Implementing Zero Carbon in London

Now that we are almost upon the deadline for the introduction of zero-carbon (GLA) in London I thought that it was timely to comment on it. 

Firstly. Brilliant! In a time when politicians appear to have taken leave of their senses permanently, it is reassuring that here (surrounded by the metropolitan elite) some things stay the same. We have a group of politicians willing to lead on principles rather than on the basis of prompting by tabloids or by their lesser selves. Well done London!

Secondly: Brilliant! We have a piece of zero-carbon legislation that has learned from the recent past, from multiple consultations by DCLG and the Zero Carbon Hub and run with it rather than reinventing this particular wheel. More importantly, it sets a precedent for other devolved authorities to follow. London can afford to lead on this one, to get the idea moving, to introduce developers and their design teams to the idea and to pioneer mechanisms for using the funds in a transparent and timely way so that developers can see the benefits to them. 

Thirdly: There is work still to do, as there is little clear understanding about many of the aspects of the new legislation. Can we claim a credit for making improvements above regulation? For example if the team introduce dimming into the building, can they claim some CO2 reductions below the line of the regulatory calculations. If the designers use a timber structure, can they claim some embodied energy reductions? When are the payments to be made? When the building is designed, or when it is built? There are likely to be differences between the two.

I think that it would be useful if the GLA held some workshops about this new legislation and had an open discussion about these questions, to help to introduce the legislation and to hear from design teams and clients how it can work best for them and for the GLA. It is very important that this new effort succeeds, it is practically the only star left in the low-carbon buildings firmament, so let’s make sure that it burns brightly and it isn’t extinguished at the first sign of difficulty.

‘Heart in the Right Street’ a report by Create Streets

I attended the launch of this report last week, at the invitation of its author, Nicholas Boys-Smith, I felt compelled to do so, as he claimed that I had in some small way inspired him to write it. Two years ago he made a presentation at HTA and at one point I challenged him to back up some of his claims for how certain building types were ‘better’ than others, with evidence. He felt then that his answer was unsatisfactory, and when the opportunity arose to produce this report, he used it to provide a better answer. I may not agree with everything in the report, but I wish everyone took my questions as seriously!

Attendees to the event were given a sort of ‘cheat sheet’ with ten guidelines for how to create good cities, and the report presents the evidence culled from numerous studies to back up the ten points. I paraphrase them as follows

1. Provide Greenery

2. Build more houses than apartments and build at higher density than the suburbs, but lower than necessitates high rises.

3. Build at human scale and never house children in high-rises.

4. Created connected walkable environments

5. Mix up land use with many uses

6. Block sizes should be ‘not too big’ and made up of individual buildings, not super sized buildings occupying a single block

7. Minimise internal communal space and corridors

8. Beauty matters, 

9. Create mixed facades at street level, shops, entrances, etc.

10. Make neighbourhoods dense enough to be walkable, 150-220 homes per hectare.

Most housing designers wouldn’t be too frightened by this, in fact most would support most of them, if not all of them, most of the time. But probably wouldn’t support all of them all of the time. The report is well researched and documented and could be recommended for no other reason than its bibliography which provides any interested party with a serious amount of good reading material. He references Charles Montgomeries Happy Cities book a lot, which is a good thing, as well as academic research from around the world on city living in Singapore, Vancouver, Newcastle, Copenhagen, Hong Kong and, of course, London.

About the only area where I find myself violently disagreeing with Nicholas is on the subject of ‘Beauty’. He maintains that beauty is not really in the eye of the beholder and he points to a lot of research to suggest that people do know what they like, and what they like is not liked by architects. He goes on to suggest that if more new development followed his rules and was also liked by people (because it conformed to a more general sense of beauty), then more high density life would  be allowed to happen and we would all be better off. 

I find it optimistic that changing the appearance of some modern development would make its neighbours welcome it any more than they do, motivated as they often are, by concerns over traffic, schools, and a general incoherent fear of change.

The simple reality, as I see it, is that architects don’t exist to provide what people ‘like’ any more than any artist exists to provide what people like. You might say that architecture is not ‘Art’ but you would be wrong. The purpose of Art is not to comfort and reassure, but often to challenge, sometimes startle. I do agree that housing architecture should never terrify or induce fear, that would be going much too far, but trying to create an environment like the Disney Main Street is something housing architects are not supposed to do. That is the job of set designers, a different species entirely. Our job is to create good neighbourhoods where people will want to live, but we must also always deliver good value for our clients. He who pays the piper calls the tune.

