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Building Future Flexibility into Public Sector Roofs

Philip Moors, UK & Ireland Managing Director of Firestone Building Products, discusses the need to consider future modifications or improvements during the service life of a flat roof when specifying the roofcovering for public sector buildings.


As the UK grapples with rising energy costs and ambitious carbon reduction targets, the public sector faces the task of ensuring its built assets waste less energy and capitalise on renewable technologies wherever possible. In this way, property strategies not only have the potential to address the causes of climate change, but also to reduce its impacts on the environments in which people live and work.

Meanwhile, addressing energy waste and making built assets more energy self-sufficient is also central to the goals of reducing operating costs for publicly-funded buildings, such as hospitals, schools and libraries, and preventing fuel poverty for thousands of social housing tenants.

Energy strategy improvements are just one way in which additions to a roof can be transformative for public sector built assets. Roofs can also be used to drive aesthetic, wellbeing and biophilia improvements to the public sector estate: but only if they are robust enough for modifications to be retrofitted as and when upgrades are funded, or projects are approved. If additions to the roof require a roof refurbishment, the project budget and programme length escalates, potentially making the initiative cost prohibitive and too disruptive. Consequently, it’s important to consider the potential for future modifications as part of every new-build or refurbishment specification to ensure that future flexibility is built into the roof in anticipation of later modifications.

One of the ways in which we can do that is by using roofing systems with a low environmental impact, that offer an extended service life while providing a robust weatherproof covering, capable of withstanding additional load and varied uses. RubberGard EPDM by Firestone Building Products is the ideal solution to the challenges required of the ‘future roof’.

Improving homes

The UK Government has announced £179m in funding to provide energy-efficiency upgrades to social housing, including the installation of solar panels. The money forms part of the £3.8bn Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund, which aims to improve the EPC ratings of social housing stock. Making those improvements will take time, and any new-build projects or social housing refurbishment that takes place in the meantime needs to be specified with a view to enabling solar panels to be retrofitted to any suitable property eventually.

Solar PV panels could be expected to deliver around 80% of a building’s energy consumption over 20 to 25 years, which makes them an ideal investment for reducing fuel bills for tenants and delivering best value for social housing providers. Whether they are specified as part of a new build or refurbishment, or added at a later date, consideration needs to be given to what happens if the roofcovering fails after the solar panels have been installed, or when it simply comes to the end of its service life. 1.5mm RubberGard EPDM is robust enough to withstand retrofitting of solar panels and their support system has excellent resistance to heat ageing and is proven to perform under PV panels, lasting last much longer than the investment horizon of the PV system. Moreover, the solar installation will not compromise the product warranty because 1.5mm RubberGard EPDM has been designed to enable such modifications.

Conversely, a less robust roofing system could be damaged during the solar installation or could reach the end of its service life and need to be replaced, which would involve disconnecting and removing the solar panels while the roof refurbishment was carried out.

The same thinking needs to be applied to other publicly-owned buildings, including schools, libraries and offices, where solar panels have the potential to be a key element of energy cost reduction and sustainability strategies. They may not form part of the initial build or refurbishment plan, but those plans should allow for retrofitting in the future.

Planting wellbeing principles in public sector properties

Away from the topic of energy efficiency, wellbeing is also a major strategic priority for public sector built assets. The pandemic has highlighted the value of outdoor space for mental health and, where space is limited, the roof provides an ideal location for seating, outdoor dining, greenery and even recreation. To build sufficient flexibility into a roof installation or refurbishment to allow these facilities to be added immediately or at some point in the future, a roofing system is required that will be robust enough to tolerate footfall associated with periodic maintenance activities, but also the subsequent installation of a variety of surface finishes as diverse as planted areas, timber decking, tiles, pavers and pebbles.

Biophilia is now a key objective of many new-build and refurbishment projects in the private sector because plants absorb CO2, improve aesthetics and enhance wellbeing. The same principles can be applied in the public sector. For example, in a healthcare setting, roofs can be used to create wellbeing areas where patients can benefit from being outside and spending time in green spaces. Meanwhile, rooftop allotments can be installed at office buildings to provide a place to get away from desks and socialise with colleagues.

More robust, less impact

Aside from the obvious lifecycle cost and reduced disruption benefits of selecting a roofcovering that is robust and long-wearing, this approach to futureproofing also reduces waste and environmental impact. EPDM is already the most environmentally-friendly flat and low-slope roofing material available, with an extended service life and excellent recyclability, but the ability to withstand adaptations on the roof and continue to offer high levels of resilience and performance adds to this. For example, when a solar installation is installed, a 1.5mm RubberGard EPDM membrane ensures excellent puncture resistance during the project, heat resistance to cope with the heat generated by the panels and a service life far greater than the panels themselves.

When capex budgets are tight, it can be tempting to make specification decisions on cost alone, but the principles of best value demand that the lifecycle costs and benefits be considered. When it comes to both service life – which is warranted for up to 20 years and with an anticipated service life of 50+ years – and future flexibility, a 1.5mm EPDM membrane presents a compelling case for value.

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