14 Dec 2009

The Copenhagen Reds

Continuing with my “What happens next?” theme, I am struck just how divided the responses are becoming. I must first make it clear that I am not in Copenhagen (haven’t been there since 1971 and have no plans to visit again, lovely though it is) and am not party to any of the negotiations going on. It’s just me, sitting at home in front of my Mac, with the usual mixture of writer’s block, a long Xmas to do list and an overactive mind.

On Friday, this popped into my Inbox. It’s Spiked again, and in particular, this 1200 word rant by Frank Furedi. His target is similar to George Monbiot’s — the Optimum Population Trust. But unlike Monbiot, Furedi is a climate skeptic (at least I think he is — he doesn’t quite make his position clear). What they share in common is that they come from the Left, but whereas Monbiot has stayed there, Furedi and the rest of the Spiked team have travelled off somewhere else, which no longer resides on the Left-Right Spectrum.

Like George, Furedi blasts away at the OPT with some choice invective. This is David Attenborough he is talking about, remember, not Nick Griffin.

“The odious Optimum Population Trust (OPT) is a zombie-like Malthusian organisation devoted to the cause of human depletion.”

Or try this one:

“In modern times, there have always been small coteries of Malthusians, eugenic fantasists and bitter misanthropists who were estranged from children and who regarded babies as an imposition on their existences.”

It’s great, isn’t it? What fun to write. You kinda get the idea that he doesn’t think an awful lot of this Malthus geezer, but then not many people out in the real world even know who this bogey man is or was.

But I am trying to get a handle on exactly where they stand, and my reading of it is somewhere rather holier than the Vatican, in that they seem to be arguing in favour of a ban, not just on contraception, but on family planning in any way whatsoever, because every child born is a little bundle of wonder to be “celebrated as a joyous affirmation of our humanity”. Hmmm. I wonder how many children he has? Marxists didn’t think much of Malthus either: they thought he was a reactionary and they use “neo-Malthusian” as a term of abuse.

But having torn into the OPT, it does rather beg the question “So where do you stand instead?” Furedi is a little light on this. In fact, very light. About the best he can come up with is this: "But the good news is that human beings do not simply emit carbon and pollute the world; people do not merely consume resources, they also produce them."

Do we?

No, we don’t. We can add value to resources by modifying them and we can channel them to make them more useful, but we don’t actually produce any resources. The only things that humans actually produce are a) waste and b) more humans. The idea that we might a) run out of resources and b) use them in ways which cause problems elsewhere doesn't seem so very far fetched to me. Just because resource misuse hasn't been a big problem to date doesn't mean it never will be.

So there you have it. The OPT is saying that the condom is the most energy efficient device we are ever likely to invent. The Reds are saying “Sex with condoms is no fun; let’s all have more babies and we’ll sort out the mess with a little ingenuity. It’s worked fine till now, so what are you all worried about (you miserable little gits).”

What worries me here is this. The great climate debate is (as Furedi points out) a subset of an even bigger, apocalyptic, debate about our place on the planet, and our anxiety about our future. Furedi is attacking the Green position for being over-anxious, and attacking the climate science for making us over-anxious. In many ways this is close to Bjorn Lomborg’s “Business As usual - Don’t Panic – Rationing will do more harm than good” position. They can, and do, attack Malthus for being just plain wrong, but Malthus was writing 200 years ago and there remains this horrible nagging feeling that events about to unfold may show that there was nothing wrong with Malthus’s message, simply his timing was out. Attacking climate science for making us anxious is as pointless as blaming the breathalyzer for telling us we are drunk. And yet that seems to be what Furedi is saying.

So where does this leave George Monbiot? He has written in favour of resource rationing (c.f. Heat), but is against the OPT’s attempts at people rationing. I am struggling to get my head around this. It’s a bit like saying we should only build zero-carbon homes, but millions of them, because we like them. Now who says that?

8 Dec 2009

The Copenhagen Blues

The great Copenhagen climate summit is now well underway and many people seem to be making encouraging noises. But at the same time, there seems to be a huge and growing amount of scepticism around. Such is our suspicion of politicians and opinion formers these days, that if they all seem to agree on one thing, then they simply MUST be wrong, or so the thinking goes.

For me, the worry isn’t about
• whether or not climate change is happening (it surely is),
• nor whether it is caused by our carbon emissions (it surely is – I’ve not been in any doubt since I first saw the ice core readings a few years back, I think that’s what clinched it for me. You can stick sunspots up your arse)
• nor how serious it may be (Bjorn Lomborg is beginning to sound more and more shrill, or maybe he’s just annoying because he is so smug)
• but just what the hell are we really going to do about it.

Yesterday, I heard Ed Miliband, our climate change minister, being interviewed on Radio 5 by Simon Mayo. He was game for a few questions and one enterprising listener in Japan asked the population question. Like “if we can’t cope now, how are we going to cope with 3 billion extra people on board?” And Milliband minor answered thus: “By 2050, our economies will be six or seven times larger than they are now, and so we must ensure that all that growth is low or zero carbon growth.”

I took a proverbial double take. Six or seven times bigger than 2010? That assumes something like a 10% annual growth rate every year for 40 years. And yet carbon emissions are due to fall by 80% by that time. Just how is that going to work?

Historically, economic growth has been fuelled by carbon – almost every innovation we come up with involves substituting machines for human labour, which involves burning carbon somewhere along the line. Now we may be able to make machines which are less carbon intensive, but do you really think we will be able to get to zero carbon by 2050 whilst at the same time expanding the world economy by six or seven times? It seems staggeringly unlikely, given the state of the technologies we have available right now.

Then someone else popped the 3rd runway at Heathrow question. And this is what Miliband said: “It’s not inconsistent to support a 3rd runway because it is within a framework of holding our emissions by 2050 at current levels. I don’t think it’s realistic to freeze the amount of flying. We just have to have bigger cuts in other areas. Flying is going to become more expensive, but we can’t cut back on it or freeze it.”

Why exactly should flying be a special case? No sensible explanation was proffered. Why not driving cars? Or having copious supplies of hot water? Or eating meat? Or keeping pets? We are, by implication, going to have to cut right back on these so that we can keep flying.

Or was this just a case of an intelligent man talking gobbledegook?

If we were really serious about the problem, it’s economic growth that we should be freezing, at least until we have sorted out our problem with burning carbon. But we can’t do this because:
a) the governments have mortgaged off our future and are now totally dependent on economic growth to pay the bills over the next 20 years. Without economic growth returning, we are all effectively bankrupt.
b) no one will vote for hairshirt policies anyway so its democratically unacceptable.

But the carbon problem won’t go away. If emissions still continue to rise onwards and upwards through the 21st century, then our way of life will be under threat, we will be bankrupt and we will get hairshirt whether we like it or not. The climate sceptics keep pointing out (in their more effusive moments) that this is all some sort of Commie-inspired conspiracy to bomb us back to the Stone Age. And they may well be right, except that I don’t think it’s a conspiracy nor Commie-inspired. It’s unfettered economic growth that has got us into this pickle, and to really change things around, it’s the model of endless economic growth that is what has to be challenged. Without some alternative model of how the 21st century might pan out for us all, it seems just a tad unlikely that we are going to really get to grips with this mess.

And of course the problem is that the poor nations don’t want to stay poor and the rich nations can’t afford to stay where they are. Something has to give sometime, before the climate comes along and whacks us one. At the moment, cap and trade is the only game in town, but it seems rather unlikely to succeed because it avoids the really difficult issues which isn’t just the huge amount of carbon we are burning, but the vast differences in how much each country burns.

I have no doubt that Copenhagen will end up with smiles and photo opportunities and platitudes, but the underlying politics are ugly and about to get a whole lot uglier.

25 Nov 2009

The end of Replacement Dwellings?

It’s been a sort of unwritten principle of planning that replacement dwellings were not very contentious, at least in principle. Planners would set limits on any increase in size, which caused angst for lots of people wanting to replace a clapped out 1930s bungalow with a six-bedroom, four-storey gin palace, but the principle that you could knock down your home and replace it with something more to your choosing was never in doubt.

