone is costing the NHS around £1.4bn annually.  That should be enough to focus the mind.