This is a good and well-researched project. It’s aims are positive, and well-meant, but sometimes overstepping the bounds of academic research into populist polemic. All housing architects who take their work seriously should read it and be as knowledgeable about the research as the author is. Housing architecture is a serious responsibility and not to be taken lightly, and this work echoes that seriousness by providing pointers to a lot of recent valuable research, as well as pointing to many areas where further research would be useful and welcome.

A point that doesn’t really come across from the work, although it is one of the ten guidelines, is that suburban density is not high enough to create successful living environments. Much much more of modern housing is built at suburban density than any other density, and in terms of numbers, the towers that he dislikes so much will only ever provide a fraction of the new housing in cities, whether they are liked or not. Suburban density causes so many other problems in the form of long commutes, high CO2 emissions, use of agricultural land, than high-rises do, but the idea of suburbia is not disliked by the general population nearly as much as they dislike high-rise living. 

If this book has any impact on policy, I would like it to prompt a review of the density of new suburbs. We are fooling ourselves by thinking that low-rise low-density suburbs are the answer to any of our housing problems.

On the one had Nicholas would have it that the people are right, to seek their idea of beauty and to decry high-rise living, but on the other hand they are wrong to hanker for the suburbs and the inevitable burden on the planet and personal isolation it brings. I think he wants to have his cake and eat it. But, don’t we all?

Why we need to stay in the EU

The prospect of the UK Leaving the EU fills me with dismay. I listen to the rhetoric from politicians and wonder about their motivations in proposing an exit. Do any of those proposing to leave have any real understanding of what it would mean? What would a future for the UK be like outside of the EU. Sitting like an unwelcome houseguest at the fringes of the party, furtively stealing beers from the fridge?

When I survey the landscape I am most familiar with, particularly around sustainable buildings, I reflect that much of the impetus for environmental legislation in the UK has come about through pressure from the EU through the Energy Performance in Buildings Directive (EPBD). I suspect that, left to its own devices, due to the UK Housing sector being dominated by a small number of housebuilders, the industry would have fought off all attempts to implement energy efficiency improvements.  Without the gentle but firm push in the small of the back from the EU, our homes would probably be much less efficient. We wouldn’t have an EPC, and whatever it’s faults, at least it is a step in the right direction.

Now that the Govt has scrapped the planned 2016 zero carbon legislation, the next push for improving our buildings will come from Europe, the EPBD requires that all EU states enact legislation leading to Nearly Zero Energy Buildings from 2020. Again, that gentle but firm push. This is something that will be good for consumers who buy homes, good for the businesses that build them and help to push down our CO2 emissions.

I imagine that the same goes for the car industry, and even though the image of the EU industry has been seriously damaged by the recent emissions scandals, at least the intention to reduce emissions is there in legislation. Given that the UK’s default position on improving emissions regulations has been to vote against them, and given that London in particular has been failing to meet EU emission standards for some time, and will continue to do so for some time to come, our record of standing alone on this issue is not a particularly proud one.

On renewable energy we are again struggling to meet EU targets, and thanks to recent Govt cuts, are not even sure how we plan to meet them. There has been no suggestion that these targets are unwelcome, or that we are unable to meet them, in fact the minister stated that the Govt has every intention of meeting its obligations. While the arrival of wind turbines have been unwelcome in some areas, they  enable us to reduce our imports of coal and oil and help us to reduce pollution levels and CO2 emissions. Again, without a push from the EU, would we have adopted these targets? On the evidence of the current Government, probably not. Or if we had, they would be voted out again with every change in the political landscape.

While our politicians vacillate every five years or so, whether they like wind farms or don’t, whether they like nuclear or don’t, and whether they think fracking is a good idea or they don’t, in the background there sits the EU,with a long term plan to reform the energy markets, to reduce emissions, to introduce more renewable energy and to make our buildings more efficient. Politicians come and go, but the EU remains as a stable influence on our policies and standards. This stability helps business to invest, and gives purpose and direction to research and development, as EU strategies tend to remain in place longer than national or local government cycles.

The exitmongers complain that this is interference in our democratically elected system of government, I say it’s a good thing. Without it we would be worse off. The EU acts as a brake on occasional foolishness, a calm voice in times of crisis and a firm guide on environmental matters. It’s a bit like a parent, the interference is unwelcome at times, but it’s reassuring that someone is there for guidance when you need it.

Is London going to go Zero Carbon?

Business Green reported an interchange last week between the Mayor and Green Assembly Member Darren Johnson  in response to his question about the Mayors position on Zero Carbon homes. Boris’s reported response was

“What we are looking at is making sure that we can continue, through the London Plan, to ensure that Zero Carbon Homes are delivered in London and we will be issuing further guidance in due course to provide industry with the certainty it needs about how to do that.” 

Boris reported that London aims to achieve a 60% reduction in CO2 by 2025 and has achieved 14% to date. This represents a per capita reduction of 20% as London’s population has grown by 600k during the reporting period.

