20 Dec 2007

Why I don't think Code Level 6 is such a great idea

A thought provoking piece over on Fairsnipe questioning whether the Code for Sustainable Homes goes far enough. Martin’s opinion seems to be based around the fact that Barratt have recently been awarded a contract to develop 200 top Level 6 homes at Hanham Hall in Bristol. “Even failed newspaper baron Eddie Shah is reportedly building low cost homes that meet level 5,” he writes.

His implication being that if an amateur can get to Level 5 at low cost, and a box-basher-outer like Barratt can do Level 6, then the bar has been set too low.

I see a similar reaction to the Code as we did to Egan’s Rethinking Construction - we didn’t need it, we couldn’t do it - it will cost too much and then suddenly with a great coat of whitewash everyone was Egan compliant.

I see where he’s coming from but I think he’s completely wrong on this one. Why? What’s wrong with the Code for Sustainable Homes and, in particular, Code Level 6, the zero carbon house.

1. It demands the use of micro renewables to offset the energy being used. I believe that our future energy needs are going to met by a green grid-based solution. The same logic that brought about the creation of the national grid in the 1930s applies today just as it did then: localized power production is an inefficient use of resources. Micro renewables are expensive and often unsuited to small sites, yet Code Level 6 insists that they are fitted to all new homes after 2016. Far better to build and professionally manage large grid-based renewable power stations.

2. The low-energy side of the Code for Sustainable Homes is based pretty much on the PassivHaus standard. Whilst this is the acknowledged gold standard in the field, it’s not without its critics and no one has yet completed a Passive House in the UK, yet alone lived in one for a few years to find out whether it’s as good as its cracked up to be. Its fans claim that it costs only 5-10% more to build to this standard but I am not convinced about this: in theory, the list of differences may only be marginally more but to build a Passive House with air changes at under 1 q50 (as opposed to the current UK standard of 10 q50) takes a lot of attention to detail. Not “Bodge it up, bush, bush” which is how we build most houses in Britain.

3. Even if we overcame this hurdle, it’s still not clear to me that the PassivHaus standard translates to the UK climate, or our customs. For instance, what is the point of fitting triple glazing inside technically impressive insulated frames (U value 0.8 or under) when over half of us like to sleep in rooms with the window open all year round? I don’t think anyone has thought this through.

4. There is a whole ton of stuff in the Code for Sustainable Homes that has nothing to do with low energy housebuilding. The water restrictions are technically very challenging and will require rainwater harvesting systems to be installed on all new properties. This may be a noble aim in the low rainfall regions of the UK, but what if you are building in the Lake District where they have more water than they know what to do with? Lifetime Homes? Good stuff. Considerate Constructor scheme? Right on. But the crisis facing us is climate change, so what are all these other noble initiatives doing in here, muddying the water?

In summary, I find myself in a strange position. I think the idea of having a road map showing us how we should be building in the future is a great idea and I applaud the DCLG for being bold enough to bring on such a plan – it should have happened years ago. But I just feel that the Code for Sustainable Homes is the wrong plan. It’s all very well it being technically challenging to get to Code Level 6 — it is, despite what Martin seems to think — but the goal has to be rational and workable as well. Getting to the top levels of the Code, as it stands, involves substantial costs for very little benefit: that’s not clever, it’s a waste of precious resources. For every pound spent stretching a house from Code Level 3 to Level 6, you could save twenty times more energy addressing the energy gaps in the existing stock.

Afterthought: I don’t wish to snipe at Barratt for taking on this Code Level 6 project in Bristol. I think it should be built, occupied and monitored for three or four years to see how it works. That would take us to….about 2014. That would be the time to make a final decision about the roadmap.

6 Dec 2007

Should we carbonize interest rates?

This morning, the radio bulletins are full of speculation about interest rates. The Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) meets today to decide whether to change the Bank’s base rate from the current 5.75%. With the financial world in a lather about the credit crunch, the betting is that they will cut by 0.25%, though some are so desperate they are hoping for a 0.5% cut.

Yet the MPC’s brief is not to respond to financial crises. It is charged with just one task, which is to keep a lid on inflation, and inflation is currently above its target range so they really should be considering raising rates, not cutting them. It’ll make for a very intriguing meeting. And it also neatly exposes a conundrum at the heart of government policy. Why track only price inflation? And how exactly do you measure inflation anyway?

It seems to me that there is both good inflation and bad inflation. Or to put it another way, not all prices rises are inflationary, as they may simply cause demand to fall. An example of good inflation is oil going up in price: recently it’s been nudging a headline grabbling $100 a barrel. Surely the world is a better place with high oil prices, as it sends a strong signal to us to stop burning quite so much of it, and to start looking for alternative ways of creating energy. So why should we be hit with high interest rates because the oil price is high?

Following on from this, I have been thinking that maybe the MPC’s target should be modified. Carbonized even. Instead of just looking at a theoretical basket of prices (a haphazard undertaking at best), should it not start considering fossil fuel use as well? Or even instead? How would it work?

The target for carbon use would have to be negative, say 3% less each year. Provided the country meets that target, then interest rates would be set breathtakingly low, encouraging zero carbon growth. On the other hand, if the country as a whole fails to meet the target, then the MPC would raise interest rates so as to dampen economic activity, if necessary pushing us into recession (which is reckoned to be the single most effective brake on carbon use yet devised). Stiff medicine maybe. But isn’t that what we need?

4 Dec 2007

Review: Fred Wellings British Housebuilders

It’s not exactly a page turner, nor something you read from cover to cover, but Fred Welling’s history of British Housebuilders in the 20th century has some fascinating insights into this very strange business.

One of the facts to emerge from his study is just how insular housebuilding is a sector of the economy. It has proven very difficult, verging on the impossible, for housebuilders to expand into other related areas, such as contracting or commercial property. And it’s proven just as difficult for other businesses to expand into housebuilding.

Furthermore, there is an almost total lack of overseas activity: only Taylor Woodrow and Wimpey (now merged into one) ever had significant businesses outside the UK. And conversely, there is an almost total absence of foreign takeovers within the quoted UK housebuilding sector.

With land supply being just a little restricted, the only way for housebuilders to expand their business is through acquisition. Yet Wellings looks at the question of the optimum size for a housebuilding operation and concludes that there is very little economic advantage in expansion, as the unit of production is essential a building site and the costs of running many building sites outweigh any savings in admin and overheads. He reckons the optimum size is around 500 units a year, about the amount a single manager is capable of handling.

3 Dec 2007

Barratt's Eco Village

Whilst Yvette Cooper and her chums would have us believe that the drive towards zero-carbon homes will transform the way we design and build houses, the reality is more likely to look something like this photo. This is Barratt’s Eco Village in Chorley near Manchester and it’s probably one of the most depressing photos of the year. For it could be any Barratt estate anywhere in the past twenty years, except that it’s got a few micro wind turbines stuck up above the rooftops. Some future we have to look forward to here.

To be fair, the site has been conceived more as a test bed for zero and low carbon technologies than as an exemplar of what homes might look like. But surely the Barratt design department could have tried just a little bit harder, seeing as they knew it was going to be on view.

An article in the latest Building reports on the results of a year’s survey by the University of Manchester on the performance of five different technologies featured here at the eco-village. The results more or less confirm figures gleaned from other tests.

• Micro Wind Turbines: two different types tried: both useless, producing virtually no power at all

• Ground source heat pumps: three different ones fitted, which the manufacturers claimed would deliver a CoP (measurement of efficiency) of between 3.0 and 5.0. Average CoP achieved? Just 2.6. They work, but not as well as we are led to believe.

• Photovoltaics: three 8m2 arrays placed on three roofs. Output varied depending on orientation and angle. South facing was best (not surprisingly): a 45° one produced 1034kWh of electricity in a year. An east facing one at 60° produced 760kWh whilst another east facing one mounted at 45° produced 818kWh. These results are bang in line with expectations: no one doubts that PV arrays produce power in reasonable quantities, the problem is the cost of installing them.

• Solar thermal: comparisons were made between a 2.5m2 flat plate and a 3m2 evacuated tube, both used to heat a 180lt hot water tank. Both succeeded in doing this for the summer months: the evacuated tube could get the water to 75°C, as compared to 60°C for the flat plate collector. The researcher, Dr Tony Sung, makes an interesting point that this added performance wasn’t of any obvious value, as 60°C is plenty hot enough.

• Micro CHP: two units fitted, both Whispergens. One produced 11,000kWh of heat and 680kWh of electricity, the other 9,600kWh heat and 260kWh of electricity: the difference between them is explained by the different lifestyles of the occupants, but interesting to note that the average power:electricity ratio is 20:1, only half as good as the Carbon Trust survey results.

28 Nov 2007

Micro CHP

Combined Heat and Power (CHP) is a low carbon technology which produces both hot water and electricity. It’s been used mostly at the commercial level for some time but there is a small domestic version, known as Micro CHP.