No more. Various local authorities are now taking a view that if your plot is of sufficient size, then you will have to replace your home with more than one – usually three, as this also triggers an additional requirement for at least one to be affordable.

This new state of affairs came to light when some old friends asked my advice about buying a 1930s bungalow with a view to replacing it. They didn’t even want to increase the footprint – they were perfectly happy with the size of the existing bungalow – but they wanted a building that wasn’t mostly asbestos, and one that was properly insulated. They even quite liked the design of the existing house and were perfectly happy to build something like a replica. What they really coveted was the large garden.

Yet their initial contact with the local planners suggested that they wouldn’t be able to do this because the garden was sufficiently large to trigger the affordable housing quota, and that if they wanted to rebuild, they would have to build two private homes plus an affordable one. Which, of course, they don’t want to do.

What a strange state of affairs? They are free to buy the house as is, and to enjoy the garden. They can improve it, extend it even, but they can’t rebuild it without losing the garden.

Has anybody else come across this policy? Any suggestions on how to counter it?

20 Nov 2009

Decide in haste — repent at leisure

Blimey. I am ever so slightly flabbergasted by the response to my last blog post on mechanical ventilation with heat recovery. I thought it was rather obscure and just a little boring, but thus far I’ve had ten responses and just about everybody disagrees with me. And what’s more, they all seem so anguished. Can it be that this is actually a very critical topic, and that what we are confronting here is a crucial issue? And why do commentators feel so threatened when I question the Passivhaus orthodoxy?

All I am saying is that I am not yet satisfied that the airtight/MVHR build route is the “way to go” for all new homes. I’m not set against it; I’d just like it to be tested in lots of real life UK situations before we embark on it as mandatory. I don’t think it’s that time critical. A delay of three or four years is nothing compared to making a horrible mistake. If this was a drug trial, we would be spending five years and billions of pounds putting it through its paces: why should we accept any less from a critical element of our future wellbeing and future build costs?

As the last respondent put it:

We cannot afford further delays.

I think we can. I don’t think the ice caps will melt any faster if we stand back and assess for a little while, rather than charging in.

16 Nov 2009

Whither MVHR?

An interesting letter in last week’s Building from Tim Gough who has a CV as wide as a Passivhaus wall.

In it, he berates the Zero Carbon Hub for being no such thing. They are courting compromise in asking for the mandatory use of mechanical ventilation with heat recovery (MVHR) to be ditched. They say here that is a step too far for a temperate climate like the UK. Problem is that without MVHR, you can’t really build to PassivHaus standards because it’s so airtight that you would keel over every time someone farted.

Passivhaus standard uses just 15kWh/m2 for annual space heating requirements. Zero Carbon Hub are suggesting that this is relaxed to somewhere between 30 and 45kWh/m2 – i.e. two to three times as much, which is about as low as you can go safely without MVHR. And is really not much lower than where Part L will pitch us next year.

Maybe this debate is a bit obscure, but it’s nevertheless interesting. I rather tend to side with the Zero Carbon Hub on this. I think mandatory MVHR is just possibly a step too far in the UK. If you look closely at Tim’s text, you can begin to make out just what the problems are.

This is not a question of diminishing returns – to halve or quarter heating/cooling costs by means largely of a MVHR system costing a few thousand pounds can hardly be said to be that writes Tim.

Except that it ignores the cost of running the fans which drive MVHR system. OK, they are low. We now have fans operating at under 100w, but multiply that by the 8760 hours in a year and you have consumed enough power to heat and cool 58m2 of Passivhaus. The actual energy saving achieved by MVHR is therefore pretty minimal. Some commentators have even suggested that it’s not a net energy saver at all. They certainly aren’t if residents are so bold as to open their windows.

MVHR systems do not, contrary to what is claimed, adversely affect indoor air quality – even if the filters are not cleaned.

That is true. The reason Passivhaus insists on them is because of air quality, not energy saving. The problem is that they don’t always work as planned; they break down; people turn them off (ironically sometimes to save energy). That is where the problems may lie.

Housebuilders worry about reliability, but this is a proven technology that is no more complex than an extract fan.

And extract fans never break down?

What, I wonder, is the real agenda of the promotion of these poor standards?

In a word, caution. What ought to happen is that several hundred new homes should be built to PassivHaus standard, complete with MVHR systems installed, and then lived in by ordinary folk for something like five years. That would be a sensible test of whether the system is workable. If the MVHR systems proved to be reliable and popular and people learned to live in the houses the Passiv way (i.e. not opening windows), then MVHR could be safely rolled out as a mandatory building regulation requirement in new airtight homes. But until that’s done and dusted, making MVHR mandatory would be pretty rash. Stupid even.

14 Oct 2009

Why building plots are hard to find

This is cool. Although I no longer share Audacity’s build at all costs line of thinking, and I seem to have dropped off Ian Abley’s Xmas card list, I like the way they have put this together, and I love the way it shows up just how silly the planning system has become. It proves that if you give a bureaucracy enough rope, it will eventually strangle itself, whilst merely drowning the rest of us under the weight of good intentions.

On Scaling Everest

I last wrote about Everest double glazing in June 07, and I was just a tad disparaging. The piece got some interesting feedback including one comment from someone who sounded suspiciously like an Everest salesman.

Last night in the gym I found an interesting article in Monday’s Telegraph, profiling Simon Jarman who is the MD of Everest. OK, I know I shouldn’t have been reading papers in the gym, I should have been listening to something bracing on my iPod, but age sometimes withers the urge for self-improvement and it’s just about then that one finds oneself reaching out for the Telegraph.

Just why would one find such a piece interesting? Well, sometime soon we have to clean up the mess that is our existing housing stock and Everest is a firm that is well versed in the black arts of home improvement. Could they become a force for the good, instead of covering the streetscapes of Britain with ugly plastic windows? Simon Jarman doesn’t exactly suggest they will but he is certainly moving the business away from its roots. Here are some of the points I picked out.

• Average age of customer is 55. 80% don’t have a mortgage. They are rich. (Cynics would say they have to be to be able to afford the prices.)

• There are over 3,000 double glazing companies in the UK. Anglian is No 1. Everest is No2, and yet Everest only has a 2.5% market share.

• The backbone of the Everest business is its 1,000 strong sales force, all of whom work as franchisees. The route to market is up to the individual, but they don’t do cold calling over the phone.

• Installation is subbed out. The only things which Everest do is a) make the stuff (at two plants in Kent and Wales) and operate an after-sales team (to sort out the cock-ups?).

• Everest started in 1965. In 1999, Brian Kennedy brought the business off Caradon. Since then he has sold stakes to both management and private equity. Last year sales were £165m, and profit £15m.

• Everest have moved into selling solar panels and are also considering getting into call-out services like plumbing and locksmithery (is there such a word?). And maybe home insurance products like boiler breakdown. Just like the AA.

• Ted Moult shot himself after appearing in an Everest TV advert.

7 Oct 2009

Monbiot loses plot

I can’t be alone in thinking that Dear George has been eating one too many psilocybin mushrooms, gathered from his Welsh hillside rambles. He writes with vigour and great expertise about a wide range of environmental topics, and usually his perceptions are spot on. But every now and then, he blows it big time and throws up a horror show of prejudice and ignorance. It’s a bit like discovering a favourite uncle is actually a paedophile.

He’s just done it again in this piece published in last week’s Guardian. In it he lays into the super rich for tonking around the Mediterranean in gas guzzling yachts: that’s OK, he hates the super rich. Whatever turns you off. But this is really just posturing.

His real target are the esteemed worthies of the Optiumum Population Trust: characters like Sir David Attenborough, Jane “chimpanzee” Goodall, Jonathan Porrit, James Lovelock and Sir Crispin Tickell. “It's no coincidence” he writes “that most of those who are obsessed with population growth are post-reproductive wealthy white men: it's about the only environmental issue for which they can't be blamed.”