It is heartening to hear these words from the Mayor, and I hope that the candidates for the Mayoralty are listening. If devolution is to mean anything it should promote the ability of cities in the UK to sidestep the damaging and short-sighted environmental policies of central government.

Having recently completed a large zero carbon scheme at Hanham Hall with low-rise construction and learned what it means for most of the UK’s housing development, I thought that it would be useful to share below some analysis that we have done to assess how tall buildings can achieve the zero carbon standard. Given that many of the buildings that are proposed for the capital in future are going to be tall it is interesting to assess how the regulations might affect those building types.

The analysis has been done for a twenty five and a forty storey tower with six units per floor to demonstrate how different systems meet the targets. We tested gas boilers, CHP with gas backup, all-electric heating and hot water and finally Air Source Heat Pumps. Three of the four rely on a communal hot water distribution system, the all electric system being the exception.

Energy Options to meet the London Plan and Zero Carbon

Energy Options for a 25 Storey Tower to meet the London Plan and Zero Carbon



Energy Options fora 40 Storey Tower to meet the London Plan and Zero Carbon

What the research shows is that for taller towers there is no difficulty in meeting the current definition of zero carbon. In fact it shows that achieving it is technically easier than achieving the London Plan, as the London Plan has a lower emissions target than the Zero Carbon definition. This is assuming that there is no special treatment for electric heating or hot water, unlike the current version of SAP which is based on comparative performance rather than on a definite figure as set out in the Zero Carbon Hub’s definition.

Based on these figures I would say that towers should be forced to meet the lower emissions target of 10kg/CO2/sqm since in both gas-based options this target can be met. Perhaps an all-electric version could be left as it is at the higher 14kg/CO2/sqm.

It also shows that a very efficient 25-storey building can meet the targets irrespective of the energy system used, the top graphs shows that it can achieve the target in all four options, even an all-electric option. The 40-storey is not so easy. My assumption is that only the roof can be used to house renewable energy,  but for the 40-storey version it would be necessary in the electric options to put some pv panels on the facade to reach the target.

But of course the technical success is not the full picture. In addition to the Fabric Energy Efficiency target of 39kwh/sqm/yr that apartments have to hit, and towers have no difficulty doing so, there is the Carbon Compliance which is shown in the graphs above, and again there doesn’t appear to be much of a problem for towers, but finally there is the Allowable Solutions element which says that whatever CO2 emissions remain must be offset. This offset is achieved by multiplying the tonnes of CO2 emitted, by the figure of 30 years, and by an agreed sum for each tonne. Currently the GLA uses £60/tonne. This produces a figure of approximately £1,000 per apartment to offset the emissions elsewhere.

Sadly the all electric system is unwelcome in London as it it not seen as ‘futureproof’ according to the gas-led ideology preferred by the GLA. This is understandable as an all-electric system does not emit the lowest CO2 emissions possible, at current levels of grid CO2 intensity. What will be interesting to see is how long before the grid CO2 intensity drops to a low enough level to change that thinking. The Committee for Climate Change has suggested that we need to stop burning gas by 2035 to meet our carbon budgets. What is the point in investing in gas burning equipment and networks now if they have to be decommissioned in less than twenty years time?

Certainly an all-electric system is the cheapest to install, avoiding the central distribution system, and it could be argued that an all electric system is just as futureproof as a hot water led system as the Grid is inherently flexible. Interestingly our research also suggests that in the majority of cases an all-electric system is cheaper than a communal system for residents as the standing charges are lower, even if the energy bills are higher than gas. The standing charge is used to create a sinking fund to replace the communal system. If there is no communal system the sinking fund is either not needed or is much smaller, thus lowering residents total bill. The cheapest system of all to run is an individual gas boiler, but no-one would consider installing that into a tower, and it has a higher maintenance and replacement cost than an all-electric system.

A major hole in this analysis is that it is carried out using SAP, which is pretty poor at dealing with apartment buildings. The energy for pumping heat around the building is ignored, as is the energy for ventilating corridors, pumping hot water, lifts, communal lighting etc, etc. Since the communal spaces in these buildings are not heated, SBEM isn’t particularly useful either. As buildings get taller these additional energy uses and losses will become more a more significant part of their energy use, we need better tools to assess them, and more regulations to deal with their particular demands.


Five Ways to live sustainably.

How do we live sustainably? The holistic nature of the problem makes definition difficult, but that doesn’t prevent us from having a go at it. We must try and define the problem, as this is usually the first step towards finding a solution. 