To date, it’s not been staggeringly successful. The proposition isn’t that appealing, at least as far as homeowners are concerned. You shell out about two or three times as much as your would for a gas boiler, and you get some of your electricity requirement thrown in with your hot water. Whilst large and medium sized CHP plants are doing rather well, down at the micro level things have come becalmed, especially as the only one commercially available, the gas-fired Whispergen, pictured here, has temporarily ceased production.

Thanks to the boys over at Carbon Limited who have flagged up a report from The Carbon Trust on the micro CHP. It has drawn some interesting conclusions in comparing the performance of 87 Micro CHP units with 27 condensing boilers over a four-year period.

• Key finding is that in order to operate effectively, micro CHP has to be in a situation where it can run for long periods uninterrupted. If the system cycles on and off frequently, it ends up using more electricity than it generates.

• Essentially this means that they are suitable for sites such as residential care homes and leisure centres, where there is a reasonably large and consistent hot water demand, In these instances, there can be significant savings — the report quotes 15% to 20% — relative to using condensing boilers

• But in housing, micro-CHP advantages are marginal at best. The demand has to be significant to make any savings, so it may be a runner if the house is very large or very old and uninsulated. Think listed manor houses – that sort of thing. The cut-off point identified by the report is a heat demand of more than 20,000kWh/annum, which would apply to almost all 20th century housing over 200m2 internal floor area (say five bedrooms).

• One of the main issues with today’s generation of micro CHP is that they only produce 1 unit of electrical power for every 10 units of hot water. This doesn’t match general domestic use, which is more like 1:3. Not until new technology kicks in (fuel cells anyone?) will a micro CHP plant start producing a better balance.

• Having said that, there is a good match time-wise. Peak electricity and hot water demand tend to occur at the same time (think dark winter nights), unlike technologies such as roof mounted PV arrays. So there is every chance that the electricity you produce, you will actually consume rather than having to export it to the grid at knockdown prices.

• The report also has some factoids about condensing boilers. It concludes that they achieve efficiencies about 5% less than their SEDBUK rating would suggest. And also that the electrical controls use large amounts of power to run the pumps, fans and control systems. Some designs are worse than others and the difference is significant. In some instances, the electrical consumption associated with condensing boilers may account for 15% of the household electricity bill.

27 Nov 2007

Why George is Wrong

George Monbiot writes in today’s Guardian about the plight of the very poor in Britain and how badly they are served by our social housing. It’s a long piece, just over 1200 words, and he spends almost the whole piece exploring the plight of some desperate families, who Shelter seem to have put him in touch with.

Then suddenly, at the end of the article, without so much as an argued link, he switches into conclusion mode: I find myself, to my intense discomfort, supporting the preposterous housing target (i.e. to build 3 million new homes by 2020). There is a legitimate debate to be had about where and how these homes are built. However - though it hooks in my green guts to admit it - built they must be.

It’s a pity he didn’t spend a little longer analysing his green guts because he could, and should, have come to a very different conclusion. Britain most definitely does not need 3 million new homes in the next twelve years, especially if they are all to be one- and two-bedroom flats. Bad as the plight is of his case studies, Wendy Castle, Jacqueline Pennant and the Afghani asylum seekers Aisha and Abdul Omarzaiy, the situation is not going to be improved by a huge housebuilding programme. The flats that they live in will still be there in 2020 and the chances are that they will still be filled with either the same families or ones just like them.

Our borders are porous and however cramped the housing is in Kensington & Chelsea, it’s still a toehold in London. The bottom end of our social housing market represents a result if you come from Afghanistan.

What will happen if we build 3 million new homes? In an open Britain, they will fill up with approximately 10 million new people. And as they will mostly be flats, rather than family homes, the amount of overcrowding will continue much as before.

If we really wanted to tackle the overcrowding issue, we would do better to start replacing flats with larger houses, so that social renters had somewhere to go. Just building new homes in vast numbers is now scarcely more justifiable now than building a new runway at Heathrow.

Lifetime Homes: the 16 steps

Lifetime Homes, as a concept, has been around since 1991. The idea is to make housing usable by people of all abilities and in all phases of life, including childhood. It’s not just about the disabled!

It was developed by a group of housing experts, drawn together by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. A few of the ideas were incorporated into Part M of the England & Wales Building Regulations in 1999, but the Lifetime Homes concept as a whole is still only widely used by Housing Associations. The Code for Sustainable Homes awards eco points for building to Lifetime Homes standard and, as it stands, the standard will have to be incorporated into all new homes by 2016. You won’t be able to score the 90% rating required to meet Level 6 of the Code without it.

There are 16 design features which combined make up the Lifetime Homes standard:

• Car parking space should be easily capable of enlargement to attain a width of 3300mm

• The distance from the car parking space to the home should be kept to a minimum and should be level or gently sloping

• The approach to all entrances should be level or gently sloping

• All entrances should be illuminated

• Communal stairs should provide easy access and where levels are reached by lift, the lift should be fully wheelchair accessible

• Doorways and hallways have to be at least 750mm wide, or at least 900mm wide when the approach is head-on

• Dining and living areas should have space for turning a wheelchair and there should be adequate circulation space for wheelchair users

• The living space should be at the level of the entrance

• If homes of two or more storeys, there should be space at entrance level which should be used as a convenient bed space

• The design of the property should incorporate a provision for a future stair lift and a suitably identified space for a through-the-floor lift from the ground to the first floor

• The design of the property should provide for a reasonable route for a potential hoist from a main bedroom to the bathroom

• There should be a WC situated at the entrance level of the property and a drainage provision enabling a shower to be fitted in the future

• Walls in the bathrooms and toilets should be capable of taking adaptations such as handrails

• The bathroom should be designed to incorporate ease of access to essential amenities such as the bath, basin and WC

• Living room windows should begin 800mm from the floor or lower and be easy to open

• Switches, sockets, ventilation and service controls should be situated between 450mm and 1200mm from the floor

Most of these features can be incorporated into most house designs fairly easily and with minimal additional cost. The ones that are likely to cause problems for designers are:

• The requirement for larger bathrooms, especially the future proofing of the downstairs loo as a potential wet room. In small houses, this is a considerable space eater

• Future-proofing a lift shaft: again this is tricky in small houses

• Wide parking spaces

Ideally, from a Lifetime Homes point of view, we would all be living in generous bungalows. However, this runs completely counter to the prevailing mood in planning which demands that we squeeze as much as possible living space into the available footprint. Indeed, another part of the Code for Sustainable Homes awards points for using the basement and/or the loftspace. It’s not difficult to build a four-storey house that conforms to Lifetime Homes standard, but arguably it goes against the spirit of what Lifetime Homes is all about, which is making the whole house accessible to the physically impaired. Box ticking 1 Common sense 0.

21 Nov 2007

Eco Bollocks Award: Terminal 5

News has reached me of the fantastic efforts BAA have been making to help preserve the environment at Heathrow’s Terminal 5, due to open in March 2008. It’s taken the sustainable approach to building very seriously.

Terminal 5, which is so big that it is actually three terminals, designated 5A, 5B and 5C, will use two separate water systems, one for drinking and the other for toilet flushing and irrigation. Water for the second system will be sourced from an in-house rainwater harvesting system, topped up with a borehole supply. They hope to be able to collect and re-use 85% of the rain falling on the terminal catchment area.

In addition, all the bathrooms will have dual flush toilets, and the taps will have on-off sensors combined with aerated flow. BAA trills that it aims to reduce the demand from the public water supply by up to 70%.

Come on guys, stop trilling. It’s an airport.

19 Nov 2007

Planning Permission: 1959 v 2007

Our plans for a replacement dwelling have been approved. They were submitted in the last week of July, registered with the planning department on August 7th and approved 12 weeks later. A little slower than the eight weeks which they are supposed to take, but it could be worse.

The permission comes with no less than 11 conditions.

1. The permission only lasts three years: this is now standard for all planning permissions. It used to be five years, but this was effectively reduced to three a couple of years ago.
2. They demand the right to check the materials we will be using on the roof and the walls, and also request that we ensure a privacy screen at one end of the balcony.
3. We have to produce a hard and soft landscaping scheme, with details of what is there, what will be retained (and how it will be protected) and what will be planted.
4. A requirement that all this work is carried out in the first planting season after occupation.
5. The Tree Officer is to have the say-so on which trees should be protected or replaced.
6. Especially a walnut tree in the back garden.
7. The grannexe must not be a separate dwelling
8. Visibility splays to be created along the roadway entrance
9. Turning space to be provided
10. A brick and flint wall dividing the house from the neighbour is to be retained.
11. Hours of activity are defined for the building works

None of this is unduly onerous. But a lot of it still rankles because it’s all so intrusive. Conditions 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 10 and 11 are arguably really none of the council’s business. As owner of this property, I can and should be able to do what I want to the vegetation. The condition and indeed existence of a boundary wall is a matter to be decided between me and my neighbour. And the hours of activity on site are again issues for me to sort out with the locals.

