MMC: Evolution or Revolution?

 I spoke last week at the Residential Construction Network hosted by the RICS in Westminster.
The three speakers were myself, Paul Inch from Innovare and Jean-Marc Bouvier from Nudura Insulated Concrete Formwork.
I introduced the topic by pointing out the continuing and rising gap between housing production in the UK and housing need. See image below. At current levels of construction and demand we will see two million people short of a home by 2030.
 The Housing Gap
My view is that offsite construction is needed to fill the gap because the gap is mainly made up of people who cannot afford to buy their own homes at current prices, and are unlikely to ever do so. Affordable housing including shared ownership models needs to be provided for them by Registered Housing Providers(RHP’s) and by the Private Rental Sector(PRS).
There is little or no motivation for the private sector to build more housing than their current capacity to deliver. The hostorical figures show that speculative housing rarely delivers over 150,000 homes per year. They are making good profits with current numbers, so why would they change a formula that is working?
The current housing industry based on speculative housing for sale tends to use traditional construction methods as the average rate of sales on sites is slow and building faster doesn’t actually make much difference to them. What does make a difference is changing labour rates, particularly in a boom which makes their land and construction pricing difficult to predict. The regular boom and bust cycle in UK housing means that they are unlikely to either dramatically change their levels of housing supply or change the way that they build.
A possible solution to the problem is to marry up the large balance sheets of local authorities and RHP’s and use additional borrowing to construct homes offsite. This would require decisions on the part of these large clients to support a new industrial sector, housing manufacturing. A medium sized factory could supply 2,000 homes per year, but investors will only commit to constructing such facilities with a confirmed pipeline of demand. There can be competitive tendering, but between similar factories, and not between factories and site operations. This is not to promote more expensive housing, but to give factories the support they need to get going. Clients need to decide that this is the route to deliver affordable housing and government needs to support them in any way it can.
Ten new factories every year for five years will deliver 50,000 new dwellings that we are currently not building, from finance we are not using. That will go a long way to closing the gap in the housing supply. Once the market in offsite manufacturing is more mature, it can expand to take up the remaining gap and supply products to the sale market. The factories can be distributed across the country to places where there is greatest housing need and staffed by locally trained people. These plants can be set up and be running within a year, particularly if they use timber frame manufacturing. The jobs will be stable long term ones, possibly as many as 100 per factory. Thats 5,000 jobs within five years without counting the site works and the finishing trades on site. Its not wise to construct entire dwellings in factories, some work needs to be done on site to prepare foundations, and to finish the facade and roof on site.
Paul Inch, Business Development Director, Innovare
Innovare are one such factory, constructing homes and schools from their factory in Coventry using Structural Insulated Panels. They have a strong history of building high performing homes and buildings that provide very well-insulated building fabric. This is achieved by constructing using large format panels containing the building structure and insulation. Speed of construction is much faster than traditional methods and the quality of the final building is higher, particularly delivering low levels of air leakage and reducing the heating demand from the finished building.
In Paul’s opinion, RHP’s should use the market to deliver their buildings and not try and go it alone. There is a lot of manufacturing skills in the market and it is best left to the market to provide it rather than try and bring it in-house as some RHP’s have done.
Jean Marc Bouvier Director of International Sales and Business Development
Jean Marc Bouvier from Nudura Corporation, a supplier of Insulated Concrete Formwork products described their system. It provides large insulation panels that fit together much like Lego and are then filled in with poured concrete to form the walls of the design. It is a very rapid form of construction and delivers very high performance buildings. By using large lightweight elements the construciton process is safer and quicker, and because of the pured concrete there are no air gaps in the construction. Another benefit is that it is very resilient to wind effects and is being used to construct storm shelters in the southern regions of the US. Like SiPs it enables a highly productive delivery, with far fewer man-hours required to deliver the finished building compared to traditional building methods.

Testing Daylight and Sunlight in Masterplanning

“The code is more like guidelines than actual rules’  Captain Barbossa

Thus Captain Barbossa enlightens the confused Elizabeth Swann on the difficulties of interpreting the Pirate Code. When is a guideline a rule, and when is it a guideline, and what does it mean when it is treated by some as a rule and treated as a guideline by others. BRE Daylight guidelines are treated by some people like the Pirate Code, to be taken as rules in some cases, and as guidelines by others? Taking one approach or the other can have a significant impact on the design of masterplan, sometime with negative consequences for the urban design.

Most of, if not all of, the recommendations offered in the BRE Publication ‘Site Layout Planning for Daylight and Sunlight: A guide to good practice’ are guidelines and should not be strictly applied. The introduction to the documents even states “The advice given here is not mandatory and the guide should not be seen as an instrument of planning policy: its aim is to help and not constrain the designer. Although it gives numerical guidelines, these should be interpreted flexibly since natural lighting is only one of many factors in site layout design. In special circumstances the developer of planning authority may wish to use different target values. For example, in a historic city centre, or in an area with modern high rise buildings, a higher degree of obstruction may be unavoidable if new developments are to match the height and proportions of existing buildings“.