Problem: We are not living within our environmental means, we are exceeding our emissions budget. To put it another way, we are in environmental debt. To continue to get into environmental debt just leaves another problem for our descendants to solve. If that weren’t bad enough, this environmental debt is already causing the climate to change in unpredictable ways, affecting our oceans and the biosphere dramatically. So not only will we leave a mess behind, but it will be a dangerous and unpredictable mess!

Solution: To stop eating into our environmental capital, our rainforests, oceans, atmosphere and biosphere. 

That sounds simple enough, doesn’t it. But of course it isn’t that simple, mainly because we are either unaware of the cause of environmental debts or because our supposed happiness is predicated on a way of life that is inherently damaging, and we are unwilling to give up this way of life. Old habits die hard.

The change of habits and the introduction of cleaner systems does come at a price, change costs something, whether in time, materials or opportunity costs. But the cost of innovation is usually short-lived and then pricing tends to return to a level below where we started from. This is what pays for innovation and it doesn’t happen unless that promise of low costs is there.

Clean Energy: We need to replace our dirty grid with clean energy, which will take more than a generation as the lifespan of these systems is very long. But this has already started and there is widespread recognition that this needs to happen, so that battle is largely won. Sadly we have a government that doesn’t quite see this, but fortunately governments are temporary. Support a clean energy project near you today!

Get rid of the gas-guzzler: We need to stop using combustion for heating and transport. The Internal Combustion Engine has had its day, lets bury it with full honours and move on! Fortunately cars and domestic boilers have a relatively short lifespan and give us regular opportunities to change our habits. We will need to make a decision to take a risk by changing to a hybrid or fully electric vehicle when the opportunity offers, or to install a heat pump. We can’t rely on a push from government.

Buy Wisely: We need to stop importing goods from economies that aren’t moving in the direction of emission reductions, both to guarantee local jobs and to reduce the emissions of transporting goods half-way around the planet when we could easily make them on our doorstep. It would be nice if a carbon tax was added  to imports that highlighted their environmental costs, but we can add that cost in our mind when we think about pressing that button online. 

Waste: We need to reduce waste to a minimum, wasted materials, wasted energy, wasted heat. This is the most difficult one, as it is so closely related to behaviour. Persuading people that a walk to the shop is better for them and for the planet doesn’t sound difficult, but some people love their cars. There is an interesting shift in the use of health gadgetry to inform people about their health related behaviour that will help to achieve this. Insulating our homes will be a once in many generations cost. Consider whether you want your children to inherit an expensive home to inhabit, or a low energy home. If you only consider your own costs you won’t be motivated enough to spend the money.

Move into Town: We need to stop seeing a bucolic life in the country as the barometer of success. The country has nice views and fresh air, but it also has long travel distances to the doctors, the shops, the post office, the theatre and for every trip you have to make, the delivery van has to make one too. Move into town! Open a tea shop!

A lesson in Ministerial Defence or Defiance?

During this week The Rt Hon. A. Rudd Secretary of State for Energy & Climate Change gave a strong demonstration of why she has been appointed to her post, namely her ability to defend an indefensible position. A necessary attribute for all Tory ministers in the current Cabinet, it would appear. If this demonstration is anything to go by, she has a long career ahead of her, hopefully not defending the indefensible, but promoting the new direction that the Government will take to enable the UK to meet its obligations to reduce the risk of climate change and meet the aspirations of the electorate.

You can watch the full story unfold here, I recommend having a glass of something strong by your side.

She was called to give evidence to the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee to explain why she had claimed the following two opposing views in quick succession. The first to the House of Commons, to say that the UK was going to meet its renewable energy targets by 2020, and the second where she wrote to her counterparts in the ministries for Transport,the Cabinet Office and The Treasury to ask for their help as under current policies the UK will not meet its renewable energy targets by 2020.

I can’t help wondering whether the leak was a political move to assign blame for this mess on the shoulders of colleagues in the Cabinet Office and Treasury whose decisions have left DECC with no room for manoeuvre after a series of swingeing cuts to renewable energy subsidies which have left the industry in disarray and investors running in the opposite direction. Among the suggestions for solving the problem was the suggestion that the UK could buy in renewable energy from other countries through interconnectors. When pressed on this matter, she said that this was not her preferred approach!

The explanations that were given to the Committee for the confusion were as follows:

– due to shortfalls in progress with renewable heat and transport, the result of current policies will be 11.5% of renewable energy by 2020 instead of 15%, a shortfall of 4.5% of all UK energy or a shortfall of 23.3% of the 15% target. Not a small amount of energy.