The question is why is the council getting involved in all this stuff? The site is not listed, it’s not in a conservation area, none of the trees are subject to Tree Preservation Orders (at least they weren’t before we started), so none of the conservation buttons are hit. Yet they still cannot resist micro-managing all manner of details which they wouldn’t be at all concerned with, were we not about to replace an old house with a new one.

Back in 1959 when the existing house received its planning permission, things were very different. There were just two conditions placed upon the builders:
1. That the access should be constructed to the satisfaction of the Highway Authority.
2. That a strip of land 8ft wide should be left at the front of the site to allow for possible highway improvements in the future — a condition which seems to have vanished from the 2007 version.

The 1959 permission takes up one A4 sheet of paper. The 2007 permission fills five pages.

I don’t blame our planners for this state of affairs. They are simply responding to guidelines funnelled down to them from council and ultimately from central government. But the contrast in the conditions placed upon the planning permissions between 1959 and 2007 is quite startling. It’s hard not to conclude that today we live in a world that is far more bureaucratic, far more intrusive and with a lot less freedom.

17 Nov 2007

Foundations: alternative approaches

There’s a new house going up on our road. The groundworkers have just finished the excavations: it’s on a backland plot and there are tree root issues, as there often are on backland plots. The photograph shows the state of play today, ready for a foundation pour on Monday. I was talking to the builder and they’ve been asked to go down 2.4 metres in some places, plus adding slip membranes around the trenches. He reckoned that they would be using around 100m3 of readymix, around 15 truckloads.

That is one hell of a lot of readymix for a single house, although it’s not perhaps that unusual in this day and age. The NHBC in particular is incredibly hot on using shedloads of readymix concrete to overcome ground movement problems. Foundation issues are still the largest cause of claims on NHBC policies and over the years they have become more and more wary of clay ground and, in particular, tree roots. The list of species-which-spell-trouble seems to grow ever longer with every revision of the notorious Chapter 4.2 (Building near trees) of the NHBC standards.

But consider that the house at the front of the plot (on the left of the photo) is also surrounded by trees. It’s been there since the 1880s (at a guess) and I doubt very much that it has anything much in the way of foundations — the Victorians used to just spread out the bricks at the base of the wall to make up footings. And I don’t think it’s been unduly affected by subsidence. Subsidence doesn’t really happen much in our village.

So why are we putting 100m3 of readymix into the ground under this new house? The readymix alone will cost the builder at least £6,000, not to mention muck away costs for around 100m3 of spoil. And at around 300kWh/tonne, making this much concrete will release around 9 tonnes of CO2, coincidentally the same amount as the average Briton produces each year.

Remember, it’s not the weight of the house that is the issue. 300-odd tonnes of house spread out across 50 or 60 linear metres of foundations is no great load. Compared to a 40 tonne lorry being held up by a few tyres, it’s nothing. All that concrete isn’t there to hold the house up but rather to stop it moving around: the reason the foundations go so deep is to get down to ground which doesn’t shift about through the seasons.

As I surveyed the foundation trenches of this house this morning, I couldn’t help thinking of the story of Caroline Barry’s straw bale house which was built off a base of car tyres. OK, it’s maybe a little too ethnic, a little too Glastonbury for your average builder, let alone house buyer, but there’s more than a germ of a good idea here. Rather than striving to get down to bedrock, such a house would be designed to float on the ground, with the base quietly absorbing any ground movement.

Maybe it’s idle fantasy — and feel free to explain just why —but surely there must be a more intelligent way of supporting a house than just pouring more and more concrete into the ground?

12 Nov 2007

Pumping heat

Spent the weekend dispensing bon-mots and advice in Harrogate at the Homebuilding & Renovating show, one of six held throughout the UK each year. This year I have been delivering a short lecture on sustainable homebuilding and it has sparked some interesting questions and comments from the audience. However this Sunday it all got a little fiery when someone asked about the difference between air source and ground source heat pumps and whether either made sense for his building project. Rather like the output from these heat pumps, my response was just a little lukewarm.

What I specifically said was that heat pumps don’t make much sense if mains gas is available but that there should be a reasonable payback against oil. “You are doing well if you get a Coefficient of Performance of more than 3.0,” I said. I have been consistently saying this for some time now and at least one heat pump manufacturer, Kensa, seem happy to agree with me.

But up stands this man in the audience who said that heat pumps could now deliver over 6.0 — i.e. twice as much heat output for the power input. Before I could stop myself, I blurted out “That’s rubbish.” It obviously hit a nerve, because he stood up and started getting shirty with me. “What do I know about it” sort of stuff. I have no idea who he was but can only guess he was working for one of the many heat pump suppliers exhibiting at the show.

This made me go all defensive and I started quoting a couple of studies back at him that showed that heat pumps often don’t deliver what manufacturers claim. If only to prove that I do know something about it, if not exactly ranking at world expert status. This of course made matters worse and our man turns around and walks out of the seminar theatre in an act of brazen defiance.

You could have heard a pin drop. Normally, these events pass by without any rancour at all and everything is sweetness and light from start to finish. Here there was a definite feeling that someone thought I that I was being out of order and should be upbraided.

What I think this shows is that the heat pump market is maturing fast, perhaps a little too fast. By all means consider the merits of using a heat pump, but don’t get sucked in by the hype, and beware claims of extraordinary efficiencies achieved.

5 Nov 2007

On zero carbon cars

There is an almighty schism in the sustainability movement. On one side are the hair shirts, insisting that salvation lies in a low impact lifestyle with much less consumption and much, much less travel. On the other are the techno-fixers who believe, or at least hope, that we can continue business much as usual and that we’ll soon sort out ways of creating energy without releasing CO2 all over the place.

Most official policy and indeed most green organisations pay lip service to both sides of the debate. Thus we should become super energy efficient AND we should start to generate renewable power. Nowhere is this more evident than in our de facto manifesto for the future of housebuilding, the Code for Sustainable Homes, where Code Levels 1 through 4 are all about conserving energy whilst Code Levels 5 and 6 call for us to create it as well.

One of the great unspokens here is that we have as yet no idea how much green power we are capable of producing. The hair shirt argument rather relies on the notion that carbon-free electricity will be in short supply and that we had better get used to conserving every joule. But it is quite conceivable that this may not be the case and that if we get our act together we could generate far more green electricity than the world could ever need. If such a scenario was to be played out, it would make many of the other sustainability arguments redundant. Or at least highly questionable.

Take planning as an example. In recent months, I have sat in on several lectures about sustainable urban design and every speaker I have listened to has been at pains to emphasize the importance of getting away from car dependency. In this respect, the USA is always held up as the prime example of how not to do it (think Los Angeles and its hundreds of miles of gridlocked freeways) and medieval Europe (especially places like Tuscany) is shown as the way to go. But it goes deeper than this. The car itself is the enemy, not just for the fact that car use burns mega amounts of carbon, but also because it destroys communities by enabling everyone to shop at out of town malls and supermarkets. This in turn pulls the rug out from under the feet of small independent stores, thus making traditional town centres unattractive. This in turn leads to people driving everywhere, which in turn, leads to problems like obesity. It’s all interconnected, and it all leads back to the car.

The problem for urbanists, who want to get us all back on our bikes and back into trains and buses, is that the car is just so damned convenient. And for most of the past fifty or sixty years, we have been building our economies around the notion of car use. It’s going to be incredibly difficult to wean us away from cars.

But think how much harder this would be if cars were to become part of the solution to climate change, rather than its main bugbear. Some of the techno-fixers can see exactly this scenario taking shape in years to come. How come?

The answer lies in the use of car batteries as an energy store. One of the main problems — in fact THE main problem — with renewable energy is that it only operates in fits and starts. On a windy day, for instance, we may conceivably draw all our energy needs — and more — from wind turbines, but that won’t get us through days without wind. Similarly, solar panels don’t work too well in the dark. What we’ve been lacking to date are credible storage methods which would be able to tide us through the times when renewables are contributing very little energy. Some have suggested that rather than building hundreds of giant batteries, or maybe pumped reservoirs, we might instead be able to use millions of small batteries which would be capable of taking and returning a charge to and from the mains. Every home would have a tray of these rechargeable batteries, acting like some huge energy internet. And, furthermore, these batteries could double as power sources for electric vehicles, which in itself would act as a considerable incentive for people to install them at home.

Say each house had maybe a dozen batteries plugged into the mains. If you wanted to go out in your car, you would take one of the batteries from the tray, drop it into your car in a special battery slot, and drive off. It might only work for an hour, so if you wanted to go further, you would have to stop at a battery garage and swap your empty battery for a full one. Not only would there be enough charge in all these batteries to keep 20-odd million electric cars on the road, but also to keep the nation lit and heated during the long hours of winter darkness, not to mention a week or two of calm, overcast weather when the big renewable power plants weren’t generating.