Now the logic employed by George in his attack on the Optimum Population Trust is somewhat flakey. In fact, it’s completely flakey. As far as I can understand, he seems to be saying that poor sub-Saharan Africans may breed a lot, but they have a minimal carbon footprint and therefore don’t cause global warming. Whereas rich Westerners don’t breed nearly so much but have huge carbon footprints. QED A Rich birth will cause lots of carbon to be released whilst a poor one doesn’t, therefore rich births are bad news and poor ones don’t matter.

But the Optimum Population Trust isn’t demanding that only the poor should stop breeding. They want everyone to breed less. It is making out that there are just too many of us in all parts of the World and this will inevitably put a strain on resources and cause environmental mayhem in the long run. It’s basically saying we are headed for an enormous tragedy of the commons scenario. Added to which, the poor nations don’t intend to stay poor for ever: as their wealth increases, so will their demand for carbon intensive goods and services.

George rightly identifies the correlation between wealth and carbon intensity, but if you follow his line of reasoning to its conclusion, it seems to suggest that mass poverty is the answer.

George concludes: “Consumption can be expected to rise with economic growth until the biosphere hits the buffers. Anyone who understands this and still considers that population, not consumption, is the big issue is, hiding from the truth.”

Well, actually, no. It’s not an either/or. It’s both. The two factors are intimately connected. One isn’t more important than the other. The world could probably handle having 1 billion rich consumers living on it, but it is very doubtful that it could handle 10 billion. At the moment, we’ve got about 1 billion rich and 5 billion poor who would very much like to be rich. And the projections are that the population will grow to 10 billion sometime in the next 50 years. And the brake on population growth is projected to be widespread economic growth (for which you can read higher carbon intensity). That doesn’t seem like a recipe for a sustainable future.

As David Mackay keeps saying, do the maths. The solutions have to add up. And you can’t do the maths if you ignore the demand side of the equation.

29 Sep 2009

Mind The Gap - in the logic

Today sees the launch of a pro-housebuilding lobby document called Mind The Gap. It’s authors are David Pretty, once MD at Barratt, and Paul Hackett, acting head of the Smith Institute, a left leaning think tank set up in honour of John Smith.

It’s a concise 30 page review of the UK housing scene, well thought out and covering most of the topical areas for discussion. Including a paragraph promoting self build:

The Government could also offer more support (perhaps in the form of tax breaks and subsidised land) to the self-build market, which is much less developed than in earlier decades or in Northern Europe. The average loan-to-value ratio for self-builders is low and there are few defaults, which should make the sector attractive to lenders. Self-build production has steadily risen, according to unofficial estimates, to around 10% of the UK housing market, with the strongest growth in rural areas. Although the recession has reduced activity, organisations like the National Self Build Association believe that, with the right mix of incentives, production of self-build could be increased to over 40,000 homes (mostly detached).

There is also an insightful little table showing Government housing initiatives since 2008. I don’t know why I find this stuff fascinating, but it is, and it’s great to see it all in one place. There are ten initiatives here, all designed to prop up the housing market and at least six of them are specifically aimed at keeping house prices high, or at least to stop them falling through the floor.

●National Affordable Housing Programme –£8.4billion to increase the supply of all affordable homes (2008-11).
●Housing Pledge –£1.5billion to support existing programmes, including £350million to buy unsold stock and £400million brought forward for affordable housing.
●Kickstart –£1.06billion package to deliver 22,000 homes over two years, of which 8,600 will be directly supported affordable homes. 270 bids shortlisted.
●Community Infrastructure Fund –£100million for the Thames Gateway and £200million for the Growth Areas and Growth Points to support housing developments.
●HomeBuy Direct –£300million shared-equity scheme to help first-time buyers purchase their newly built properties.
●Housing Private Finance Initiative (Round 6) – £1.7billion PFI credits for ten councils to deliver 4,500 new or improved council homes as well as 1,600 new affordable rented homes.
●Housing Market Renewal Pathfinder Areas – £35million extra funding.
●Eco-towns – four new settlements to provide 10,000 new homes by 2016, of which 30% are to be affordable homes.
●Mortgage support –includes the £44million Homeowners Mortgage
Support scheme and the £280million Mortgage Rescue Scheme.
●Stamp Duty holiday –on properties costing less than £175,000 (until the end of 2009).

The Gap in question in the title is the old chestnut of rising demand versus falling supply. It’s funny how 95% of the analysis goes into the supply side and only 5% into the demand. That’s because the demand figures are so flakey that no one dare really look into them. All they really do is to project past trends into the future; because we have lots more single households forming and lots of immigration over the past twenty years, it is just assumed that this will carry on. It’s all so very Soviet: five, or in this case, 15 year plans for population growth and household formation.

Where this disconnects from reality is that we have a little problem with carbon emissions and resource depletion. Common sense tells us that one of the prime ways to solve this problem is to stop adding to it and start repairing what we already have. And to admit that we cannot go on building endless new homes until everyone lives in one on their own, or half of Eastern Europe has moved to the UK.

If we want to make houses more affordable, then it’s time we started taxing the profits people make on them. But let’s give up this pretence that the answer lies in having another building boom.

The foreword of the report states: Few would now argue that the prospect of a large and growing shortfall in housing supply can be ignored any longer. To look away is not a realistic option. The evidence of a widening gap between housing production and demand is undeniable.

Well, I hereby nail my colours to the mast and say I am one of the few. I think that what has happened to the housing market in the past two years makes a mockery of these statements. If there really was a large and growing shortfall in housing supply, then it would be impossible for house prices to drop. Yet drop they have. I would say that this is evidence that demand for housing has very little to do with production levels, and an awful lot to do with possible investment returns.

21 Sep 2009

UK SIPS Association

Last week I made it across to Birmingham's Think Tank to take part in the launch event of the UK SIPS Association. SIPS as a building system has been around in the UK for nearly ten years and elsewhere, notably the States, for much longer. However, nowhere has it ever taken off and become mainstream and if you've wanted to build in SIPS you have had to deal with one of a small number of specialists dotted around the country.

Time for the SIPS industry to promote itself a little more effectively. The question for the SIPS boys (and they are almost all boys) was whether to tag along with the UK Timber Frame Association or to branch out on their own? It's not an easy call, because there are many similarities between the build systems and there are also hybrid walling systems around which are not easy to identify as either SIPS or Timber Frame. Google Supawall if you want to see what I'm on about. Largely at the prompting of John Tebbitt of the Construction Products Association, SIPS have decided to strike out on their own, hence this event.

Doubtless it will be the start of a long journey. SIPS doesn't have anything like a Quality mark or a generic type approval, so each individual system (and they all seem to vary a little) has to proceed down the lengthy and expensive path of 3rd party certification: not surprisingly, the BBA were there, in the shape of Alan Thomas, suggesting what a good idea this was, but I have my doubts. SIPS are inherently strong and if put together properly should be more than adequate for any low rise building, and the risks from fire and flood seems to be identical to conventional timber frame, which is no longer expected to prove itself fit for purpose because its been around so long.

Another issue facing SIPS is the perceived premium price. Just how much more expensive than blockwork or timber frame is hard to say, because its not a commodity product which can be easily costed on a spreadsheet line by line. Instead quotes are done on a supply and fix basis. It seems that SIPS are likely to be more cost effective when the roof is being utilised as living space, but to date most SIPS customers have been primarily interest in energy saving, not cost reduction.

The one company that perhaps gives the lie to this is Custom Homes who, back in 2006, started offering their houses in SIPS versions instead of conventional timber frame. As they didn't charge any extra for SIPS, their customers switched en masse to SIPS and now they do SIPS almost exclusively. That would seem to suggest that even if SIPS are more expensive, the cost differential is so small that it's meaningless. There is of course a lot of hope that code changes will make other systems comparatively more expensive and that over time SIPS may become cheaper than anything else, but that in turn may cause a whole new set of problems as big producers suddenly muscle in on the scene, pushing out the niche suppliers. But that's a worry for another day.