When asked whether the shortfall was a result of the recent cuts to subsidies and support for renewable energy, she responded:

– ‘we are going to meet the planned target for electricity, so we don’t think that cutting the subsidies will make any difference’

– ‘electricity is on target to provide 30% of electricity by 2020’

– ‘we don’t think that the answer is to provide more (renewable) electricity’

-‘ there is a greater role for electricity in transport’

Bizarrely the Committe didn’t ask the obvious question here, which is: if transport is to make a greater use of electricity to achieve its renewable energy targets, then wouldn’t it be sensible to make sure that there is greater capacity in the generation market to provide that renewable electricity? If we can provide more renewable electricity and (God forbid) exceed our electricity target to compensate for the lack of progress with heat and transport, wouldn’t that be a good thing? Sadly , no such question was forthcoming.

The Minister should be writing to the Dept of Transport to tell them that they are going to make use of more renewable electricity, that DECC is going to provide it, and to propose that they to work together to ensure that there are fleets of electric cars  and other vehicles ready to use this electricity by 2020.

There was also an opportunity to point out to the Minster that the cheapest way of meeting the heat targets is to reduce energy use, and some concerted action, like a replacement for the Green Deal would be a good start, but again, sadly, no such question was posed.

When asked how much of a fine the UK could face if it doesn’t meet its targets, the Minster robustly claimed not to know how much, and explained this away by saying ‘I am commited to making sure that the UK meets its targets’,  which is very reassuring, but at the same time a bit unbelieveable. The Minister was asked what policies she planned to introduce to meet the shortfall and responded with this gem:

-‘I have some ideas that I would like to take forward’ which are curently being evaluated under the Current Spending Review. I take this as Ministerial speak for , ‘I have made my point, I have given the options to the Treasury, they will say no, and I will be absolved of responsiblity’.

Expecting to produce new policies, implement them and to convert 4.5% of the UK’s energy demand to renewable sources by 2020 is simply unrealistic. It would be unlikely to happen even in a sympathetic Government, but particularly in the current fiscal environment where cuts to tax credits are off the table which will mean that cuts to absolutely everything else will be on the table, and given the recent behaviour of this Government there is zero chance that renewable energy targets are going to be a priority.

And in Other News...

There were a couple of unrelated gems in the session that will draw hollow laughter from many in the energy sector. When asked about investment plans for nuclear she stated:

-‘the  last thing the energy sector needs is surprises’

and when asked about the options available for EDF if the Chinese were to pull out of the Hinkley deal, she stated without blinking, that

-if the Chinese pull out, EDF will find another investor’

Cue hollow laughter by every economist.

Where is the backbench opposition to Green cuts?

When the Tories won the election, I asked myself, and some colleagues, ‘who will keep them in check’? The answer from one particularly wise colleague was: ‘they will, they will keep themselves in check’. So it has proved to be. The response to the tax credit cuts from backbenchers and from Tories in the Lords has been decisive. (I was particularly surprised by the appearance of Lord Lawson voting against the Govt, I had long since dismissed him as a climate-change denying basket case, but it appears I might have been wrong about him, climate-change denier apart, he isn’t a basket case). Why then has there not been a similar response to the Tory dismantling of environmental legislation? In case you need a reminder of the damage, Here is a handy list, I suggest that you cut it out and keep it. Has there been any response from the Lords or the backbenches? No there hasn’t. Labour have been too busy deciding whether to elect Corbyn, and having elected him, whether they have consigned themselves to the opposition for a decade. [It is notable that the time when an opposition is most needed in modern politics is in the first year of a new term, so the policy of losing party leaders throwing themselves on their swords is exactly the wrong approach for an electorate that needs a strong opposition at the beginning of the new term. We don’t need a strong opposition leader to turn up when most of the policy changes have been made].

In the end, politicians across the spectrum don’t see these cuts to environmental legislation as a vote loser. The damage this is going to do to the renewables industry or to the climate is perceived to be either too small or too distant for them to worry about it. Whatever negative impact these cuts will have are too distant for politicians to worry about. What is startling about this is that the outcome is more similar to the impact of tax credits than they think. But since most of the people affected don’t have a vote in the UK they are not being considered in quite the same way.

The outcome of climate change on those affected will be much, much worse than any tax credit cuts. Instead of being a bit worse off, millions of people will be displaced. This article mentions some of the countries where a lot of people are likely to be displaced by sea level rises, picture the problems in East Africa if Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia are strongly affected by climate change, as is predicted, and how an influx of refugees from those countries would affect Sudan, Uganda and the Congo? Given how much impact a mere two million refugees from Syria is having on the EU, how do we think the worlds politics, industries and economies would be affected by the movement of 150 million people?

Somehow we haven’t managed to couch the message about the dangers of runaway climate change in the right way. It is too much about energy, and too much about what needs to happen in the UK. We need to reinforce the message that the position of the UK on the world stage is at stake here, not as a Trident wielding superpower, but as a compassionate nation full of sympathy for those victimised by circumstances, through no fault of their own, impoverished by their history and at risk from our thoughtlessness.