Science fiction? Probably, but the techno-fixers other solutions (e.g. mirrors in space, pouring iron filings into the oceans) are arguably even more implausible. By 2025, we might (just) have migrated to electric zero-carbon cars and motoring might no longer be seen as the No 1. bogeyman in the battle against climate change.

The question is what effect would this have on the great sustainable planning debates? If cars switched from being one of the main drivers behind climate change to being one of the main solutions, wouldn’t this tend to make the move towards sustainable urban settlements look just a little hollow? Would we suddenly be able to start building in the countryside again? Would out-of-town shopping centres be back of the agenda? Would the idea of eco-towns be dead in the water? Or will the obesity issue have become so all engulfing by then, that cars will still be regarded with suspicion?

1 Nov 2007

Let's all go down the eco-pub

Unlike Jamie Oliver, I don’t exactly have the government hanging on my every utterance, but on Tuesday evening I did get to quiz Housing Minister Yvette Cooper about her eco-towns proposals. She had just given a twenty-minute talk, at an event organised by the Princes Foundation, on why eco-towns will be the most wonderful thing since Walt Disney first came up with the idea of theme parks. In so doing, she had hit every green button you could possibly think of so many times that they were burning hot by the end of her speech. I came away with the impression that this woman is so busy dispensing initiatives that she barely has time to sit down and think. And I am worried this might actually be true.

My question to her, put very simply, was this. Why bother? We have already been told that we are going to have to build all new homes to zero carbon standards by 2016 and we have been doing sustainable master planning for yonks, without a great deal of success, so what is the big deal about eco-towns? And why only 5,000 to 10,000 homes a time? And why out in the middle of nowhere? This being, in brief, the gist of the government’s own eco-town prospectus, published in July.

Yvette Cooper talks so fast and with such zeal that I hardly took in a word she said in reply. But I gathered that what she was on about was that

a) it needs to be at least 5,000 homes to be big enough for a secondary school and

b) they are already doing sustainable urban extensions (29 was a figure mentioned in passing) and

c) we need even more new homes so we have to find lots of new places to put them.

She did let slip that that she envisaged that, if successful, these small eco-towns would grow into big ones. To my mind, that immediately suggests that the infrastructure they initially get will rapidly prove to be obsolete. She also let us collectively know that the whole point of eco-towns was that everything in them should be eco, not just the houses. If I got her list right, it was “eco-offices, eco-schools, eco-shops and even eco-pubs.”

Now this set me thinking. What on earth would an eco-pub be like? There would of course be much more to it than triple glazing and a wind turbine on the roof. It, being a sustainable community, would have to embrace the green agenda, wouldn’t it? Would it be able to sell alcohol at all? Or would it stop you buying more than one drink? “Sorry, Madge, you’ve already exceeded your daily intake.” What about the food menu? Would it be Jamie’s pub grub? Smoking has of course already gone, but what about bad language or aggressive gestures. Just how lame would it all be?

Bear in mind that Letchworth, the world’s first new town, dating from 1907, was originally built without any pubs in order to ensure the population didn’t fritter away their time and money. On this basis, an eco-pub is therefore a contradiction in terms.

Then bugger me if the Guardian today isn’t carrying the following story on its front page: Fit towns plan to tackle childhood obesity. And bugger me if health secretary Alan Johnson isn’t being quoted at length saying he would like to ensure that the ten new eco-towns become fit towns. “Mr Johnson is leading a cross-government drive to put the eco-towns concept at the cutting edge of the fight against obesity.” The week before Johnson had gone on record as saying he thought obesity was as big a threat to us as climate change, and he is obviously keen to link the two issues.

I am left wondering if he is trying to hijack Yvette Cooper’s pet eco-town project, because the day before she didn’t mention anything at all about this so-called cross-government initiative. It’s all rather disconcerting. What’s a cub reporter to make of it all? Should I go and drown my sorrows down at the eco-pub?

30 Oct 2007

On Carbon Offsetting

A couple of weeks ago I went to a gathering organised by Cambridge Energy. The subject of debate was Carbon Offsetting: fix or fig-leaf? And very interesting it all proved to be.

I am of the camp that thinks it's pretty much fig-leaf. The first person I bumped into there was Andy Brown, an old acquaintance of mine who now works at Cambridge Architectural Research. Andy is even more of a fig-leafer than I am. He runs something called Cambridge Carbon Footprint in his spare time; I am not completely clear what it does but one thing it doesn’t do is sell carbon offsets.

The speakers at the event were a mixed bunch. Fiona Harvey of the Financial Times gave a run down of some of the carbon offset scams she had uncovered recently. These included a company selling offsets which consisted of sequestering CO2 by pumping it down into oil wells, when the real purpose of this operation was to increase the gas pressure in the wells and thereby help to extract the last of the oil down there.

Then Michael Schlup told us about the Gold Standard, a sort of UN backed quality assurance scheme for carbon offsets. I wasn’t convinced but he made the interesting point that you can’t realistically offset within Europe because the total amount of CO2 released is already capped (at least in theory, by Kyoto): it therefore only works in territories where there is no capping. Hence so many carbon offsetting schemes being Third World projects.

Now many people are cynical about rock stars offsetting their world tours by planting mango forests in India, but are happy to accept the principle of offsetting home produced renewable energy in order to obtain zero carbon status for a housing project. But logically, it’s all offsetting. As is buying electricity from a green supplier. Unless you aim to live entirely off grid and entirely without recourse to fossil fuels, which most people think is virtually impossible in the Western world today, then you can only approach being carbon neutral by trading your excess renewable power or biomass sequestration project, or by getting someone else to do this for you.

So despite all the scams and the indulgences it attracts, the principle of offsetting is sound. But it still sticks in the craw: the idea that I can burn more carbon if you do something to absorb that carbon. There is, whether you like it or not, something rather unpleasant going on here. It has been expertly satirised by Andy Brown’s son, Alex Randall, who runs the Cheat Neutral website.

This debate is particularly relevant to the Code for Sustainable Homes because it seems happy to accept some forms of offsetting but not others. This is difficult territory.

• The CSH accepts that it’s not possible to have a house generate all its electricity all the time, so it is permissible to trade any surplus you generate on sunny or windy days with the National Grid. Like it or not, that’s an offset.

• But the CSH also recognises that is impractical for every Code Level 6 house to be expected to generate renewable power, so the offset is extended to include community power schemes, such as CHP and district heating. So we have moved a level further out: they now accept offsite offsetting.

• How far off site can this renewable power plant be situated? It seems churlish to impose a maximum distance, so they have to accept that it could be many miles away. But how far? How about out in the North Sea?

By now, you can see that we are straying into very difficult territory. The CSH zero carbon definition is adamant that it won’t allow schemes simply to sign up for a renewable electricity tariff, because anyone can do that anytime. Somehow they want to be able to ensure that the renewable power generated for the scheme is unique and is additional to any other source, but this is much easier said than done. How do you enforce an individual home owner, let alone an entire housing scheme, to finance, say, an off shore windfarm? Especially in a country where we are all free to switch power suppliers at the click of a mouse. The government’s definition of zero carbon hinges on this conundrum and I don’t think anyone is going to be able to come up with a compelling definition, because the rules they dream up will look arbitrary and nonsensical.

The problem is of course that once you accept one bit of the offsetting model as being legitimate, then logically it’s all legitimate. After all carbon molecules don’t much care what happens to them and as far as CO2 reduction is concerned, a carbon molecule sequestered in an Indian mango forest is just as good as one saved from being burned in a power station because you have PV on your roof.

I don’t have a lot of sympathy for the government here. After all, it was they who dreamed up this silly target of the zero carbon home, something that is impossible to exist without embracing the concept of carbon offsetting. They now want to pick and choose which offsetting bits they like and which they don’t. I will rather enjoy watching them wriggle on their own hook.

Damned difficult, this carbon offsetting.

28 Oct 2007

What the hell is the NHPAU?

§ The National Housing and Planning Advice Unit

• The what? I have never heard of it.

§ It’s a new quango. It’s not an independent body, it’s set up with government money, and it seems to be embedded within the Department of Communities and Local Government (DCLG).

• I do know what the DCLG is, just about. It’s the government department that deals with planning and housing. In fact, it replaced John Prescott’s ODPM (Office of the Deputy Prime Minister). What is it with New Labour and four letter acronyms?

§ NHPAU is five.

• So it is. Maybe I am due a visit from the numeracy squad.

§ Funny you should say that but that is pretty much what the NHPAU does?

• What? Teach hoodies how to add up?

§ Not quite. But it’s there to thwack NIMBIES over the head with a load of statistics and figures, setting out to prove that there is a near-insatiable demand for new housing which can only be met with very large numbers.

• Let me guess. 240,000 new homes a year?

§ Very good. 8 out of 10. In fact the NHPAU is calling for 270,000 new homes a year up to 2016.

• Where have they done this?

§ They’ve come up with a response to the Government’s Green Paper Homes for the Future: More Affordable, More Sustainable and it’s generated a bit of press coverage last week.