Bill Wachtler of the US equivalent body, SIPA, gave a 20 minute presentation on the American experience. SIPS there remain a premium product, accounting for less than 1% of the residential newbuild market and last year they completed no more than about 6,000 SIPS homes, down from 10,000 in 2007. That may sound bad, but then he showed a slide showing how US housing starts had deteriorated in general: from 1.7 million new homes in 2007 down to an estimated 450,000 this year. That's a 75% reduction. In the UK, the equivalent figure shows a mere 60% reduction. Even so, that's some downturn. It's a wonder that everyone remains so optimistic.

By the way, as a budding reporter on the SIPS scene in the UK, I can’t be the only one to be confused by the similarities of many of the names. So here, for my benefit as much as anyone elses, is a bluffer’s guide to the SIPS scene.

• Kingspan Tek System: now just a supplier of PUR SIPS from Germany, used by a number of installers (formerly process partners), notably SIPS of CLAY in the selfbuild sector

• SBS Building Systems, makes PUR panels in Widnes and supplies SIP It Scotland, SIP Build in the North and Built It Green in the South.

• SIPS UK, aka SIPTEC, is the business started by Tony Palmer in Northamptonshire but now mostly concentrating on overseas markets. SIPHouse is their current manifestation in the UK market, but they no longer manufacture here.

• SIPS Industries, formerly BPAC, is the Fife based manufacturer and installer of EPS panels, run by Charles Stewart.

• SIPS EcoPanels is the SIPS offshoot of Custom Homes (closely related, but independent from). The panels are EPS-based and made in Scotland. Contact is Peter Keogh.

• Hemsec produce PUR SIPS on Merseyside, but aren’t really in the selfbuild market. Main man is Richard Daley.

• Innovare Systems, based in Coventry, are in the social housing market mostly, and seem to be part of the Osborne Group. Main man Andrew Orriss, now chair of the UK SIPS Association.

Have I forgotten anyone? Or got something wrong? And why is it that Scotland makes EPS panels and England PUR?

25 Aug 2009

Eco Bollocks Award: The Living Wall

Back in June when I visited the BRE Onsite exhibition, I saw not one, but three examples of Green or Living Walls on display. Having never seen one before anywhere, I was immediately suspicious. Here are some of the photos I took.

For those remaining in blissful ignorance, a living wall is an upmarket version of a trellis with clematis or honeysuckle growing over it. Instead of a few slats of timber, you have to create a stainless steel grid screwed or bolted onto the fa├žade. And instead of a bit of judicious watering of an evening during dry spells, these living walls come supplied with their own self-irrigating systems.

OK, it’s not exactly designed for the domestic market, but it does sort of strike you as an invention the world really doesn’t need.

But I didn’t think anything more about it until alerted this morning to this story which appeared in the Evening Standard about a living wall in Islington that’s gone kaput and is now a dead wall. Because the irrigation system didn’t work. How surprising is that?

So I thought it would be a good time to offer it an Eco Bollocks Award. Haven’t done one for a while and this seems to me to be a pearl.

21 Aug 2009

Should Barratt be rescued?

Rumours in the City have it that Barratt will soon be coming cap in hand with a rights issue. It wants to be baled out of its debt mountain. If it happens, then expect a flurry of activity from the other quoted housebuilders who, with the notable exception of Berkeley, all seem to be sinking in debt that they can’t service. They are all waiting on an upturn in the housing market to enable them to get back to business as usual, get building and start raking in the profits once more.

If Barratt was a single householder, it would have been repossessed by now. “Behind on the mortgage payments, are we? Well, you’ve got two weeks to get out.”

But of course the UK housebuilders are collectively too large to be repossessed, so the banks don’t dare pull the plug. For a start, there would be almost no one around to snap up all the land which would be sold off, and this would put further downward pressure on prices, which the banks fear as much as anyone.

But what if the fabled upturn fails to materialise? What if the way things are now is how it’s going to be from now on? Maybe this is what a stable housing market looks and feels like? Instead of forever looking for signs of whether house prices are going up or down, just accepting the fact that they really don’t change that much from year-to-year and learning to live with the consequences.

One of which would be that we wouldn’t need cash-hungry housebuilders anymore.

11 Aug 2009

New Homes Too Small

News that CABE has found that new homes are too small will come as a surprise to no one at all. We’ve long known that the UK builds the smallest new homes in Europe. As there are no minimum space standards set out in the building regs or the planning conditions, why on Earth would we expect anything else?

And unlike the terraced homes that the Victorians built (which were also too small), there is no obvious way of improving the new homes we are now building.

The really uncomfortable question isn’t being asked here by CABE. Which is: were these small homes being built to satisfy a genuine need or were they a credit-fuelled gamble on rising house prices?

Or to put it another way, it didn’t matter that the bottom rung of the housing ladder was so small that you couldn’t actually get your foot on it, just so long as it was there.

13 Jul 2009

Prince Charles v Whitehall

I watched Prince Charles’s Dimbleby lecture last Thursday. In it, he argued that economic growth had hit the buffers and that the future lay in sustainable development. Nothing new there; it’s standard green thinking.

However, it seems to have hit a raw nerve in the rest of the Establishment. Yesterday, the Times carried reports from “senior Whitehall sources” saying basically that the Prince was misguided and that his vision was fatuous. The question is, why should a senior Whitehall source be minded to offer up this stuff to the Times?

The Whitehall growth monkey has some very strange observations to make.

“Within its core, represented strongly in organisations such as Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, environmentalism still has an ideological greenness that does not like the way we live and does not believe this is what creates fundamentally decent society. That continues to infect the way they think about the changes that we need, so in that sense it is fundamentally wrong.”

Look at the way he uses the word “infect?” Is he worried, or what?

He goes on: “We are aiming to cut emissions by a third in the next 10 years and then by 80% in the next four decades. These things are not happening because the population has had a green psychological transformation,” he said.

“If that were true, we’d never get anywhere, we’d never have got rid of slavery or brought in seatbelts or abolished hanging. No social change is force-driven by mass psychological change. It is about government leading and people changing accordingly.”

Is he right? Reading between the lines I think he’s hinting that the Metropolitan Elite fashion and the proles are then corralled into changing their behaviour. He could have mentioned the ban on smoking in public places as a more recent example. But what if the Metropolitan Elite decides that we can’t go on pursuing endless economic growth because it’s fucking up the environment? What would the Whitehall mandarins do then? Or do the Whitehall mandarins somehow control the Metropolitan Elite, and hence the government?

Everybody knows that green living involves a bit of hair-shirting, but then so does having a recession every ten or twenty years. The reason the green arguments have such resonance at the moment is that the orthodoxy of economic-growth-at-all-costs has imploded and is failing to deliver the promised goods.

And I think the reason Whitehall is worried this time is because the government finances are in such a mess that a return to economic growth is the only way they can be baled out, and even then it will take 20 years or more. But what if economic growth refuses to come back? What if we have hit the buffers this time?

30 Jun 2009

Crystallising Planning Permission

One of the more intriguing questions I got asked at the Sandown Park Homebuilding & Renovating show last weekend was “How do we go about ensuring our planning permission doesn’t run out.”

The couple asking me were from nearby Sutton and they seemed fairly knowledgeable about the topic and had heard that:
• planning permission doesn’t last forever
• unless you make a start on the building works, in which case the planning permission is crystallised for all time.

I’m not actually sure that crystallised is recognised as kosher planning jargon, but it makes sense to me. Anyway, essentially their information is correct. But as so often happens it begs a whole series of follow-on queries.

How long does planning permission last? It used to be five years, but the government in its wisdom reduced this to three years back in 2005. The reason for this was to prevent developers stockpiling land — something incidentally which the developers denied doing deliberately. It was never meant to hit householder’s extensions but bureaucracy has a habit of scything down all in front of it.

The irony is that the credit crunch has wrought havoc with many development plans and there are now loads of 3-year planning permissions granted back in the boom years which haven’t been built and are about to expire. No one is stockpiling land – they just haven’t got any money!