Yet, in many cases, authorities and even the BRE itself, make these guidelines into rules or targets for planning policy and sustainability appraisals.

In more specific instances, the BRE guidelines also state that ‘In a mews in a historic city centre …a VSC(Vertical Sky Component) of 18% could be used as a target for development in that street if new development is to match the existing layout’. This statement highlights the contrast between homes designed to match the character of historic environments by meeting a threshold value of 18% of Vertical Sky Component, compared to the ‘normal’ recommended threshold of 27% of Vertical Sky Component. This highlights the idea that different daylighting thresholds are appropriate for different types of urban neighbourhood.

In the Code for Sustainable Homes the BRE sets a level of 2% of Average Daylight Factor for kitchens, and 1.5% for living rooms and home offices. The guidance recommends a minimum of 1% for bedrooms. Credit scores are awarded in the Code for homes that meet these guidelines. While there is an acceptance that different rooms could have different light levels, there is no allowance made for differences in design that could mean that some homes may not meet the target at all.

Many local authorities use the BRE guidelines as de facto planning policy, and use them to argue against development that reduces the daylight or sunlight for other existing properties and residents. Unhelpfully, Rights to Light, a legal right to light, is a separate matter and dealt with in a parallel process, sometimes involving the courts. This is usually an issue when new development affects the daylight of an existing building by overshadowing it.

When designing large-scale developments, covering a new urban quarter, current practice guides the designer towards layouts that are partially reminiscent of historical urban quarters containing streets and squares.  It is entirely consistent with the design of modern urban masterplans that there will be areas of high density living and areas of low density living that have different characters, amenity, outlook, density, and property values. Daylight is part of the character of a building and the homes within it. It is part of the character of a street. In London, there is a world of difference between the character of the houses in a Victorian terrace, suburban Barnet, and mansion blocks in Kensington. Each have their own character and value.  Designing homes, streets and squares to all meet a particular daylight threshold may not help to produce an enjoyable and varied urban environment that reflects the variety available in most cities. I think that the BRE guidelines should be treated as guidelines and strict daylighting thresholds should rarely be applied across large scale masterplans.

Some countries apply this type of guidance very strictly, Russia and China particularly enshrine daylight into national regulation. The result is often poor quality urban design resulting in all new buildings facing South and ignoring traditional street layouts. It may deliver the appropriate hours of sunlight on a particular date in March but the impact can be very detrimental to the quality of life in cities.

I think that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to design a high density urban environment without having some units at street level with low daylight amenity, as well as many units at high level that have much higher levels of daylight than guidelines would suggest. Large glazed areas may give apartments a stunning view, but high levels of daylight almost always translate into high levels of solar gains and overheating.

It is important that streets are overlooked at all times by windows and have front doors coming from them at regular intervals. This means that homes on east-west streets will always have facades with a northern aspect and will have low levels of sunlight on that facade. Where streets are aiming for an urban character and are 4-6 stories high on both sides, it is inevitable that the units on the ground floors will have low daylight levels. This does not prevent those units from being attractive and useful. Central London has many basements which are fully occupied and enjoyed by residents and which undoubtedly have low levels of daylight. Their proximity to services and jobs is deemed to be of higher importance by their residents than daylight levels.

The Mayors Standard for Dual-Aspect Homes

London homes are designed to meet the Mayors Standard. This includes Standard 5.2.1 which states that “Developments should avoid single aspect dwellings that are north facing, exposed to noise levels above which significant adverse effects on health and quality of life occur, or contain three or more bedrooms”. The guidance adds “A home with opening windows on at least two sides has many inherent benefits, including better daylight, a greater chance of direct sunlight for longer periods, natural cross ventilation, mitigating pollution, offering a choice of views…..”.

Following this guidance means that even in situations where some elevations of buildings have poor access to daylight or sunlight, the likelihood is that homes within the plan can be designed to gain daylight and sunlight from another elevation, either from a side street or from a courtyard. The detailed design can prioritise the design of single aspect dwellings in areas where there is good daylight/sunlight availability to ensure that every unit has rooms that provide the best level of light available.

External Spaces & Courtyards

BRE guidance would suggest applying a single guideline for external amenity spaces, but the actual use of them may be very different, and may be in different character areas of any masterplan, external spaces should be designed to have different characters. For example, ground floor courtyards may become a first floor podium depending on the parking requirements, making it difficult to test the design at an early stage. Do you test the worst case or the best case, even though the worst case in daylight terms is the best case in urban design terms, as a courtyard on the ground will be a better used space than a courtyard on an upper level. If there are taller building should the roofs be designed as amenity spaces? High level roofs have very good levels of daylight/sunlight amenity, but they can never replace a ground level external space as the best possible common space.