2 Billion Cars

2 Billion Cars, a book by Daniel Sperling and Deborah Gordon.

The VW Boardroom decides to cheat its emission tests

The VW Boardroom decides to cheat its emission tests

This book is a very interesting read, particularly at this moment, with the backdrop of the VW emissions scandal in the media. The book covers the recent history of both the oil industry and the car industry, in the context of regulation, efficiency and the drive to reduce emissions.

In particular, the part where the book describes how European and Japanese manufacturers made progress in the US market when they offered more fuel-efficient cars with lower exhaust emissions makes for painful reading. American manufacturers fought tooth and nail against higher efficiency and emission standards for decades, and watched with surprise when they were blindsided by foreign manufacturers who saw this demand coming. Those manufacturers must be feeling a little schadenfreude at the moment as they watch VW and other manufacturers admit that they were cheating on their emissions scores.

There are good chapters on the oil industry and how it works, on the growing demand for cars in Asian economies, and on the regulatory regime in California. The book is a really useful reference on the development of fuel-efficient cars including hybrids, the introductions of regulations worldwide and the resistance of the US-based car industry to improving fuel efficiency.  I expect that the book will appeal most to people interested in transport and sustainability problems (which ought to be most of us!)
Some of the points made in the book

1. Since growth in car usage in developed countries has flatlined, or started to decrease, all the growth in vehicles will come from developing countries, with annual growth rates in vehicles about 7-8 percent annually. Whatever India and China do will have the biggest effect on greenhouse gas emissions. The recent pictures of Beijing and Shanghai smog are testament to the growth in those cities of the number of cars but equally their failure to control emissions. (to be fair, not all of it is from cars)

2. There are large parts of the world where infrastructure costs mean that people will continue to use their cars and will not have public transport available to them in the foreseeable future.

3. The chapter on oil is particularly interesting, and how the oil ‘market’ is really not a market, but is in fact carefully managed supply by the oil producers, many of who are using oil to prop up their economies, and often they are among the few non-democracies (or failed democracies) on the planet. When you think of the success of the developed economies that based their success on ‘Guns Germs and Steel’ you wonder at the current level of success being enjoyed by places like Saudi Arabia, Nigeria and Venezuela and how they are going to make use of it. The signs so far is that they are going to waste the opportunity. Therefore, making the personal passenger vehicle more environmentally-friendly is key if the rest of us are to stop this haemorraging of wealth into corrupt nations that aren’t going to use it wisely.

4. The chapter on the oil industry also highlighted that we are nowhere near peak oil. The amount of unconventional sources such as fracked gas and tar sands is large enough to blow any chance of staying within the 2 Degrees target. So gas and oil usage will have to be further regulated if we have any chance of managing climate change risks to acceptable levels. (is there such a thing?)

5. The authors are very clear that the best way to promote energy independence and reduce emissions is to impose very high fuel performance standards. Government, they say, should never “bet on a technology winner”, but should instead make performance-based goals the only measure of success, both for fuel performance standards, and exhaust standards. (there are interesting parallels here between the support for nuclear energy by some governments and coal by others)

6. The chapter on California was particularly interesting, highlighting why it is in a unique position to influence national policy on sustainable transportation, and how it can therefore influence policy globally. There are parallels with the role of London in the UK, setting higher standards for buildings and cars, and trialling new technologies before other cities. Sadly, the book was published before Tesla really got going, and I hope that the authors do a revised edition soon to cover the meteoric rise of the electric car worldwide in the last five years.

7. The chapters on the history of the American car manufacturers are instructive for a number of reasons. It is an object lesson on how large corporations lose contact with their customers and focus on doing what they have always done instead of being innovative and market-facing. (The idea that markets are always alive to the demands of the market is an over-simplification of reality)I am reminded of the behaviour of UK housebuilders here as they avoid regulation by complaining that the market doesn’t demand energy efficient homes, and that that adding efficiency increases costs.

8. The way that the US manufacturers used perverse incentives to create gas-guzzling vehicles at the point where they should have been investing in R&D of more fuel efficient engines and vehicles tells you a lot about the behaviour of corporates. What well-run company would have bought Hummer? General Motors, thats who.

9. The authors felt that one of the best hopes to increase fuel efficiency when the book was written was to use plug-in hybrids, like the unexpectedly successful Prius. They rightly point out that hydrogen-powered fuel cells remain a laboratory project.

My only quibble with the book is that its already a little out of date, the authors failed to mention the potential for renewable energy and battery storage to play a major role in energy management and the use of smart grids, but since these ideas are relatively recent perhaps its forgivable. Another reason for a new edition.