How do you crystallise planning permission? You need to make a start on site. There is nothing in the planning guidelines to define what a start consists of, but it is generally accepted that it means having completed the foundations (or at least some of them). Everybody knows this, but you’ll have great trouble getting a planning officer to confirm this to you. Which was exactly the experience of my Sutton couple, which is why they were asking me this query.

Their story got even more bizarre as they explained it in greater depth. It turned out that they were wanting to build an extension to an already existing extension. The existing extension had been done under Permitted Development Rights but the new work would exceed the limits set by these rights. Hence they had gone to the trouble of applying for planning permission two years ago. They didn’t want to have to re-apply, so they were wondering what they needed to do to crystallise the permission. You see, they thought the existing extension was Gerry built and were considering knocking it all down and building the new improved extension from scratch. But then again, maybe not – maybe the existing extension could be adapted.

Can you see the problem? What is the point making a start on an extension when you don’t yet know quite how it is going to be built?

What I suggested to them was that they dug down at the corner of the existing extension and exposed the foundations to see if they were adequate. And at the same time, ask the Building Inspector round to see what they were doing and to ask his opinion. In doing so, they would have made a record of having made a start.

I think that will suffice. But in truth I am not sure, because there are no written guidelines. It seems they may well end up with a small hole outside their back door which may be there for some time — like the big developers, they also hadn’t got enough money at the moment to undertake this work.

After they moved on, I went into grumpy mode. It just seems such an absurd situation, doesn’t it? People having to dig holes in the garden to satisfy some stupid town hall planning policy. This wasn’t what planning permission was meant to be about…..but it’s what we’ve ended up with.

23 Jun 2009

Heated towel rails

Lolli, my favourite Icelandic plumber, has pointed out that my section in the Bible on heated towel rails needs updating. He’s right. The mere ten lines I devote to the topic is very 1990s in both content and pricing.

It’s somewhat amazing to reflect on just what has happened to the towel rail market. It’s exploded. And at the same time, its sort of disappeared. Back in the 1980s, a heated towel rail was seen as a bit of an indulgence, an upmarket option for people wanting to throw money at a bathroom. The name everyone conjured with then was Zehnder: a Zehnder towel rail was white and it had a dinky little collapsible rail which you could use to hang your towels over. Other people, notably Myson, did towel rails, but they didn’t have extendible bits – they were basically just radiators designed to hang towels over.

Shoot forward to 2009 and there are now hundreds of designs to choose from dozens of manufacturers. Zehnder are still very much a top end option, although the plastic pull out bits seems to have gone by the wayside – I suspect they broke too easily. Wickes sells 11 different designs, varying in price from £70 to over £500. And there are several internet outlets which are easily Googled. The usual brand names all produce towel radiators: Stelrad, Quinn (formerly Barlo), Brugman, Myson, Acova (formerly Worcester), Aeon, Bisque. Plus now there are specialist companies that have sprung up, such as the Radiator Company and Radiating Style.

In fact, several radiator companies make no distinction between heated towel rails and ordinary radiators. They are, afterall, just radiators that you stick on the wall, which happen to be a slightly unusual shape.

But it’s not quite that simple. Because for one thing, you often want a towel rail to work to a different beat to your normal radiators. You may not want the towel rad to come on at the same times, or you may want it to work outside the heating season. As a result, you see towel rads with electric heating modes. Indeed, you can also find some which only operate using electricity – including some made of glass, would you believe.

Another option is to plumb them into a separate circuit so that they come on when the hot water is heated, rather than the space heating. This can work well, but it can also be a real waste of heat as it takes that much longer to heat the hot water and there is no knowing that the hot water heating times are better suited than your space heating times.

Towel rads are available in many different sizes. The larger they are the more heat they give off: small ones tend to emit around 300W. Large ones, anything up to 1kW, which is probably rather more heat than you would need in a small bathroom. Prices vary enormously. The cheapest are made of white-painted steel, next comes chrome plated, then stainless steel, then chrome, then brass, if you can find one. Cheap makes — you can pick them up for around £60 off eBay. A big brass one can cost you over £1500.

Final question. Do you actually need one? Well, it’s a good idea to have heating in a bathroom. We get cold when we are naked and wet. But you don’t actually have to have a dedicated towel radiator. If you are a slob, you can just chuck a towel over a chair and it will still dry out if there is some heating in the bathroom. And a lot of people like to fit underfloor heating in bathrooms, esp. electric mats. So, no, you don’t need one. But nevertheless, you might want one.

22 Jun 2009

On Homelessness

Homelessness. It’s not a topic I have ever written about before. It’s off my radar and I don’t know much about it. But I was fascinated to read an article in yesterday’s Express by Ross Clark saying that the available statistics show that homelessness is a problem that seems to be going away. Who’d have thought it?

So I checked the CLG website and there are statistics around that show that homelessness – defined as households in priority need - has been on a declining track since 1991 (which is when the table begins – it would be interesting to see if there are figures before this). Back then, just under 140,000 households in England became “homeless” during that year. The figure declined to 102,000 in 1997 and then shot back up again to peak at 135,000 in 2003. Since when, it has dropped dramatically. Down to just 63,000 last year and, if the press release is to be believed:

The number of households that became homeless (accepted by local authorities as owed the main homelessness duty in England) between January 2009 and March 2009 was 26 per cent lower than the same period in 2008.

All the other related statistics – people in temporary accommodation, rough sleepers — are also moving in the right direction, dramatically so.

National Statistics, published in June 2009, show that the Government's strategy to prevent homelessness is working.

Quite so. Something good is happening here, and maybe the government is right to crow a little, as so little else it has done has worked. But before they get too self-satisfied, they should perhaps consider that other factors may be at work here, as Clark suggested in his article. One is that the private rental market is collapsing, as a result of a flood of properties onto the market which, in a healthier housing market, would have been sold. Now many private landlords are finding it’s better to let their properties to benefits claimants because the rental income paid by local authorities is higher than the open market rate.

The other factor which comes into play here is that there is apocryphal evidence that the population is now declining, as many of the recent migrants move on to pastures new, or return home, as the prospects of staying on in Blighty look dim.

So the combined market forces of an oversupply of property and a shortage of people looking for places to rent (or buy) is maybe what’s behind the dramatic turn around in the fortunes of the homeless, rather than any clever government interventions.

But what does this say about the oft-quoted assumption that we are suffering from a chronic undersupply of housing, which is behind another government policy, namely a target of building huge numbers of new houses (like 3 million) by 2020? A target, incidentally, which the Tories seem happy to acquiesce in. Where is the evidence of this housing shortage? Not in the housing market. Not in rental market. And not in the homelessness statistics.

19 Jun 2009

On triple glazing

The highlight of last week’s AECB conference in Oxford was Wolfgang Feist, Mr PassivHaus, who held forth over a 60 minute lecture and four 90 minute seminars on all aspects of the PassivHaus standard. He is a remarkable performer: for one thing, he really knows his stuff and he is able to explain in great detail just why the standard, which he is largely responsible for, is designed the way it is.

The idea is not to construct zero carbon housing, or any stupid notion like that. What PassivHaus aims to do is to provide maximum thermal comfort in a house at minimal energy cost. This thermal comfort thing is important — I hadn’t really appreciated just how important before.

For instance, comfort underlies the PassivHaus take on triple glazing. I have been a voice arguing that triple glazing is “overkill” in the UK climate and that the energy used in making these units would probably never be repaid by the energy saved over their lifetime. However, the main reason for using triple glazing is not to save energy but to provide more comfort, as the internal temperatures remain more even.

Feist produced a table showing what the temperature differences were close to different forms of glazing when the internal temperature is designed to maintain at around 21°C and the external temperature drops to —5°C.
• next to a single glazed window, the adjacent temperature is around 1°C
• next to a double glazed window (2000 vintage), the adjacent temperature is around 11°C
• next to an all bells-n-whistles low-e double glazed window, the adjacent temperature is 16°C
• next to a triple glazed window, with a centre pane U value of just 0.65, the temperature is 18°C.