Where courtyards are to be used for doorstep play, sunlight analysis can be used to show where there are places within each courtyard that have good light levels where play equipment can be located. It makes sense to put play spots in a sunny location, even if that location isn’t sunny for long periods.

Public Open Spaces

Daylight for Public spaces is even more difficult to deal with. Does it matter whether an urban square is well lit or not? When most of the activity in the space is transient and the space is largely serving the needs of people moving through the area from outside, it is arguable that the amount of light in the space is largely irrelevant. If the space is not to be used for people to sit, or play, then it is difficult to argue for a particular threshold of light or sunshine. This is not to say that sunlight or sunshine is not going to add enjoyment and character to the space, but that setting a particular threshold value of sunshine or daylight is not a valid approach. If the landscape designer wants to plant the space with trees, then the amount of light available is also a consideration for the types of planting that will thrive there.

Overheating

As the UK climate changes and average annual temperatures continue to rise, the danger of overheating due to solar gains will increase. High levels of daylight will also mean high levels of solar gains, which brings with it the risk of overheating. Currently there are no overheating tests that are required to be carried out by regulations that are sufficiently robust to deal with this problem. Overheating can be mitigated by a number of measures, including external shading, ventilation and occupant management. The people at most risk of heat stress are the older and younger parts of the resident group and particular care should be taken to protect older residents from overheating. There are some advantages to older people being in units at low levels of buildings with lower daylight and sunlight levels as these will be cooler in hot summers than units at high levels.

Summary.

Applying a single standard of daylight amenity to something as complex as an urban masterplan is not advisable. Different external spaces and streets have different requirements, and different buildings can and should have varying characters to make an interesting city. Daylight and sunlight are very important aspects of that character and should be appraised from the beginning of the design. The design team and planning officers should be aware of the impact of their decisions on the daylight available from the earliest part of the process but not rely solely on numbers to guide their decisions. Quality matters as much as quantity, but is much more difficult to appraise.

The Electric City

WSP Engineering group have carried out some interesting research into the potential of the Electric City. The basic principle is that we should move away from combustion within cities for heating homes, buildings, generating power, cooling or transport, and rely on electrons instead.

The potential benefits are staggering. The future city powered by electricity has a much better environment for its inhabitants with lower emissions and fewer particulates in the air, the air is cleaner because much of our air quality problems stem from combustion in boilers and engines. The city is quieter because electric motors are quieter than combustion engines. The city produces less CO2 emissions because heat pumps are more efficient than boilers and electric cars are more efficient than combustion engines.

WSP calculate that if we aimed to create an all-electric London by 2030 we could have
– reduced NOx levels by 37%
– vehicle noise levels will be reduced by 25-50%
– electricity usage in the capital would double from 40k GWh to 80k GWh per year
– CO2 emissions would drop from 88 MtCO2 to around 8 MTCO2 per year, a drop of around 90%.

SAP, the tool used to assess the compliance of UK housing for Building Regulations, uses a CO2 factor for UK Grid electricity based on a three year average prediction of the Grid emissions. What WSP’s work makes clear is that this is the wrong period to use for predictions. The long term predicted emissions for the UK Grid is for it to be lower than gas, and to reach this point before 2020. Using a ‘dirty’ Grid emissions factor now, means that we are installing gas CHP and gas boilers in the anticipation that they will drive down CO2 emissions. But during the lifetime of these systems the Electricity Grid emission will drop below gas and continue to drop until it is much lower. So installing systems now that have a twenty or thirty year life of predicted emissions is actually likely to raise emissions rather than reduce them.

A major issue for housing in all of this is that currently it is much cheaper to heat a home using gas than electricity, because electricity is three times more expensive. The problem we need to solve is how to reduce heating demand to a point where new homes can be heated by electricity for the same amount of money as other homes on the market can be heated by gas. There are well documented problems where newish homes were heated by heat pumps resulting in higher than average bills because the homes simply weren’t efficient enough. Perhaps we need to look again at dual tariff electricity supplies to new homes using off peak electricity to drive heat pumps?

With cars the picture is different because petrol is so much more expensive than gas, electric driving is a much cheaper option, so it is entirely likely that electric transport will lead the electric revolution faster than the construction industry. Cars have a shorter life than building services, so the replacement rate for cars will mean that technological changes will be introduced more quickly in any case.

Whatever the outcome this is an excellent piece of work, and highlights the benefits of taking a long term view of energy policy and market intervention.