Zero Carbon – Zero Chance

The axing of the zero-carbon housing legislation yesterday put an end to a decade of efforts to define a standard for new homes that would support the UK’s drive to reduce emissions from new housing. It was contained in a document from the Treasury, apparently now setting more UK housing policy than DCLG, entitled ‘Fixing the foundations – Creating a more Prosperous Nation’

There is much to welcome in the document, and a lot that seems eminently sensible, I say this to deflect any criticism that I am singling out a single issue to the exclusion of the rest, all 88 pages of it. But it seems to me to be entirely wrong-headed to drop this proposal now, after planning for it for such a long time, and after so much work has been done to prepare for it. I have seen no justification for the decision yet, and I await that justification with interest. The document is about planning to improve the UK’s productivity, so the assumption must be that dropping these proposals will improve productivity in the UK housing industry.

Whether this is really the case or not depends how you measure productivity.

Will removing this requirement mean that more houses get built than would otherwise be the case?

Probably not, as housing starts have more to do with sales values than build costs. The introduction of previous regulatory changes have not had any visible effect on housebuilding numbers as DCLG usually has a fairly relaxed transition period allowing housebuilders to prepare for the new standards over a long period. Housebuilders are also very skilled at passing on the costs of improved performance to their supply chain.

Will more plots receive permission with the legislation removed?

Probably not, as planning authorities will want to see evidence that new homes are sustainably developed and this would have been one way of demonstrating this.

What we will see is that the costs of occupying new homes will stay higher than it would otherwise be, as will the CO2 emissions from them. This could affect up to a million new homes if housing numbers improve towards the 200k per annum mark and this situation lasts for five years 2016-2021. (see graphic)

The Costs of Low Carbon Living

The Costs of Low Carbon Living

The additional running costs will be in the region of £200 per annum per household, meaning a spend of £200M on energy by consumers that could be avoided and the additional CO2 will  be around 2 tonnes per dwelling, reaching a total of 2 Million tonnes of additional CO2 emissions that could otherwise be avoided.

To meet our CO2 budgets this extra 2Mt of CO2 will need to be abated elsewhere, which will come with a cost, and our energy system will need to be developed to include the additional energy supply needed.

It makes little sense to me that a nation that prides itself on its universities and innovation, and associates both of these with improving productivity,  would make this decision. Housing manufacturing in particular is a very innovative and productive industry, and can meet these higher standards already, but needs a willing market to thrive. The companies that will benefit from this are the ones looking backwards, the brick manufacturers, the housebuilders, the landowners. The ones that will suffer are the ones looking forward, the innovative manufacturers, the developers of high quality homes, the purchasers and occupiers of the homes themselves. This change in direction simply retains the status quo and extends the period within which housing can continue to be built using traditional and low productivity methods, and removes any regulatory driver for the industry to improve and innovate.

By 2020 the UK is expected to have introduced legislation to deliver Nearly Zero Energy Buildings (NZEB’s) together with all other EU partners. The proposed 2016 regulations would have been a strong stepping stone to this higher standard and made for an easy transition. The Chancellor appears to be betting on that standard either going away, or being optional for the UK to adopt come 2020.


Jane Jacobs on Street Life

In her book ‘The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs paints a rosy picture of urban street life. Particularly urban street life and the urban children she observes in it. She writes about the children playing in Hudson Street where she lives in Greenwich Village and draws firm conclusions from her experience.

She observes that shopkeepers are part of the lifeblood of the street, they partially supervise the children playing, tell them off for being troublesome, help them out when they need it, give directions to strangers and hold keys for residents who are away for the weekend. She notes that they don’t become close friends with many people, but have a relationship based on nods and smiles and the occasional sentence in passing. A relationship based on mutual self-interest. The shopkeeper is saying, ‘I’ll keep an eye on things and you can trust me because I need to retain your trust” 

She observes that the children benefit from the mixture of parenting from their real parents and the guidance and commentary they get from neighbours, shopkeepers and passers by. This tells the children that the world in general cares about them and takes a small but important interest in their well-being. They in turn learn that its important that they too take an interest in the world and the well-being of their playmates and the world around them. Soon, they too begin to offer help to strangers, giving directions or advice.

At no point does she mention the impact of traffic on active play, there probably wasn’t so much of it that it had a major impact on Hudson street, although photographs taken at the time show plenty of cars parked on the streets of New York in the 1950’s. She does state that to be effictive ‘play’ streets, the ‘sidewalks’ should be ‘thirty to thirty-five feet wide’ to accommodate any kind of play that could be required, but acknowledges that the requirements of traffic mean that there are few streets of that width even then.