Feist maintained that in England, the milder temperatures meant that you wouldn’t have to use triple glazing to reach PassivHaus standard, but that it would be silly not to. What he did say was that he thought insulated window frames were more important than triple glazing. Interestingly, when the first PassivHaus’s were being built, there was no such thing as an insulated window frame and they had to adapt existing ones by sticking insulation on the outside. But by 1996, small joinery firms were responding to the idea and insulated frames became commercially available. Now they are available in plastic and aluminium frames, as well as timber.

Feist also discussed where to put the low-e coatings in triple glazing. Apparently, triple glazing will benefit from two coatings, but if the coatings are placed either side of the centre pane, and the pane isn’t toughened, there is a high risk that the panel will crack, due to thermal shock. Now they tend to provide low-e coatings to the inner surfaces of the two outer panes. In passing, it’s worth noting that the inside pane in a triple glazed unit doesn’t need to be glass – however, every transparent material used to date is more expensive than glass, so glass it remains, even though this makes the units very heavy.

16 Jun 2009

Rogers v Windsor

I must say I am enjoying this spat. For all the nice noises the Prince has made about architects recently, and for all the RIBA’s welcoming the Prince back into their midst, fundamentally they loathe each other and the Chelsea Barracks affair has brought it all out in the open.

Rogers sounds just so piqued. He asks rhetorically: “Are we going to have royalty dictating to us modern art? Are we going to have royalty dictating their taste in music? Are we going to have royalty dictating their belief in medicine, modern or not?”

But who was the client at Chelsea Barracks? None other than the Qatari royal family.

9 Jun 2009

On Plastering Options

Plastering is the cheapest way of providing good internal wall and ceiling coverings. There are different systems of ‘plastering’ but they all come within spitting distance of £12-£15 per sq m in price. There are alternatives which can be used when you know exactly what you want – exposed brickwork, timber linings – but they are considerably more expensive than a plastered finish and are normally only built as features.

The big question facing housebuilders is whether to go for a wet or dry system of wall coverings. The wet techniques use wet-mixed cement renders and gypsum plasters: the dry systems use dry-lined plasterboards. The wet techniques are traditional British building – the dry techniques are imported from countries where timber frame is prevalent. Ceilings are almost invariably fixed with plasterboard, but here there remains a choice about whether to cover them with a wet Thistle Finish plaster, to dry-line or to comb on Artex. Pricewise, there is very little to choose between the systems – though I estimate dry-lining is a little cheaper.

Wet plastering
Plus - it is well understood by builders and favoured by most plasterers; a well-skimmed plaster finish looks fantastic – at least initially.

Minus - it’s wet. Something like one cubic metre of water (equals 12 bathfulls) is being built into the fabric of the house if it is wet plastered and this must in time dry out, which will take a summer at least. This drying out results in movement which causes cracking in the top coat plaster which looks naff and gets builders called back on site to carry out cosmetic repairs. This problem is particularly bad when plasterboard ceilings are skimmed with a plaster finish; here the movement in timber behind the boards causes hairline cracks around all the plasterboard joints. None of this cracking is in the least bit dangerous – it doesn’t mean subsidence is occurring – and many people live happily with it knowing that these bedding-in problems can be filled in at the first redecoration. However, for many unsuspecting souls it is a source of genuine grievance and complaint.

Plus - it’s dry – avoiding problems outlined above. It is relatively easy to correct out-of-plumb blockwork – you just adjust the thickness of the adhesive dabs. It also gives a comparatively soft wall with enough give for small children to bounce off unharmed, whereas a hard, plastered wall would bring forth tears.

Minus - dry-lining is not particularly difficult to learn – the plasterboard manufacturers all run cheap two- or three-day training courses – but it can be badly applied, leaving a ridged effect on walls and ceilings. Plasterboard has to be fixed more carefully than is normal trade practice so as to keep the number of cuts to a minimum. The wall finish is similar to what you would get if painting on to lining paper (which is basically what you are doing) and this may not be glossy enough for some tastes. Plasterboard walls are not as damage-resistant as traditional plasters, though repairs can be easily effected.

Another problem with dry-lining, at least when it’s applied on plaster dabs onto blockwork walls, is that it tends to perform poorly on the airtightness front, now a factor which has to be addresses because air-tightness testing forms part of the building regs. In theory the backing walls should be airtight – why do you have to put in all those expensive trickle vents in the windows? – but in practice air sneaks through gaps in the mortar and around joist ends. One solution to this problem is to seal all the joints between sheets and around openings prior to taping and jointing. However this is both expensive (Gyproc’s sealer costs around £10 per litre) and time consuming. This air leakiness problem occurs with all forms of construction that use dry-lining, but its significance is greatly reduced when you build in timber-frame, incorporating a vapour barrier in the external walls.

Blockwork v studwork
You can only apply wet render on to a masonry background and it is, therefore, not an option for timber framers. Those using studwork walls will have to fit a wallboard, usually plasterboard – though, as already noted, plasterboard will take a 3mm wet plaster finish. On the other hand, if a dry method is desired in a brick and block house, then the favoured method is to stick plasterboard on to the blockwork using the dot and dab technique which uses specialised gypsum plasters as adhesives. This is the method currently in favour with over 70 per cent of professional house builders – just goes to show how much they value not being called back because ‘there’s cracks in me walls.’

What is it? Gypsum plaster sandwiched between two layers of paper. It is characterised by being easy to cut, fairly easy to handle and it provides a good backing for paint and plaster. Note that wastage can be high when using plasterboard – up to 30 per cent on small rooms and ceilings, 10-15 per cent on walls. It is available in several different formats: square edged (for wet plaster skimming) or tapered edge (for dry-lining); 12.5mm thick for 600mm spaced studwork and 9.5mm thick for 400mm spacings; foil-backed for providing an integral vapour barrier (it’s cheaper to use a separate polythene sheet); small boards measuring 1800x900mm as well as the more normal, room-height, boards which are 1200x2400mm. Since the sound regs were beefed up in 2004, there is a big take up of heavier boards to get studwork partitions up to the required 40dB sound reduction rating. Sound deadening boards at 12.5mm are what to look out for. None of these formats is expensive: rates vary between £1.50 per sq m and £2.50 per sq m depending on what you want the board to do.

There are also a number of plasterboards which are laminated to insulation. Make sure you get the right format for the job and make sure that you’ve used metric spacings on your wall studs and ceiling joists as imperial-sized plasterboard is no longer made.

Plasterboard is a very competitive business with three companies (BPB aka British Gypsum, and now owned by St. Gobain, Knauf and Lafarge) slugging it out for the European market. Consequently, the price hasn’t really changed much in 20 years – amazing value if you think about it. There is little to choose between the rivals either on price or quality.

8 Jun 2009

A big welcome to John Who

The latest cabinet reshuffle has seen yet another housing minister installed. This time it’s John Healey, someone I had never heard of before. I am struggling to remember the holders of this ill-feted post: in reverse order it seems to be Margaret Beckett, Caroline Flint, Yvette Cooper (all within the past two or three years) and before that…..I can’t remember. Or maybe I never knew.

The point is that this office of state is a revolving door. No one stays put for more than a few months. How on earth are they meant to get to grips with their brief?

If this was a school, it would be deemed to be failing. If it was a hospital, it would be dangerous. If it was a business, it would be going bust. But it’s a government, so nobody expects it to do anything anyway.

4 Jun 2009

Pilkington energiKare

I came across one new product at BRE’s Onsite 09 event, which was a new type of energy saving glass being marketed by Pilkington. It’s made in Japan, by Nippon Glass, owners of Pilks, and it consists of a two panes of glass separated by a vacuum gap of just 0.2mm. In this country, it’s being aimed fairly and squarely at the listed building/Georgian sash window market, because you get a very good U value from it (Centre Pane value 1.4) yet you can’t tell it’s not single glazing.

Well actually, you can, if you look closely. You can’t see that it’s two panes of glass, but the 0.2 gap has tiny black spacers located within it which you can see if you look close up – they appear to be a series of black dots. If the vacuum fails, the spacers fall out, so you have a visible clue that the unit is no longer working. But of course the units won’t fail. Will they?