Book Review: Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change

Written by Peter Calthorpe and published in 2011, this relatively small book sets out a new (to North America) approach to the planning of large scale urban settlements. 
These include 
– building settlements close to public transport
– expanding public transport availability to match demand, in whatever way makes sense locally
– building a diverse range of housing to cater for the smaller family sizes of modern populations
– avoid creating car-dominated infrastructure
– create walkable neighbourhoods where people can work and live within walking distance
– use a tripartite planning structure cascading down from national to regional and local policies, plans and standards
– have an integrated trasnport and development policy

Underpinning all of these is his contention, which I agree with, than urbanism on its own is an inherently sustainable way of living, and that suburban sprawl is not. Even without the addition of high quality homes that produce little or no CO2 emissions, living at densities of 50 dwellings per hectare and above in an environment where public tranport is available and where work can be within a walking distance. 
He points out in a compelling and very clear set of graphics that if North America was to adopt what he calls an Urban-Green scenario for its new housing it could save
-12,000 miles of car journeys per household per year
-reduce air pollution by 43%
-save $15,000 per household per year in transport and heating fuel costs
– save 25,700 square miles of land from development by 2050
– save 75% of potable water use
– save 80% of an individuals CO2 emissions compared to a 1990 baseline, without doing anything else

Some of this may seem obvious to a UK audience, long used to hearing these views expressed in planning policy in various ways over a long period. But when you examine our current direction of travel it is not immediately obvious that we are going to hit these levels of performance in the UK.

– We had a PPG that mandated 50 dwellings per hectare, and it was removed by the current government.
– We had regional development agencies tasked with coordinating development at a regional level, now we do not.
– The same government has recently announced a major road building programme to reduce congestion, when we are all pretty sure that building new roads has almost no impact on congestion.
– Low carbon homes are on the agenda in the UK, but somewhat unwillingly and the level of ambition has been downgraded many times.
– New Garden cities are regularly touted as a great idea despite generally being proposed in places with poor transport, and envisaged as being constructed at low densities.

So while we pride ourselves on being much greener in general than North America, the gap between us and them may not be as great as we think. If we are planning a future that is less green than parts of North America, it may be time to think again.

I strongly recommend this book, it is well written and the ideas are strong and clearly expressed. The graphics are well illustrated and paint a very complex picture in a very clear way. It should find a place on every urban designers bookshelf and It should be recommended reading for every housing minister.

Zero Carbon Exemption Consultation Response

See below for my response to this current consultation, it closes tomorrow, so make sure you get your submissions in. Note that this exemption will require further legislation following on from the introduction of Allowable Solutions in the Infrastructure Bill.

The consultation document can be read on DCLG’s website. The main elements are

  • The proposal is to exempt small sites from the Allowable Solutions element of the Zero Carbon(2016) proposals. That is, the CO2 offset payment for that CO2 not mitigated on site by the development multiplied by 30 years multiplied by the agreed cost of CO2 per tonne. (£30-£90)
  • The consultation seeks views on the proposals including
    • The definition of small sites
    • Whether the exemption should relate to developers who are small or to any developer developing small sites
    • Whether the exemption should relate to Allowable Solutions only or whether the exemption should relate to Carbon Compliance as well

Question 1 – should the exemption be targeted at site size, developer size, or a combination of both?  Is there any evidence to support the choice made?

To act as an encouragement to development, the exemption would be better replaced with a measure that promotes the bringing forward of new land for development in areas of the UK that need it most. By removing any benefit to the Local Authority in the form of the Allowable Solutions payment, any encouragement to the Local Authority or to the local community to grant planning permission is removed. In some cases the Allowable Solutions monies would be spent on improving the energy efficiency of local homes under Local Authority retrofit schemes, replacing lighting in local schools or replacing street lighting with more energy efficient versions, all of which are a benefit to the local community and all of which would encourage the local community to welcome development rather than fighting it. By removing this incentive to welcome development the measure is as likely to restrict development as it is to encourage it.

Any incentive to development should be aimed at the developer, and not the site, and the incentive should be aimed at small developers who build less than 100 homes per annum.

Question 2– if the Government chose a site size exemption, what level should this be set and why?

I don’t agree that introducing a site exemption makes any sense, but if it were to make sense it would be sensible to chose the size of site that the local authority sets as a ‘minor’ application. As this tends to vary across the country, the exemption size should change also.

Question 3 – if the Government chose a developer size exemption, what criteria should it apply and why?

Exempting developers from meeting the zero carbon targets makes no sense, either for the developer or for the local authority giving permission for development. The developer will not make any more profit from the sales than before but will pay less for the land to make the viability calculation work, so the only loser in this equation will be the landowner.

If an incentive is introduced it should only be used to promote new entrants into the market, or small developers offering local custom build homes on small sites.

Question 4 – What do you think the scope of the exemption should cover? An exemption for the allowable solutions scheme only, or an additional exemption from Building Regulations requirements? Do you have any evidence to support the choice between these options?