• But hang on, I thought you said that they were part of the government?

§ Well not exactly part of the government. Just a review body that consists of members appointed by the government.

• So not exactly likely to contain many critics of government policy?

§ Precisely.

• So who runs the NHPAU?

§ Head honcho is Stephen Nickell, an economist who has sat on the Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee.

• Which if I remember correctly is also an independent body where membership is decided by the government. A bit of a pattern emerging here, don’t you think? And wasn’t that Kate Barker also a member of the MPC?

§ She still is. And you’ve put your finger on an important connection. The NHPAU’s job is to further the new housebuilding agenda set out in the Barker reports.

• Hang on a minute. Who commissioned the Barker report? Gordon Brown, wasn’t it?

§ Correct.

• And did he get the answer he wanted from it?

§ Yes, undoubtedly.

• But, to date, it’s all come to nothing. The amount of new housing in the UK actually went down last year. It stubbornly refuses to lift off above the 180,000 a year range, doesn’t it?

§ That’s why we need the NHPAU.

• What, due to the absence of any effective independent lobbying groups calling for more housing, the government does its own?

§ I wouldn’t be so cynical myself.

• So what’s in this report they have just put out? Can you summarise it for me with a few choice phrases?

§ It’s more of the same. An awful lot about affordability, almost nothing about sustainability. They are trying to guess what level of new housing is required in order to maintain affordability at current levels.

• You mean current unaffordable levels.

§ Quite.

• These are a bunch of economists, right?

§ Right.

• So they like to look at things in terms of supply and demand.

§ I’d go further. They are unable to look at things in any other way.

• My guess is that they spend a long time dwelling on the hardships caused by not having enough housing to meet everyone’s aspirations, but almost no time at all looking at the problems caused by trying to meet those aspirations.

§ Your point?

• My point being that it’s a big and complex problem and they have their telescopes focussed on just one relatively small area.

§ Well, what other areas do you think they should be looking at?

• The Irish question, for a start. I bet Ireland doesn’t even rate a mention in the report?

§ That’s correct. No mention of what happens anywhere else in the world, as far as I can see. That does seem rather blinkered, doesn’t it?

• You bet. Do you know what has happened in Ireland in the past 15 years?

§ Tell me.

• They built new homes like nowhere else has ever seen before. Each year they would build more than the year before. By 2006, it had got to 90,000 new homes a year. If that was the UK, the equivalent level would be over a million, not the paltry 270,000 a year that the NHPAU is calling for.

§ I had no idea. I guess it must have made houses in Ireland incredibly cheap, what with there being this huge over supply.

• You are joking. House prices in Ireland have risen even faster than they have in the UK. Since 1997, they have trebled.

§ But according to the economic theories being put forward by the likes of Kate Barker and the NHPAU, that should not be possible. What happened?

• It appears to be that the more homes they built, the more people moved to Ireland to fill them up. First the Irish diaspora started to return from overseas. Then the East Europeans who had come over to build the new houses stayed on in them. They just filled up. As fast as they could build them, the population grew to fill them. This kept the prices high. The demand for new homes was elastic.

§ But I don’t think the analysis the NHPAU has undertaken looks at this issue at all.

• Another question for you. How often do they look at the relationship between rates of new housebuilding and rates of immigration?

§ Well they do analyse migration. They use the term exogenous a lot.

• Exogenous? What does it mean?

§ As far as I understand, it refers to external causes. That is ones beyond the brief of the economists. They suggest that inter regional migration is affected by the housing market, but international migration is exogenous. I guess that means it’s beyond their control.

• Does that make sense to you? Why should migration patterns within a country be fundamentally different to those between nations?

§ I don’t know. Especially as the bulk of international migration now occurs within the EU. It acts like one big country in that respect.

• The point I am trying to make is that none of these economic models of how the housing market works take on board the fact that the demand for housing is always going to outstrip the supply, almost by definition, and that rates of migration, both internal and international, are hugely effected by the supply of housing. In fact, strange as it may seem, but the housing market is just about the only tool a government actually has at its disposal to control the flow of migrants.

§ Are you suggesting that we stop building new homes altogether in order to stop immigration?

• Not really. It’s more that I would like the politicians to acknowledge the fact that immigration rates and new housebuilding are intrinsically linked. If you increase the rate of housebuilding, you will simply increase the rate of immigration. That’s fine, if you want it to happen and you acknowledge explicitly that this is the goal of your policy. But it’s not being acknowledged. In fact, I don’t think anyone in Whitehall has even made the connection yet.

§ So do you think there is a hidden agenda here? Why does this government and Brown in particular want to expand the rate of housebuilding?

• Well, on the surface, it seems that they have been taken in by the affordability argument. That they genuinely think that building more homes will make them cheaper. It would if the size of the overall population was static, but of course it’s not. The population will just expand to fill the new homes, so it becomes a pointless exercise. Unless of course they want the population to grow. It’s hard to say.

§ Is there anything else that’s troubling you.

• Of course there is. There always is. It’s this ever present tension between development and sustainability. However green these new homes are made, they are still going to put stress on the environment. More traffic on the roads, more people in the streets, the schools, the hospitals, more holidays, that sort of thing. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I am thinking that we already have 22 million houses in this country. Isn’t that enough? Do we really need 25 million? What will we gain by having 3 million more? Shouldn’t we be thinking of improving the ones we have got rather than building loads more? But it’s this sort of analysis which is completely lacking from the likes of the NHPAU. They just look at the whole thing in terms of numbers. Where they see demand, they think it must be met with increased supply. It’s all so mechanistic.

§ Aren’t you being a NIMBY?

• Yes, I think you are right. Maybe I am getting older, but I am beginning to question the logic behind endless growth. The usual arguments for housing growth are that without it, our children and grandchildren will never have homes. But this isn’t strictly speaking true, is it? If the population stays more or less the same, which it does without the inward flow of migrants, then we have the same amount of housing available for the next generation as there is for this. People might want more: they might want second homes, or investment flats or smaller units to cope with divorced families, but there comes a point when you have to say: “Enough. Let’s learn to live with what we have rather than keep on expanding the amount of housing.”

It doesn’t follow that this means an end to growth per se. We could extend and improve the houses we have, we could knock down old houses and replace them with state of the art new homes, and we could spend money improving the environment in which we live. But at some point we have to say: “We are now closed for new housebuilding.” The question is at what point does this happen. At 25 million homes? At 30 million? Or at 40 million? When will Britain be full?

Now that’s a very big question, but I think it’s time it moved onto the political agenda. We’ve more or less accepted it with roads now — there are lots of road improvements planned but just about no new motorways. We may be on the point of accepting it with runways and airports — not there yet, but the end is arguably in site. But no one has begun to ask the same questions about our housebuilding programme. Here, it’s still onwards and upwards, to infinity and beyond.

§ I think it’s time for your medicine.

• Have I started dribbling again? Have my dentures become detached?

§ No, nothing like that. It’s just that you are sounding off again. It’s that vision thing, I find it rather disturbing.

• Look, I am sorry, do forgive me. Must make a mental note not to get carried away with the sound of my own voice. Anything on the telly?

§ That’s more like it. I expect there’ll be a repeat of Dad’s Army, just the ticket really.

• Sounds wonderful. Pass the Hobnobs.

26 Oct 2007

Michelle Kaufmann

Check out this video link if you want to know more about California’s answer to Bill Dunster.

22 Oct 2007

Wood burning stoves: solution or problem?

My attention has been caught by a fascinating thread over on the green building forum. It concerns the problems that one contributor, Justin, has been having with his neighbours complaining about the smoke from his wood burning stove. Or, as Justin likes to call them, “rich lard arses with no concept of sustainability, who run their car engines on cold mornings for minutes on end polluting my front garden as I get on my bicycle.”

Cue a general bashing of Daily Mail-reading Mondeo man? Not quite. Paul in Montreal, who contributes knowledgably on a number of subjects on this forum, describes the problems they have been having in Canada. “Wood burning has increased in popularity over the past decade to such an extent that we get smog in winter. This is due to the particulates from wood fires — even EPA low emission fireplaces emit significantly more hydrocarbons and particulates than, say, a gas fire.”

And an environmental health officer going by the handle of Rustychain commented about complaints about wood burners. “If there is a large shift in the number of people burning wood, clean stoves or not, we can expect air quality problems.”

This caused Justin to reconsider some of his earlier diatribe. “One irony is that back in the days when I owned an old house in a more rural village, and ran a hugely inefficient open wood fire, there was so much heat in the flue that the exhaust gas mostly shot straight up into the air and nobody knew about it. This delightful little stove with its two stage combustion and dancing flame burning off the soot as I watch just has less oomph left at the top of the stack. On reflection, it is probably causing more local pollution than the hugely inefficient open fires burning 5 times as much fuel.”