The units are made up before the vacuum is applied. Each unit comes with a little grommet through which you can suck out all the air. There is a minimum unit size of 0.4m2, so a sash window will have to be done in one and glazing bars applied afterwards. But that’s not a big problem.

It looks as though they have got a product which can provide good energy efficiency and yet satisfy the English Heritage/Conservation Officer lobby. At around £300/m2, it will cost, but if done as a package of overall window refurbishment or replacement, it’s not that prohibitive. Just a shame they’ve given it a horrible name: Pilkington energiKare. I’m really getting to hate inTerCaps, aRen’T yOu?

2 Jun 2009

Insite 09 and a "huge surge of anger"

I spent the day at the BRE in Watford attending their Insite 09 exhibition. I went today (Tuesday) because there was a conference on the Existing Stock and, in particular, how to reduce the carbon emissions created by it. This is a debate I want to be part of.

As I pulled up at the entrance gate, I was handed a leaflet explaining where I should park. It told me I wasn’t allowed to do more than 20mph on site, that I musn’t smoke, nor should I attempt to use a mobile phone whilst driving the quarter mile through the site. It also told me not to park on the cross-hatched areas, nor the double yellow lines. And finally it warned me that if I broke any of these rules I would be asked to leave the site and my behaviour would be reported to my employers. All to get from the entrance gate to the car park at the back of the site. Welcome to the BRE.

The conference speakers were thoughtful and articulate, but I couldn’t help feeling that the suggestions being put forward were not really going to get to the root of the problem. Nick Raynsford, the Construction Industries’ pet MP, expressed his frustration with the Treasury which repeatedly refuses to pursue a more progressive taxation regime which might encourage green refurbishment.

In the Q&A I asked him if it was not now time to introduce a carbon tax on domestic energy bills: whilst the cost of petrol at the pump is nearly 70% tax, domestic fuel has just 5% added to it in VAT. His answer was informative: he suggested that the Fuel Cost Escalator had not been popular, especially when oil prices went through the roof last year, and that the government would risk facing “a huge surge of anger” if it brought in something similar on gas and electricity bills. I wouldn’t have thought that bothered the government too much. Afterall, it didn’t stop them going to war in Iraq? Or for that matter fiddling their expenses? So what’s their problem?

20 May 2009

Is this slump all about peak oil?

We were hearing a lot about peak oil last summer when the oil price went to $147 a barrel. Since when, of course, the price has fallen through the floor, back down to 2005 levels, and, lo and behold, stories about peak oil have dropped off the radar.

But the issue refuses to go away and at least one serious commentator, Steven Koppits, suggests that we may have already passed the peak oil moment and that the global recession is the result.

Ultimately, the inability of the oil supply to keep pace with global demand proved to be a key contributing factor to the current recession. I would note, however, that the proximate cause of the recession is China, not peak oil. China ultimately provided both the financial liquidity and the commodities demand which brought down the global economy. Were China not so large and not at its current stage of development, peak oil could pass without anyone noticing for some time. As it was, China hit its stride just as the oil supply was stumbling. The issue was not, therefore, peak oil in and of itself, but rather the supply/demand imbalance caused by the inability of the global oil supply to adjust to China’s incremental demand.

It’s a very interesting, thought provoking piece and, to me, it makes a lot of sense.

19 May 2009

"The Housing Downturn" - a review

Graham Norwood is a prolific and well known property journalist who has produced a book about the state of the housing market which he has subtitled “A Guide for Estate Agents and Developers.”

There are no earth shattering revelations here but it provides a useful summary of the events of the past three years. Graham doesn’t like to use the term “Crash” for what has happened to the housing market — he suggests his journalist colleagues have debased the term — but then he buys into the notion that things will recover soon. “Even now I believe that residential prices, like oil, will rise in value over the long term and within the next decade prices will surpass those seen at the recent peak in 2007.”

What gives him such confidence in this prediction? He trots out the hoary old chestnut that there is a shortage of homes in the UK and that in the long term this lack of supply will push prices up. But he conveniently ignores the fact that this was exactly the same reason used to justify ever-rising house prices rises in the years up to 2007. If this really was the case, then house prices would never have fallen back at all. What the “correction” has shown us is that the predictions for both population growth and household formation were as much products of the long speculative housing boom as causes of it. And both these supposed “drivers” of house price rises may be just as likely to stabilise or even head south, as has happened in Germany for many years. There is no hard and fast rule that says they will continue to climb upwards for ever and a day.

And if they don’t, then there is no particular reason for house prices to bounce back to where they were in 2007, anymore than there is for the FTSE 100 to regain its previous peaks, or the oil price to go back through $147 a barrel, or wherever it got to back in the crazy summer of 2008.

The book has a good section on estate agents, a subject I don’t know much about. Apparently, Rightmove is toast. Globerix is the future, because it doesn’t charge a fat fee to the agents listing. Or maybe not. It’s not quite that simple.

And the best section of all is where Graham intrepidly goes where few reporters ever dared, to an Inside Track investor’s presentation. One of the very definite plus points of the property “correction” is that steam-ups like this can no longer happen.

On the other hand, this book itself is a very slim volume. I read it cover to cover in three sittings, totalling maybe three hours. At around £25 to buy, it’s more than a bit pricey. Nevertheless, it’s a very easy and approachable read and I feel sure it will become a valuable reference point in years to come when people try to remember what these times we are living through were like.

15 May 2009

Arbury Park revisited

This is a forlorn spot on the northern edge of Cambridge. I revisited yesterday. It's new, its meant to be an exciting place to live and already it looks like a slum. Desperately sad.

27 Apr 2009

On Cavity Wall Insulation

The house I am currently living in was built in 1960. I have long been pondering what exactly to do with it: the choices being the demolish it and rebuild a new, or to renovate it.

It’s got lots of glass. A very sixties house. Even though it’s double glazed to a reasonable standard (mostly aluminium frames), it gets cold and the heating system is barely up to the task of keeping it warm in winter. It will readily burn 20 litres of oil a day in winter on space heating and that translates to something like 150kWh/m2/annum under normal occupancy conditions. Or ten times the PassivHaus standard of 15kWh/m2/annum, now the target of choice for low energy designs.

It has cavity walls — that’s easy to tell because all the bricks are stretchers — but whether the cavity itself has insulation in it I have no idea. So, when researching an article last month about grants for cavity wall insulation, I contacted two agencies who undertook grant work and both said they would send a surveyor out within six weeks. Last night at 8pm, a guy rings and asks if he can come by at 8 am this morning. He actually arrives at 7.22. He’s gone by 7.27, having drilled one hole through the brickwork, found evidence of some polystyrene beading and then announced that “I’d no need to worry because I’d been done already.”

I am left wondering. What was all that about?

I await the visit of surveyor No 2. And more thoughts about the Cavity Wall Insulation Business.

The scheme contact details are as follows. One is run by the Energy Savings Trust, called the Affordable Energy Scheme (Tel: 0800 512012); the other is called the Heat Project (Tel: 0800 093 4050), which is funded by the energy suppliers. They offer pretty much the same thing, which is subsidised cavity wall and/or loft insulation. Anyone can apply for this grant-aided work, which has to be carried out by approved installers, and the rate paid is fixed at £189 which gets you 130m2 of cavity wall insulation or 55m2 of loft insulation – or twice £189 (=£378) if you want both. If your project exceeds these amounts, you are charged pro rata at £4.50/m2. If your project is smaller, then the rate is lower.

8 Apr 2009

PassivHaus ventilation questions

Picked up this interesting paper off a thread on the Green Building Forum. It hails from Canada and dates from 1969, but it has an air of authenticity about it. It answers a question I have long wondered about – just how much fresh air do we need to survive and prosper?

Every time we breathe in, we draw in just under 1 litre of air. If it’s fresh air, we draw it in at atmospheric conditions, which equate to 21% oxygen and 0.03% CO2 (or 300ppm – since 1969 this has increased to 380ppm, but that’s another story and it doesn’t effect the calculations here). Our lungs absorb oxygen and give back CO2, so that what we breathe out consists of 16% oxygen and 4% CO2. In the course of an hour, while at rest, we breathe in and out around 500 litres or 0.5m3.