 I see no benefit in providing the exemption at all, and I certainly see no benefit in increasing the scope for relaxation in Building Regulations beyond Allowable Solutions. Home purchasers in the UK can and should be sold the highest performing homes that can be made available to them to enable the UK to meet its legally binding cuts in CO2 emissions. Reducing the energy efficiency of new homes in one sector sends a dangerous message to all sectors, that energy efficiency is not so important that it cannot be ‘tinkered with’. Reducing the build quality of homes to enable developers to increase their profit is tinkering with the housing market in an unacceptable way. We would not consider reducing the energy efficiency of new cars to enable car sales companies to sell more cars. In addition this confuses the market and weakens the ‘brand’ of new homes. One of the main benefits of a new home over an existing home is the much superior energy efficiency. Purchasers should not be confused by having new homes at different levels of building regulation compliance offered to them at the same time, in the same area, under the same legislation.

Most developers make the profit from their activities by buying land at low values and selling land with housing on it at high values. The cost of delivering the homes is a relatively small part of the financial equation and the impact of this proposal is likely to be small and should not be overestimated.

Question 5 – What are your views on the proposed review period for the exemption?

If an exemption is introduced it should only be retained for the period between 2016 and the following revision to the Building Regulations. This is likely to be 2020 to bring UK regulations into line with EU 2020 Nearly Zero Energy Buildings. Furthermore the exemption should not be capable of being ‘booked’ in advance. Sites that are not completed or substantially under way on the date of the introduction of the new regulations should lose the exemption, it should not be carried forward.

 

Question 4(sic) – Do you have any further evidence that would help inform the impact assessment?

Many of the smallest sites brought forward for development will be self-build sites. In this case the developer is the future owner of the home and is likely to live in the home for a sustained period of time.

Since self-builders are already exempt from CIL and s106 payments, there is a danger of this incentive becoming an additional incentive to a group that are already benefiting from other exemptions.

The Allowable Solutions system is not yet fully developed and it is concerning that the Department should be considering exemptions to it before it has even been introduced. To work well, it will need Local Authorities in every region to have working projects that can be funded through the Allowable Solutions payments. Projects are likely to include retrofitting of nearby old properties and improving the energy efficiency of street lighting. This will be beneficial to communities and will play a part in helping communities see that there are benefits to them in allowing development to happen. Removing this benefit for some sites weakens the Allowable Solutions before it is introduced and will weaken Local Authorities resolve to bring plans forward that can benefit from the payments. If these local plans are not in place the Allowable Solutions can still work by paying into a national fund, but this will be an opportunity missed. Payments by developers into a national fund will not bring any further benefits to the developers in terms of winning the hearts and minds of the communities that they work with every day, and instead will see their money going elsewhere to an Allowable Solutions fund that they have no control over. Any opportunity to demonstrate to communities that development is a positive thing for them should be taken.

Happy Christmas to all my readers, and welcome to 2015.

Dear All, I wish you all a very happy Christmas and a prosperous New Year. Its been a good year for me, professionally and personally and I am looking forward to 2015.

2015 is going to be an interesting year for two big reasons. Elections and Paris.

In May in the UK, we get to elect the Government we deserve and in December they will participate in the Paris Climate Agreement talks to agree actions worldwide to limit climate changing emissions for the next few decades. If that doesn’t concentrate the mind, what would?

In the UK we have the prospect of coalitions ahead, and having grown up under Proportional Representation, this doesn’t bother me at all. The last five years have shown to the electorate that a coalition government can govern in the UK, whether you like what they have done or not. It also shows the danger to the smaller parties of making promises in pre-election manifestos that they cannot possibly keep.

On the right of the three parties we have the loony right, UKIP, who don’t think climate action is a priority, and slightly to the left of them are the Tories who have managed to make the words ‘greenest government ever’ into a new sort of insult.

On the far left we have the Green Party whose numbers are swelling impressively in recent months and in recent by elections have come in fourth place. Will this lead to more MP’s in Parliament in 2015? I certainly hope so.

Whatever the decisions we make in 2015, who we vote for will have farther reaching consequences than usual. Choose wisely!

Meanwhile enjoy the holiday, rest and relax, and prepare yourself for what is going to be a very busy 2015.

Rory.

Zero Carbon(2016) Exemption Proposals

The plan to exempt small sites from zero-carbon legislation strikes me as being a total waste of time, energy and money and I cannot fathom why DCLG are wasting their precious time (and mine if it comes to that) with it.

The consultation document can be read here. The main elements are
– The proposal is to exempt small sites from the Allowable Solutions element of the Zero Carbon(2016) proposals. That is, the CO2 offset payment for that CO2 not mitigated on site by the development multiplied by 30 years multiplied by the agreed cost of CO2 per tonne.
– The consultation seeks views on the proposals including
The definition of small sites
Whether the exemption should relate to developers who are small or to any developer developing small sites
Whether the exemption should relate to Allowable Solutions only or whether the exemption should relate to Carbon Compliance as well
How long a time-frame the exemption should last for.