Greenwich Village,New York, 1950’s Getty Images

She strongly criticizes the idea that ‘managed’ or supervised play space in parks is any substitute for ‘unmanaged’ street play. Her main problem with ‘managed play’ is that children beyond a very young age don’t want to be actively supervised by their parents and lose interest in such play very quickly. Play spaces in parks are also unsafe because they are usually too far from street life to be supervised by the passers by. She also critizes the lack of male intervention in such places, where children are usually supervised by their mothers only, in contrast to the street where they are supervised and protected by, and able to interact with, a host of different people, men and women, young and old, locals and passers by.

The image she paints is idyllic in some senses, a loose community of neighbours who look out for each other, particularly for each others children, while still going about their business in a normal way. Its the perfect mixture of privacy where no-one is prying into your personal affairs (associated with village life) and still enough human interest to know that if you didn’t show up to buy a pint of milk your neighbours would check up on you to see if you were OK.
The street itself had the interesting feature of steps up to the front doors of houses or apartment buildings. These steps gave places for residents to survey the street for a long distance from an elevated position in relative security. They gave children a small place to sit and play out of the way of passers by, but most importantly gave residents a place to watch, interact with or supervise the world as it went by.

Fast forward to London 2015.

Shopkeepers are rarely, if ever, at the front of their shops. Their windows are full of goods and it is often impossible to see the street from inside shops, particularly greengrocers and supermarkets. Even if the street were visible, the shopkeepers rarely own their shops as so many of them are chain stores and the staff are rotated on a regular basis. As automated tills come in the number of staff is dwindling, and the ability of shopkeepers to participate in street life diminishes. As retail moves more to the Internet, fewer and fewer shops are needed to sell goods on the high street, as they are being undercut by online businesses. 

The bright spark in this is food retailing, which appears to be getting stronger, and the increase of street life that comes with it is enormous, even if a lot of it includes the use of tables on already too-narrow pavements. Waiting staff come out to the street to bring food and deliver orders, deliveries come and go and the ballet of the street expands instead of contracting. It will be interesting to see how this develops over the next decade. 

No-one plays on the streets for any length of time, and hasn’t done so for a generation. Children’s play takes place either in their back gardens, or in schools, or, for a short while, in the street while they go to, or come from, school. This is also supervised play insofar as there is almost always a parent or two there to ensure that they get to school on time. This concerns the minority of children who actually walk to school, most of them are driven by parents fearful of their children being hit by a car while walking to school. 

Public parks are often empty, they are very busy on sunny weekends, but often deserted in weektimes, particularly the play areas, children are often brought there to play on their way home, and then ferried home for dinner, by car.

Children are not usually let out to play before or after tea/dinner. They sit at home playing video games instead, possibly playing with their friends in nearby homes, but only connected via cyberspace. If they do meet their friends to play it is usually organised by parents and the children are delivered and collected, by car.

Cars parked in the street take up about 50% of the land left for the street. Pavements are wide enough to allow two buggies to pass each other and no more. Parents don’t let their children play in front of their houses because they are afraid that they might be abducted, or damage a neighbours car, and in any case there isn’t room for them to play in. 

The only extensive street play I have observed is streets being taken over by parents in high-vis jackets to close it off to through traffic, with the support of the local council. Children are encouraged to play in the street, but supervised by their anxious parents. I can image how Jacobs would laugh at this. I am sure these street closures are helping people to get to know each other and to enable their children to be more active, but it is hardly a solution to the problem, more of a symptom. The presence of hundreds of cars means that the kinds of games children would like to play cannot be played, there simply isn’t the space. 

Disability legislation means that it is now almost impossible to design houses with ‘stoops’ or steps in front that provide places to view or supervise the street. Residents of new neighbourhoods will be on the same level as those passing by, and rooms on the street frontage are that much darker and noisier as a result. Ideally the ground floors of urban buildings would always be gven over to commercial uses, but it is unlikely that there will ever be enough commercial uses to go around.


We don’t appear to have learned very much from the mistakes or from the successes of the past as described by Jacobs, modern places are still mainly designed with traffic in mind, not with people in mind. Traffic engineering rules, bin lorry sizes and utilities have a  much stronger voice when it comes to the design of places than any consideration of what type of society a place is likely to foster. Children are given play areas which are intended for them to play in, but what child wants to play in an organised way? Some of these places, usually corraled by railings, are even intended for ‘doorstep’ play. Play, by definition, is not organised. 

Finally, Jacobs firm belief was that public street life allows people to interact with each other equally, because everyone has the right to be there. The street is the ultimate social leveller.

‘If there is no public street life, and there are only opportunities for formal interaction, this tends to suit a self-selecting confident middle-class.’