The most recent contribution was from John11668 who suggested that Justin should get a Flue Gas Analysis carried out. “This could give you some ammunition to defend your case to your neighbours but I suspect that it is more likely to demonstrate to you that your appliance is a poisonous nuisance in a built up area. Sold fuel stoves are not really suitable for a dormitory suburb, even if you can see the open countryside from your upstairs window.”

17 Oct 2007

Smoke Alarms: Two or Four?

When Part B of the England & Wales building regs concerning fire protection changed in April 2007, most of the attention, as far as domestic work was concerned, went on the fact that the requirement for self-closing fire doors had been relaxed. This was good news for builders and householders because self-closers have always been very unpopular and have frequently only been fitted to please the building inspector, and have been removed once the job was finalled.

But of course, it’s never quite that simple. The reason the boffins felt relaxed enough to drop a requirement was because of the undoubted success that compulsory smoke alarms have had in preventing deaths and injuries from fire. I have heard it said that their introduction, in 1992, into the building regs has proved to be the single most effective preventative measure ever devised, and that smoke detection has rendered other safety measures largely redundant.

But there’s smoke detection and smoke detection and the latest Part B slipped in a clause about including more smoke detection in new households. Or did it? Up until now, Part B was easily met by installing detectors in the common areas (hallways, stairwells), one per floor. This is the basic standard, known in the trade as LD3. But Part B, 2007 version, suggests that smoke detection should now be carried out in accordance with the relevant British Standard, BS5839 (Part 6). Now this BS standard is calling for the superior standard LD2, which calls for detectors in high risk fire areas, principally kitchens and living rooms, as well as the common areas. If it’s to be LD2, then each two storey house would require four detectors: if it’s LD3, then just the two that we have been fitting since 1992.

You’d think it would be an open and shut case. BS5839 calls for LD2, so LD2 it must be. But the wording of Clause 1.3 in Part B1 is deliciously ambiguous. It says in accordance with BS 5839-6:2004 to at least a Grade D category LD3 standard, despite the fact that the BS specifically calls for LD2!

So what is happening on the ground. How are the NHBC and the local authority building inspectors interpreting this conundrum? Two detectors or four? It seems that the NHBC supports the move to LD2, but isn’t enforcing it. And most local authorities are following suit, though the odd inspector is insisting on the higher LD2 standard. In other words, it’s a mess.

Incidentally, there are basically three different kinds of detector. The cheapest one is the ionisation type which gets fitted into the great bulk of stairwells and hallways: it picks up small (non-visible) smoke particles and is prone to springing false alarms if situated right next to the kitchen door. In kitchens, you really need to avoid smoke detectors altogether and fit a heat detector, whereas in living rooms, especially those with an open fire or a stove, you are probably best off with an optical detector. So a typical LD2 installation would involve using all three types of detector.

Detectors generally are very responsive and this is one of their main failings — too many false alarms, causing householders to disable them in Basil Fawlty-style fits of anger. They are probably good for ten or fifteen years and then ought to be replaced if they are to continue serving their purpose. Most manufacturers have models which can be slid out of their housing without even turning off the mains, so it should be possible to replace a unit without having to rewire.

Thanks to Neil Perdell, Technical Services Manager of Aico for his help in piecing together this article.

16 Oct 2007

The Energy Savings Trust gives me some advice

Dear Mr Brinkley. Thankyou for filling out our home energy check questionnaire: an important step towards using less energy to heat, light and power your home. Using the information you’ve provided, we’ve come up with a practical look at the energy you use and can save at home.

About a month previously I had responded to a questionnaire that had arrived, unsolicited, by mail from the Energy Savings Trust. It asked me lots of questions about my house and suggested that if I send it back to them they will supply me with a mini energy audit. Only I don’t think they called it that.

I was interested to know what they would say because our house is arguably an interesting case. Built in 1992, it was certainly someway in advance of building regulations at the time. In particular, it incorporated underfloor insulation (not mandatory until 2002) and low-e double glazing (back when low-e was cutting edge). The walls had a little extra insulation and the oil-fired boiler heating system was reasonably well designed and included zone control, as well as thermostatic and time switching. It’s a well-built house and it probably rated as a Best Practice for 1992 sort of house, but certainly not an eco house.

The question that I was interested to see answered was what the EST would suggest that I did to upgrade the house. In fact, they have only made one suggestion. That is that we upgrade the boiler to a condensing boiler for a saving of £85 a year. Or, in terms of CO2, 0.6 tonnes.

Funnily enough, we did consider installing a condensing boiler when we built the house. Back then, there was only one oil-fired condenser on the market, made by Geminox, a French manufacturer. Our green-tinged plumber, Norman Cox, was keen for us to fit one, but in the end I took the decision that it wasn’t worth paying the extra £1,000 or so required to fit — cash was tight back in 1992 and I had heard one or two stories about the early Geminoxes which didn’t inspire confidence.

We ended up with a Boulter Camray (now part of the Worcester Bosch group) which has been chugging away these past 15 years. It gets an annual service (cost around £60 plus parts) and it occasionally breaks down. The last time this happened, I enquired from Shelford Heating about replacing the boiler with a condenser but was told that not only would we have to bear the cost of a new boiler, but that the oil tank would have to move because the position we placed it in in 1992 (right next to the house wall) is now regarded as a fire hazard (Part J of the building regs having been “upgraded”). Not only would that double the expense but there is no obvious place in the steeply sloping garden to place a new oil tank. It would in fact represent a major piece of civil engineering. So a replacement boiler would probably end up costing us around £8,000. Hmm. Should have fitted the Geminox 15 years ago, shouldn’t I.

Anyway, I am slowly but surely getting around to the point of this post. The Energy Saving Trust gave us a C rating, based on what I told them. This is sort of similar to the rating we would be getting from an energy performance certificate. I have no quibbles with that: it was what I expected. But the point is that they only made the one suggestion for improvement, which was to replace the old boiler with something more efficient. The saving was actually pretty minimal. Either with or without a condensing boiler, our not very old house still uses a fuck of a lot of oil. Around 2500lts each year (that’s just over a tank full). That converts to just over 25,000kWh, which converts to 7 tonnes CO2 per annum. The Energy Savings Trust estimation is pretty accurate on the size of our oil bill (just about £1,000 with oil at 36p/lt) but grossly underestimates our CO2 footprint: they suggest just 4.1 tonnes of CO2 per annum. I reckon it is over 7 tonnes. Why should that be? Do they use different conversion factors to me? I’m on 0.265kg CO2/kWh, which is the “industry standard.”

So my poser for the day is what should happen to houses like ours? If it was built to Passivhaus standards, or Code Level 4, and was still heated using an oil-fired boiler, it would be burning about a third or even a quarter of this quantity of oil, releasing maybe just 1.5 tonnes of CO2 a year to get space heating and hot water. So, although our house is probably more energy efficient than 90% of the UK housing stock, it still performs miserably in terms of what could be done. But there appears to be no upgrade path apart from fitting a condensing boiler, which really only makes a marginal difference.

I don’t have an answer to this, but it does highlight the enormity of the problem. What exactly do you do to a house that already has cavities full of insulation and has 200mm of the stuff in the loft, but still eats energy like it’s going out of fashion?

15 Oct 2007

My hot tip for property investors

Here’s an interesting little graph, which I gleaned from the Oct 07 edition of Housebuilder magazine. It shows the extraordinary transformation in the supply of new homes in Britain over the past decade. In 1998, nearly half of all new homes were detached. Today, the figure is just 20%. In contrast, flats have gone from around 18% of the total to just under 50%. Effectively, the positions of detached houses and flats have swapped over, whilst terraced houses and semis have stayed much as they were, at least in terms of proportions of overall mix.

Now there are well-known reasons for this turnaround. 1998 marked the start of the brownfield land building campaign and the move towards densification. Or put another way, it marked the beginning of the end of developers being able to buy green fields and plonk estates of detached houses on them at very low densities.

Nevertheless, I am still struck by this graph. The turnaround really is quite dramatic. And it does make you wonder whether this emphasis on building flats is sustainable (in the economic sense). It would seem that, all other things being equal (i.e. pre 1998), housebuilders would be knocking out masses more detached houses than they are, but the constraints of the planning policies have more or less put a stop to this. Presumably the underlying demand for detached homes is as large as ever: given the choice, most people would probably rather bring up a family in a detached house with a garden rather than a flat. And most young flat dwellers would probably envisage themselves moving into a detached house if and when they start families. That looks as though it’s going to become an increasingly difficult aspiration to meet. So if this new housing mix remains in place — or even becomes more pronounced over the coming years — then expect to see the relative value of detached houses increase, and flats to decrease.

How’s that for a bit of financial forecasting? Revisit this blog in 2017 and see if my prediction works out.

11 Oct 2007

On Zaha Hadid

Yesterday I finally got to see the Zaha Hadid exhibition, which is on at London’s Design Museum till late November.

Three things struck me. Firstly, the place was jam-packed full of art and/or architecture students who were busy photographing and sketching the various exhibits. I suspect (it being a school day) that they had all been sent their by their tutors. Hadid is therefore obviously seen as a suitable case to study.