The problem I have with this is: where is the evidence that this is going to promote development? I haven’t seen any. Figures from the consultation document point out that 10% of planning applications in the UK measured by unit number were for single dwellings. That amounted to 24,000 units. So that tells me that there is a lot of activity in this sector and we can expect that to continue.
The Allowable Solutions impact of about £2-3k per plot will act as a small disincentive to development, but since many of those applications (my conjecture) are for the people who will actually live in those homes, the additional costs can be weighed against a lower cost of living for the occupants. The savings in fuel bills over the lifetime of the dwelling will pay for the relatively small additional cost. This is a calculation that many people will be able to do, and probably will realise that if they increase the build specification slightly they will reduce the Allowable Solutions costs and save themselves even more money. This seems to me to be a virtuous circle. People build more efficient homes for themselves, and they save money over and lifetime and there is less CO2 produced. This sounds like a market actually working. So why does the Government think that this is a market they need to interfere in before they actually have it in place?
The likely time frame would be from 2016 until the next issue of the Building Regulations, around 2020. This would allow the costs of the Zero Carbon (2016) to drop and the costs of Allowable Solutions to be absorbed. Again this seems to me to be counter productive. The way to reduce the costs of the Zero Carbon (2016) standard is to have everyone use it as soon as possible. This will bring down the cost of the insulation and window products that are needed to reach the standard, and then they will be available to all and not just the large housebuilders with very cost-effective supply chains. This proposal risks creating a two tier industry with higher costs of smaller builders and lower costs to larger builders.
The problem lies with the speculative nature of so much of our housebuilding. The builder of some of these small plots doesn’t know who the buyer has, and therefore has no interest in how that buyer lives in the home. There is no way for the lower costs of living in a more efficient home to be passed on to the developer in a beneficial way. A developer cannot build a more efficient home and offer it on the market for a small premium, this benefit is simply not recognised in the valuation of a property.
So, can I suggest that a more effective way for the Department to spend its time and mine, would be to investigate ways of making the speculative housing market function as a better market instead of trying to undermine those elements of future legislation that are likely to help it to function as a better market. But in an election year, perhaps that is too much to hope for.

Is There a Need for a Right to Energy?

We have had a Right to Light for a very long time, and good access to daylight in residential buildings is seen as a central issue when designing buildings in many parts of the world. The benefits to well-being and health are well-recognised, even though this can be difficult to assess when it comes to designing buildings in an urban location where it is nearly impossible to build without affecting someones daylight.

But now that we are designing buildings that can be self-sufficient in terms of energy, achieved by using very energy efficient building fabric, passive solar gains and an energy balance achieved with some roof mounted or facade mounted renewable energy production: Do we need a right to the solar energy that such a building is dependent on?

Under Rights to Light legislation a home that suffers a low threshold of light loss has no right to prevent the construction of a building nearby. Taken to its ultimate conclusion, successive buildings can be built around the affected building, each one diminishing the available daylight by a small amount, until the affected building sits in darkness. Call it ‘Darkness by a Thousand Blinds’ instead of ‘Death by a Thousand Cuts’.

In the same way, a self-sustaining building can end up losing its access to solar energy through a gradual encroachment on its surroundings by neighbouring buildings, gradually eroding its access to renewable energy either by casting shade on its solar panels, by preventing solar gains, or by stealing the wind from the blades of a wind turbine.

After 2016 when the zero carbon legislation is enacted, (note I say when, not if) then the use of solar panels will be built into regulation under the Carbon Compliance element of the regulation, and the performance of panels or even solar gains will be an integral element of the performance of the building. Buyers of the building can rightly expect the building to perform in accordance with its energy certificate, and if it doesn’t they have a right to know why not.

How long will it be before neighbours are suing each other for loss of income due to encroachment on one another’s solar gains?

I foresee planning arguments, neighbour disputes and legislation ahead.

Labour’s Green Paper on Energy Efficiency

The Labour party published a Green Paper on their energy efficiency policy entitled ‘An end to cold homes’ last week. There are several key elements in it that are worthy of attention, and it is a useful starting point for what the next Government should consider as priority actions.

The headlines are:

  • Provide half a million home energy reports for householders, mainly aimed at those in fuel poverty to help them realise what the problem is and how they could solve it.
  • Offer free energy efficiency improvements for 200,000 households at risk of fuel poverty per year, with an ambition to improve all 4million homes within 15 years.
  • Set a new target for the private rental sector of a minimum EPC Band C by 2027, increasing the current target for 2018 of Band E
  • Set Energy Efficiency as a national infrastructure priority under the proposed National Infrastructure Commission
  • Streamline regulations and introduce long term strategy to support investment in energy efficiency in non-domestic buildings
  • Less related to energy efficiency policy, but important nonetheless was a commitment to review the zero carbon policy and revert to the Zero Carbon Hubs original definition of Zero being including all unregulated energy and regulated energy in the definition.

