When it comes to the construction industry, the Environment Agency’s definition of ‘water neutrality’ is: “for every new development, the predicted increase in total water demand in the region due to the development should be offset by reducing demand in the existing community”.

What is the building industry doing about sustainability and water neutrality?

The good news is that builders and developers are taking water neutrality into consideration as part of their overall sustainability goals. A recent survey of UK construction companies showed that more than half the senior executives in the construction industry believe that sustainable building design will become much more important over the next three years, and understand the importance of managing trade effluent and lower water usage. Indeed, nearly half think the reduction of water, wastewater and sewerage waste is a priority.

More than half of the executives agreed there is a need for the construction industry to become more environmentally friendly, though 85% believe the industry is doing enough to reach the UK’s NetZero target by 2050. Encouragingly, 83% said any projects that had been designed around green credentials had already given them a competitive advantage.

The building industry is already taking water neutrality into account. A third of respondents reported that 5%-15% of their current developments are water neutral; 43% reported that 15%-20% of their current developments are water neutral; and 17% reported that 20%-50% of their current developments are water neutral. Only 12% of respondents believe that water neutrality will decrease in importance over the next three years.

Requirements for water neutral buildings

Construction companies that have water neutrality targets will need to work in partnership with developers, the local community, local authorities, the water companies and the Environment Agency. Water efficiency measures will need to be demonstrated on each planning application and include the installation of low water usage toilets and showers, rainwater harvesting, grey water recycling, limiting water usage to 90 litres per person per day, and off-setting.

What councils are doing

In October 2021, Crawley Borough Council announced that: “Applications for planning permission in the majority of Crawley will now have to demonstrate to Crawley Borough Council as the Local Planning Authority that they do not increase pressure on water resources – in other words show that they are ‘water neutral’.” The reason for the urgency being that “water in the Sussex North area includes supplies sourced from abstraction points that drain water from designated nature conservation and protection sites in the Arun Valley. Natural England is concerned that this abstraction may be causing adverse impacts on the integrity of these internationally important sites.”

Meanwhile, Horsham District Council announced it “is now unable to determine current planning applications positively unless it can be shown that they are water neutral. Whilst this is not expected to impact most smaller scale householder applications, all other proposals will need to be able to demonstrate water neutrality in order to allow the Council to comply with our legal duties.”

Wider benefits of water neutral buildings

In 2021, the not-for-profit NGO Waterwise published ‘A Review of Water Neutrality in the UK. The article summarises best practices for water reduction as well as the benefits. The benefits for householders are obvious in terms of reduced water bills and a reduced impact on the environment. For construction companies, water neutrality has longer-term benefits by enabling future building projects to be built in water-scarce areas like South East England.

An additional benefit of water neutral buildings would be a decrease in the amount of carbon emissions that would be used when moving water to each home. Waterwise estimates that a water neutral estate of 10,000 houses would save 1.2 tonnes of CO2e a day.

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