The second thing was how glorious the canvases are. She is a fantastic painter, in a rather surreal, science fiction sort of way. There was bumph in the brochure about how she had studied Russian Constructivism as a student: it’s not a movement I know anything about, but it makes for some really stunning images. If there was a readily identifiable school, I would have said it was Star Wars crossed with Thunderbirds. In fact, her first house design (Peak House?) looked suspiciously like the one on Tracey Island to me. It all had a strangely 60s and 70s feel to it: perhaps a little dated now, but also rather re-assuring. It’s how we used to speculate about what the future would look like before the internet was invented.

Finally, the buildings. One word will do: sterile. They really didn’t do it for me at all. Maybe I am already starchitected out on Libeskind and Gehry, but Hadid’s buildings just looked like more of the same to me. Clever? Yes. Outrageous? Yes, but so what. More like: rich clients wanting to make a statement about their wealth and taste.

I think she should have stuck to painting. Or maybe film sets.

3 Oct 2007

Drilling Down into the Code: Part 3

The Code for Sustainable Homes is a hotch potch. Whilst zero carbon and, to a much lesser extent, water use reduction have been discussed at length, if you were to build the most energy and water efficient house possible, you’d still only score 44% of the maximum available eco points. That would get you to Code Level 1. Code Level 6, the top level, requires a score of 90%.

So how would you go about garnering the other percentage points required to lever your house up from Code Level 1 to Level 6?

The answer is that you have to accumulate credits (of varying value) by undertaking all manner of other actions. Some are relatively easy:
• Provision for cycle storage — score 2.5%
• Provision of a home office — score 1.25%
• Provision of recycling bins and a compost bin — 4.75%
• Use EU approved insulation — 0.6%

Others are more taxing and potentially a lot more costly
• Build to Lifetime Homes standards — 4.75%
• Build to Secured by Design standards — 2.25%
• Improve on Part E sound regulations — 4.75%
• Use A+ rated materials from the Green Guide for Specification — 4.5%
• Build into the basement or the loftspace — 2.65%

You can only afford to lose 10% of the credits available if you want to qualify for Code Level 6. As there are likely to be some areas where your site cannot score at all, the likelihood is that designers will be forced to incorporate practically every feature mentioned in the Code. The elbow room for trade-off is remarkably limited.

This is where the Code gets into sticky ground. A lot of these features — there are 34 tests applied in all — are concerned with good design and best practice, but not necessarily to do with sustainability. For instance, having your builder signed up for the Considerate Contractors Scheme (worth 2.25%) is all very well but doesn’t really make much difference to climate change. So why is it being included in the Code?

And the requirement for A or A+ rated materials is effectively going to blacklist an awful lot of C rated materials. I am not sure the PVCu manufacturers have yet twigged this, but the Code has it in for them.

1 Oct 2007

The joy of selfbuilding the simple way

Every now and then it’s good to forget all the angst we suffer about sustainability and the like and instead celebrate someone who has just done a selfbuild with the object, pure and simple, of building a nice house very cheaply.

Last week, I got to interview Caron Pain in her newly finished Norfolk home which she has put together for a song (around £500/m2). She started digging foundations in January 2006, she had moved by May. MMC? No chance, too expensive, just good old brick and block and lots of local tradesmen. Project management software? You’re kidding — an A4 pad of paper and a mobile phone – nothing more. She hunted down bargains on eBay (the door knobs in the picture cost £6 a pair), she milked B&Q everytime they had a 20% off day (the door itself was a £10 special), and she appears to have loved every minute of it. Brilliant stuff – a selfbuild heroine if ever.

29 Sep 2007

How should we manage water use in the home?

The more I learn about the Code for Sustainable Homes, the more uncomfortable I get. I mentioned that I had been in on an interesting seminar last week, on the water use guidelines set out in the Code, and this week I investigated a little further, armed with an Excel spreadsheet.

Water use is one of two mandatory aspects of the Code (the other being energy use). Mandatory, in this instance, means that you have to meet certain targets as regards notional water use in order for the house to gain a particular Code Level. It’s no good building a zero carbon house if it fails to meet the water use standards as well.

The target water usage levels that the Code demands go like this:
• Levels 1 and 2: theoretical 120 litres/person/day
• Levels 3 and 4: theoretical 105 litres/person/day
• Levels 5 and 6: theoretical 80 litres/person/day

Now I guess many people have read the code and noticed these figures and probably thought very little more about them. I certainly hadn’t until I sat in on this seminar last week. Until then, they were just numbers jumping at me off the page: they didn’t relate to anything or any actions. But my eyes have been opened and what I am now seeing is a little disturbing.

The point is that it doesn’t matter how much water you actually use, the Code judges everything by Mr and Mrs Average, Joe and Joanna public, and according to water company statistics, they use about 130lts per day each. They break it down thus:

• They each flush the loo 4.8 times a day (c 20lts)
• They wash their hands or brush their teeth for 40 seconds a day (10lts)
• They use about 25 lts at the kitchen sink each day
• Their washing machines account for 16lts per day each (49 lts per cycle, and J&J each use it once every three days)
• Their dishwasher uses another 4lts per day each
• And then there’s showering and bathing. It gets complex here because Jo likes showers and Joanna likes baths, but overall it evens out and tends to account for 50lts per day each
• I make that 125lts a day each. Give or take 5 lts, that’s it.
• This might have been better with a pie chart, but it wouldn’t have been so much fun.

The standards set out in the Code would seem to indicate implicitly that this amount of water usage (i.e. 130lts per person per day) is unsustainable — i.e. wicked and to be strongly discouraged. The challenge set out in the Code is not to change the washing or bathing habits of Joe and Joanna, but rather to engineer in solutions which enable them to live exactly as they do now whilst consuming much less piped water.

Welcome to the world of water-efficient appliances. Low flush toilets help matters, and that without any apparent pain. If you can specify aerated taps on the kitchen sink and a water-efficient washing machine you can rapidly reduce that notional figure of 130 lts per person per day down to just over 100 lts per day. So far so good. Just as with energy efficiency measures, the first steps are easy and cost effective. So you can get to Code Level 4 without too much hassle.

It’s that 80 litres a day at Level 5 and 6 which is the problem. You see there just don’t exist any water efficient products that can get Joe and Joanna’s usage down to such a low notional figure. That’s where my spreadsheet came in: I was tinkering with all the very low water usage appliances out there and I still couldn’t get below 102 lts per person per day. This includes:

• dual flush toilets that work on 4.5 lts full and 3 lts half flush
• showers that use just 7 lts per minute
• aerated kitchen taps using 2.5 lts per minute
• washing machines using 35 lts per cycle rather than 49 lts

So how do you go that extra mile, or in this case 22 lts, and get the notional consumption down to Code Level 5 and 6 requirements? The answer the Code is steering us towards is, of course, recycling, either via rainwater harvesting or grey water systems. But even by taking this big leap, you are not guaranteed a result. This is because Joe and Joanna, even with the most water efficient appliances installed in their home, are still using more than 80 lts a day before so much as a loo is flushed. Grey water systems, which reuse bath, shower and basin water for toilet flushing purposes, aren’t going to get you under the 80lts per person per day figure on their own. Rainwater harvesting systems can be set up to run washing machines as well as flush toilets and so in theory could get your notional usage figure down below 80lts per person per day, but only if they operate at near 100% efficiency which is unlikely over the course of a year — in prolonged periods without rain, the storage tanks empty and the systems switch over to tap water.

The conclusion has to be that this 80lts per person per day figure is really at the limits of what is technically possible at the moment. It may well be that you have to fit both a grey water and a rainwater recycling system to meet the target. Grey water systems seem to cost anywhere between £1500 and £2000, rainwater rather more. That’s not a problem if you are building exemplar homes for demonstration purposes but remember we are aiming this at every new home built after 2016. That is a phenomenal challenge and a phenomenal expense to be borne.

There are some further strange anomalies in how the guidance has been put together. If you specify a bidet, you take an instant 5lt per person per day penalty; if you specify a water softener, you take a 12.5lt per person per day penalty. It’s hard to see how anyone will be able to fit these into a new home and still make Code Level 6. On the other hand, if you specify a swimming pool or an outdoor whirlpool bath, there is no penalty at all!

Rather than tinkering about with how we distribute water around the home, wouldn’t it be a lot easier and a lot less hassle just to charge the correct price for tap water in the first place? All new homes in England have metered supplies now in any event, so we already have a perfectly responsive mechanism in place for restricting water usage. As has been pointed out elsewhere, there are many parts of the country where water shortage is not and is never likely to be an issue. Shouldn’t the water restriction measures in the Code reflect this?