My impression of the launch was very positive. The language was reassuring, there was an acknowledgement that Government in general has failed with the Green Deal to either understand the market or to understand the best way of delivering measures to households.

The strongest evidence of this was the statement that we still have

– 4.7million uninsulated cavity walls

– 10 million lofts that could have more insulation added

– 7 million uninsulated solid walls

– 8 million homes without a thermostat

The summary of fuel poverty in the paper is sometimes startling. The poor are often housed in poor buildings, making them cold and poorer. If we as a society think that it is important to give our poorest members a home to live in, isn’t it equally important that we give them a warm home to live in so that they are not spending an above average proportion of their low income on keeping warm?

30% of people living in Band G properties are fuel poor, in total there are over 2.2million households falling in this defined category in England, and another 1 million between Wales and Scotland.

Comment: Energy companies are not the best people to deliver these measures, in one case energy companies spent £50 to pay people to find other people to receive free energy efficiency measure under the Warm Front scheme. There is no available cost data from these schemes to help decide which ones were cost effective and which ones weren’t. (The giving away of energy efficient light bulbs springs to mind). I am equally concerned that Energy companies have bought a number of external wall insulation companies to install these measures. The blind leading the blind.

Green Deal/ECO

The Green Deal has been an expensive waste of time for the companies who engaged in it. It is set to deliver 4,000 improvements out of 355,000 households assessed. That’s about a 1% rate of return. The taxpayer paid for 90% of the assessments. A very poor use of money, and if we want to tackle energy efficiency improvements in a serious way, this isn’t going to do it. The interest payments are simply too high, they have always been too high, the Government was told that they were too high, I won’t go on.

A recent survey by the CBI demonstrates that only 5 percent of businesses considered that the Governments current policy framework is effective in encouraging investment in energy efficiency.

The non-domestic Green Deal has had 63 assessment carried out so far, and no measures delivered.

Labour’s solution to this is to offer interest-free loans to households to carry out energy efficiency improvements. This will be funded out of energy efficiency levies from energy companies and backed by a Government guarantee of the Green Deal Finance Company.

All the ECO funding will be aimed at low-income households in cold homes and who are at risk of fuel poverty.

The measures will be delivered by area-based organisations instead of by the Energy Companies. Local Authorities, Housing Associations, local energy organisations and other trusted partners.

Instead of funding single energy efficiency measures as the current ECO does, the new target would aim to improve properties to Band C. This would significantly improve the property, reduce the risk of fuel poverty significantly and would mean that it would not be necessary to return to this property for a generation.

Comment: I could never understand why DECC refused to understand this point in the past, despite being told it by practically everyone in the industry. The preliminary costs of doing work are always a substantial element of the total cost of refurbishment works, so if you set out to do work on a property, you should do as much as possible while you are there, to reduce the wasted costs of returning to the same property a decade later to install another separate measure. I think that politicians should shoulder a lot of the blame for this as they are always interested in reaching as large a number of households with the smallest sum of money, to win votes and keep themselves in power. But single-measure works is just a waste of taxpayers’ money. If Labour get into power and implement these policies it will be interesting to see if this intention remains.

Private Rented Sector

The idea to raise the target for PRS properties to Band C by 2027 got some headlines as it was initially suggested that the target to achieve Band E by 2018 would be dropped. This was swiftly denied by the party and this new target is a demonstration of a long-term strategy aimed at giving landlords and the industry long term certainty of the direction of travel for policy.

Zero Carbon

The announcement that the definition of zero carbon for new homes would revert to the original definition is interesting. The definition of zero carbon has had an unfortunate history, and became a political football during the early days of the current administration. The exemption for small sites is not to be taken forward by Labour, and extensions to existing properties will have to meet full building regulations.

Comment: It makes sense to revert to the original definition of zero carbon, but given that we are where we are and we have no final policy or regulation for Allowable Solutions, then it may be wise to continue to use the current definition of zero-carbon (regulated energy only) for the next round of regulations in 2016, and then ramp up successive regulations to take account of unregulated energy.

World Sustainable Building 2014 (Barcelona)

The Summary:

This was an enormous conference with a concentration of expertise on sustainable buildings unlike any other conference I have attended. The messages from the conference were many, including the following which particularly struck me:

– we have too many different approaches to sustainable buildings across the EU, we need to coordinate approaches to make training and cooperation easier, this does not mean simplify! But there are some elements of different approaches that can be standardised to give a stronger platform for the other areas that need development. For example operational energy calculations could be standardised, but embodied energy tools are too early in their development to do this yet.

– our approaches to sustaianbility are often impenetrable to people outside the confines of specialisms. A result of this is that around 1% of the new buildings in Europe are given a sustainability rating at all. We need to make our language and approaches more comprehensible to the end user and to the market.

– LCA in particular is complex and time consuming, and the results are not always useable. We look forward to the wide use of EPD’s.

 

The Detail

This was my first visit to this conference, there were 1400 delegates  from around the world, many from Spain, a lot from the EU, but also from Hong Kong, China, India, Korea, the US and many more. I was mainly there to attend a meeting of the ActiveHouse Alliance. This is a pan-European alliance of companies and organisations working towards a better definition of sustainable buildings using Comfort, Energy and Environmental scores as a rating system. I am on the Board Advisory Committee which means that I am helping to guide the direction of the standard, having beein involved in the design of the first two homes constructed to meet the standard in the UK.

The conference spanned three days, I attended for the first two.

On the first day we held the ActiveHoues BAC meeting and on the morning of the second day we held an ActiveHouse Symposium, bringing together some of the research that came from the first completed projects across the EU. The sessions included observers and commentators as well as presentations from the projects themselves. I summarise here some of the comments and ideas that struck me particularly, these only represent a tiny fraction of the ideas presented, and the sessions I attended on the two days only represented one sixteenth of the sessions available!

ActiveHouse Symposium

From the ActiveHouse Symposium one particular comment that has stayed with me from this session is from Nils Larsson from IISBE, Canada, who said that ‘individual family homes cannot be described as ‘sustainable’, because a single dwelling cannot cover the breadth of the idea of sustainability. A single family home can be described as ‘energy efficient’ or ‘low energy’ but not ‘sustainable’’. I broadly agree with this, but I think that a single family dwelling can support ‘sustainability’ or ‘promote’ it but it cannot achieve it on its own.

Prof. Dr. Berndt Wegener from Humboldt University of Berlin, spoke about well-being from the perspective of a social scientist. He declared that the factors that lead to well-being can be measured,, but that they cannot be prescribed in advance. We cannot say that by doing ‘x’ we will definitely have ‘y’ benefits in terms of well-being. Pete Halshall, from the Good Homes Alliance, noted that feedback from residents shows that social tenants sometimes feel less ‘well-being’ than private tenants in the same building. There are other factors to well-being than those catered for by the built environment.

Stefan Haglind of Skanska wondered whether we should talk less about our impact on Nature, and more about Natures beneficial impact on us. If we understood better the effect on our sense of well-being and on our productivity of having better daylight, a nice view, comfortable temperatures and control over our environment, we would design better buildings and find it less difficult to have arguments about whether to adopt ‘green design’ or not. Studies, including the recent World Green Building Council report, show that there are considerable financial benefits to productivity from all of these features of well-designed green buildings that far outweigh the cost savings of lower energy use. I agree that we should emphasise the positive impacts of Nature, but I wouldn’t want to remove focus away from the catastrophic damage to our biodiversity.

Stefan pointed out that, for workplace productivity, the benefits from green buildings tend to be worth 100 times the value of energy savings. I wonder if there is a similar metric for the homes we live in? I can see a straightforward connection through home-working, our productivity at home is worth even more to an employer since the workplace is usually given for nothing. We can extend this benefit to the health service if we say that the home either promotes better health by being well-designed, or being sufficiently adaptable to enable residents to recover, or to be cared for, at home rather than requiring an expensive hospital bed.

Renata Hammer and Peter Holzer from Vienna provided some useful feedback from a small project where they had used the ActiveHouse tools for a small project with a private client. Their comments included:

-using primary energy as an indicator suggests that PV can compensate for other failings, and while this may be true for energy, it is not true for other environmental impacts. In this particular situation PV was inappropriate due to the heritage nature of the surroundings, and there was a lot of overshadowing, so in some situations this compensation is not even available.

-carrying out LifeCycle Assessments is a nightmarish process, and expensive in terms of the time taken to do so. (This was a recurring theme in the conference, with some speakers hoping that a production of many EPD’s over the next couple of years leading to a much easier set of data for designers and less technical people to use in their decision-making)

 

New Envelopes for Zero Energy Buildings

In a later session on ‘New Envelopers for Zero Energy Buildings’ there was a series of investigations into the LCA’s of different wall types. Erin Moore made some interesting points about the embodied energy of our buildings:

-that our current understanding of the relative amounts of embodied energy in our buildings is limited. Some studies put the amount of embodied energy as high as 50%, or as low as 10% of the total CO2 emissions of the building over its lifetime. She noted that the definition of ‘lifetime’ makes a big difference to the calculation, and that this figures varies widely around the world’.

-that the mitigation of emissions from embodied energy is more difficult than it appears. For example, can we claim that the embodied CO2 emissions from a home in the UK can be mitigated by putting PV on the roof? If the original emissions were from a country with a higher CO2 factor in the Grid, or if the original emissions were partially in China, how can we mitigate the damage in the UK? If some of the impacts are not CO2 related, but relate to a biodiversity loss, how can we deal with this where materials move from country to country?