Underlying this is a debate very similar to the one raging over renewable energy. The government seems to be keen to promote onsite renewable energy (also via the Code) despite all the evidence being that it is much cheaper and more efficient to green the National Grid. With water, there is no national water grid but coincidentally, there is an article in this week’s Building by David Lush arguing that there should be. The main argument used against building a national water distribution system is cost and Lush quotes an Environment Agency consultation paper suggesting that it would cost between £9billion and £15billion. That may sound like a lot, but £2,500 spent on water reduction measures in every house after 2016 would cost £625million a year and would end up surpassing the cost of building a national water grid after 20 years. Neither option is exactly cheap. It may be that we should do both: I am not against recycling grey water or rainwater, but I do worry about the Code’s insistence that we must keep putting more and more stuff into our homes in order to make them sustainable. Stuff not only costs, but it breaks down, it needs servicing. Its all very well enthusiasts fitting stuff, but 250,000 homes a year? Has anyone seriously thought through the implications?

24 Sep 2007

Is this the end of passive solar design?

I learned something about the Kingspan Lighthouse (pictured) this weekend, something that I’d completely missed when I visited it at Offsite 07 in June, where it got star billing as the first Code for Sustainable Homes Level 6 house to be completed. The Lighthouse reverses the conventional wisdom on orientation. There is only one tiny window, indicated by my arrow, facing south. The bulk of the glazing faces east, west and north. In contrast, the south face is almost covered in photovoltaics and thermal solar panels.

Why? It seems the logic is thus. The space heating requirement has been all but insulated out of the house and the free heat arriving from the sunny south just isn’t needed in the winter heating season. And in the summer, south-facing glazing just leads to a mammouth overheating problem. It is, I think, the first house in the UK that identifies summer overheating as a bigger issue than winter warming.

Now whether this novel approach proves popular with the punters remains to be seen. But Potton Homes, recently taken over by Kingspan, feel very confident that the Lighthouse design approach is going to be a winner. They are busy incorporating Lighthouse into their brochure offerings and plan a launch event at the upcoming Grand Designs show, taking place at the NEC, October 5-7.

Coincidentally, this all chimes in with a talk given by Simos Yannas of the Architectural Association last week at the Nottingham Zero Carbon Symposium. Yannas has spent much of his working life studying passive solar design and admitted that he has always been attracted to the concept. Despite this, he has recently and reluctantly come to the conclusion that massive insulation trumps passive solar everytime. If you engineer the house down to Passivhaus levels of heat loss, solar gain just ends up being a problem. It’s unpredictable and uncontrollable and there are very few days in a year when it actually makes a useful contribution to the heating load.

20 Sep 2007

Code for Sustainable Homes: cracks appearing

Just got back from a two-day symposium run by Nottingham University’s School of the Built Environment. There were a number of very interesting and cogent presentations given mostly by academics, architects and materials suppliers, and unusually for an event such as this, an overall theme emerged which could perhaps be best summarised as Code for Sustainable Homes — Whoaaahh, steady on, not quite so fast.

Many experienced voices expressed disquiet about the turn of events over the past twelve months, ever since the government published the Code and announced that it intended to move all new housebuilding to zero carbon by 2016. In particular the Code’s almost wholesale adoption of the PassivHaus standard came in for questioning: its apparent insistence on mechanical ventilation with heat recovery came in for a lot of flack, as was its insistence on heavy and expensive triple glazing and almost excessive zeal in which it promoted airtight construction. There was a feeling that this represented a degree of over-engineering for houses in a relatively mild (and getting milder) climate, where many people still routinely sleep with their windows open. The event saw the launch of a set of different proposals for low energy housing in Mediterranean climates, but the question of whether these were more applicable to the UK than the German PassivHaus standard was left for another day.

There was also a healthy debate about how best to power these post-2016 homes. The Code explicitly calls for the homes to generate renewable energy to cover their own energy requirements, but it remains unclear just where or how it can be produced. The preferred solution would seem to be onsite, but everyone agrees that many homes will be completely unsuitable for onsite production. But once you accept that the energy harvesting can move offsite, you run into all manner of problems of definition. District heating systems? Shares in windfarms? Or just buying power from a green energy supplier? All are possible, but they are either technically challenging (CHP) or are just another version of carbon offsetting (widely derided).

There was also a good deal of discussion about the water saving proposals contained in the code. The idea is that we should aim to be reducing our water use from around 150lts/day each down to just 80 lts/day at Code Level 6, the 2016 standard. That is surprisingly challenging: even if you fit every water saving device, ultra low flush toilet and lo-flow shower, you still struggle to get below a notional 100lts/day. To get right down below 80lts/day requires on site water harvesting or recycling which again was felt to be fine in principle but the thought of rolling this out into 250,000 new homes a year appears to be fanciful at best. But this is what the code demands after 2016.

13 Sep 2007

More on the Timber Frame Fires

My musings over the precise causes of the timber frame fires last month have been noted by the UK Timber Frame Association (UKTFA). Yesterday, I was invited to talk over the issue with Stewart Dalgarno who works for Stewart Milne, one of our two timber frame giants, and who is currently chair of the UKTFA.

He reckoned I had underestimated the amount of timber frame apartment building that is going on. Stewart suggested that as many as 30% or even 40% of the medium-rise apartment market was now being constructed in timber frame and this accounted for 300 or 400 sites at any one time across England and Wales. As far as he was aware, there had never previously been any fire damage on the scale seen at Colindale last summer, since when it’s happened three more times, which is what caused me to raise suspicions that these events are not mere accidents, or even isolated cases of arson.

From the UKTFA perspective, the good news is that, thus far, developers have not been put off by the fires and that order books this year are healthily ahead of last year. It is one area where the speed advantages of timber frame really does have major attractions, because you can’t sell any part of an apartment complex until the whole building is complete, and this remains a strong pull for the scheme financiers.

He also went to great length to show that they were addressing the issue of fire hazards during the construction phase. No one is suggesting that medium rise timber frame is a fire danger once completed, but it does present some unique challenges whilst it is being erected. A report examining the causes of fires and methods of prevention is being finalised and should be published in the next few months, to be followed by a series of training seminars aimed at the construction industry.

It transpires that there is usually only a relatively short period during which a timber frame structure can be put to the torch. Once the walls and ceilings are lined, the building is effectively compartmentalised and the risk of fire is greatly reduced. So one of the key initiatives Stewart is suggesting is that, on sites identified as high risk, the lining process is moved up the critical path as far as possible so as to minimise the length of the time spent in the vulnerable panels open, insulation in phase. Ultimately, he sees the industry moving over entirely to closed panel systems where the linings are done off-site, effectively removing this period of added risk. It may well be that the recent fires will end up accelerating this process, which many already see as inevitable in the longer term.

In the meantime, attention is being paid to tightening up site management and security procedures and ensuring that timber buildings aren’t left open for many months, as seems to have been the case at Colindale. Reports on the circumstances and causes of the three more recent fires are still awaited. In the meantime, there is little more anyone can do but speculate.

9 Sep 2007

Natural House Map

Whilst people may argue about what exactly constitutes a natural house, they can no longer have any excuse for not knowing where they are located. Have a look at this fascinating link.

8 Sep 2007

9 new jobs = 10 new homes

Here in the East of England we are well used to seeing plans put forward for mega amounts of new housing. The usual justification for this is that the economy is expanding fast and that we need new housing to provide space for all the new jobs being created in the region. That, plus the hope that more new homes will keep a lid on ever increasing house prices.

There is, perhaps not unsurprisingly, a close correlation between the number of new jobs being created and the number of new homes required. The ratio seems to be set at around 9 jobs to 10 new homes. The East of England Plan, now two years old, suggested that we would be creating 421,000 new jobs by 2021 and that we would be needing 488,000 new homes to meet the demand created by these new jobs. Since then the numbers have been slowly rising and today we have a report circulating, as reported in the Cambridge Evening News, that the number of new homes we need in eastern England has shot up to 613,000, presumably extrapolated up from 550,000 new jobs.

What no one ever talks about is just what these projections are based on. The East of England is a prosperous area and it’s enjoyed good rates of economic growth for decades. Presumably, these rates are being projected into the future and a percentage point here or there in the projected growth rate results in there being x thousand more jobs and x+0.1 thousand more homes. What you never see discussed is the fact that new houses are themselves creators of new jobs, and hence economic growth.

How can this be? Most new jobs in Britain are in the service sector. As the population grows, the service sector has to expand to keep pace. Each new household brings with it demands for teachers, doctors, nurses, shop assistants, bus drivers, car mechanics, gardeners, jobbing builders, estate agents, hairdressers, office cleaners, you name it.

Another way of looking at this thorny issue is to realise that whilst new housing is an engine of economic growth, it’s an incredibly inefficient one. Let’s hazard a guess here. I reckon ten new homes are needed to fill the vacancies created by just two new jobs resulting from local businesses expanding, and the other seven new jobs result from looking after the residents of the ten new homes. Consequently, the bulk of our economic growth results from drawing people into the region, not from newly-won business deals.

It’s time we took a long deep look at the methodology used to make these projections for both new jobs and new housing. Our aim in the 21st century ought to be to make the existing economy function better, not just expand it for the sake of expansion.