If you are asleep in an enclosed space of, say, 16m3 (typical size for a small bedroom), then, over 8 hours, you will have added 4m3 of exhaled air so that, when you get up in the morning, around 25% of the air volume in the room will have passed through your lungs. That means that CO2 levels should have reached (4 x 0.25) 0.5%, which equates to 5,000ppm.

My little experiment last week, sleeping in a bedroom of around 30m3 on which I shut the door and closed the windows, got the CO2 detector to register just over 2,000ppm, which falls fairly accurately within these parameters. So far so good. The paper suggests that 4,000ppm CO2 is unpleasant and represents really poor IAQ. I would concur. I thought 2,000ppm was stale and stuffy.

Now what is interesting to me about this paper is that it concludes that a safe level of ventilation is around ten times what we breathe in and out. At rest, we breathe around 8lts per minute: the recommended ventilation rate is 80lts per minute. That’s enough to ensure that indoor CO2 should never get above 500ppm, which is unnoticeable. That’s an incredible safety margin. In fact, you can control indoor CO2 levels with much lower rates of ventilation, as people rarely if ever stay in one room for more than 8 hours at a time. So bear in mind that the minimum accepted ventilation levels have a huge margin of safety built into them.

How do these figures compare with an average leaky house, which experiences around a complete air change every four hours. Say the house is 300m3. That means that 75m3 of air is changing every hour. Which works out at 1.25m3 or 1250lts per minute. Enough to keep 15 people breathing easily, at the recommended ventilation levels. And that’s with the windows closed.

What about an air tight, PassivHaus style structure? Assume something like 0.6 ach at 50 Pascals – that in fact is the PassivHaus standard for air tightness. It is estimated that at normal atmospheric pressure, the actual air changes are 20 times less than they are at 50 Pascals, so we could assume a real air change of 0.6/20 = 0.03 ach. Again, lets assume a 300m3 house. 300x0.03 equates to 9m3 per hour or 150 lts per minute. That’s the air leakiness that you get with a 300m3 PassivHaus. It is still surprisingly high. In fact, it’s still fine for two people (at the very safe 80 lts per minute each). So rumours that you would suffocate if you lived in a PassivHaus with no ventilation are perhaps just a little exaggerated. In fact, you would survive just fine.

These calcs do call into question the insistence (from PassivHaus practitioners) that you have to have MVHR installed in an airtight house if indoor air quality isn’t to suffer. The problem with air quality is actually more localised. You can induce it over a prolonged period (like 8 hours sleep) in an enclosed space (like a bedroom), but you would struggle to notice it in a whole house. MVHR is very much a whole house solution to a problem that affects individual rooms. Why ventilate the living spaces at night? Why ventilate the bedrooms during the day?

All good questions. The debate will run and run.

2 Apr 2009

Lumens per watt: a useful graph

Was looking into the background of lighting efficiency when I came across this chart on the web. Useful. BTW, Part L defines energy efficient lighting as anything that equals or betters 40 lumens per watt. Click on the chart to make it open up larger in another window.

Thin line between wonder products and cons

I am stirred to write by some correspondence I have been having with Nick Grant, a water maven and a leading light in the AECB. Nick has recently come out against rainwater harvesting (RWH). He now reckons it’s a complete waste of time and energy and lists no less than eight reasons why you should avoid it. These being:

1. Very cost ineffective — about £15/m3 life cost for RWH assuming pump doesn't fail after 2 years. (By way of comparison, mains water costs around £2/m3.)

2. Doesn't save enough water to be meaningful, and can't be installed in enough places.

3. Doesn't work where needed. Thames gateway — no roof area/person, nor rainfall, even less in a dry year when needed to save water.

4. Can fail, leading to mains top-up running to waste and so undoing all the savings that could ever have been made.

5. Problems flushing loos when power off or pump broken

6. Uses 2-4 times the energy of mains, but still only a little compared with water heating. However that debunks the idea that all houses should have RWH to save all the CO2 needed for pumping mains.

7. “Ah but what about all the chemicals and other environmental impacts.” Again, argument needs to be that rain is significantly better than mains to justify the green premium, but is actually worse.

8. “Ah but I want to save water, but don't want a low flow shower” (perhaps meet CSH 3).

He is not alone. There is a considerable weight of opinion gathering to dis rainwater harvesting as a green con. I am not so sure, but then I don’t know that much about it. But it strikes me that there is now a fairly long list of supposedly eco-products out there that have been slated for being worthless. I can think of:

• multifoil insulation
• polyurethane foam insulation sprayed under roofs
• micro wind turbines
• electric heat pumps
• green electricity tariffs
• magic energy savings devices (as made by EPS who have a very strange website indeed
• green roofs

And then there are products which some people advocate, whilst others think are a complete waste of time. Think maybe limecrete. Or hemp. Or biomass boilers. Or micro-CHP. Or perhaps triple glazing. Or even mechanical ventilation with heat recovery.

I have no doubt that people making and selling these products don’t start out to con anyone but that, quite naturally, they sell their good points and ignore the bad ones. Any visitor to Ecobuild can’t have failed to notice that every single exhibitor trumpeted their green credentials — and why not? But logically, some products must be greener than others. Thus far any attempts at producing an authoritative overview — such as the BRE’s Green Guide — just produce howls of protest from people who don’t like what they see there.

It makes it all very hard for the consumer to make sensible choices. And I can’t see it getting any better, as more and more green products arrive in the market place and there are no agreed systems for testing their claims. Seeing as the government has been offering grants for some of these dubious products, and including others in its Code for Sustainable Homes, what hope is there for us mere mortals to make sense of any of it?

25 Mar 2009

Why sash windows work

Alan Burgess of Masterframe has taken the trouble to prove what many of us had long suspected. That sash windows work as superb ventilators. The trick is to open them a little at both the top and the bottom and this sets up a circulation of air that will clear the room of stale air, bad smells or excess heat in summer. Alan, together with his technical director Ray Rabbett, have run a series of simulations on software used by the ventilation trade which shows just how effective the traditional sash design is compared to other common window formats, such as top hung casements or tilt and turn. The results of their work will be published shortly.

For Burgess, it’s of more than academic interest. He is, and always has been, passionate about sash windows, and his company makes nothing else. He’s long felt that the powers-that-be have been conspiring against the sash design and pushing us all gently towards a more modern, European style, using energy efficiency arguments to jolly us along. Burgess feels that his contemporary re-working of the traditional sash designs are the equal of casements and tilt and turns in this respect, but now he has some proof that they are actually superior in terms of ventilation. And in a critical passage in Part F, the ventilation regulations, there is a reference that says that, when replacing windows, rapid ventilation should not be made worse. Up until now, no one has challenged the assumption that this simply means that the openings should be of similar size. But it transpires that a single opening casement is far less effective at rapid ventilation than a combination of top and bottom openings.

In common with many people, Burgess has long decried the ripping out of Victorian sashes and their replacement by top hung casements. Up till now, the objections have only ever been aesthetic. If this research is taken on board — and Part F is up for consultation very shortly — then it means that in future existing sashes will either have to be repaired or replaced on a like-for-like basis.

21 Mar 2009

On Icynene

Icynene has arrived in the UK. What is it and why should it raise you from your slumber? It’s a spray-in foam insulation system, hailing from Canada and its makers claim you can get PassivHaus style performance from it without having to build walls and roofs which are 500mm thick. In fact, it gets used in the high Artic where the temperature falls to minus 60°C at only 90mm thickness.

I interviewed Jeff Hood, one of Icynene’s owners and the man responsible for bringing the product into Europe. Since the company’s formation in 1986 in Toronto, it’s achieved spectacular growth in North America and now accounts for around 5% of installations in US new housing. It works equally well in hot climates as in cold. Unlike the more common polyurethane foams, Icynene is blown with water: this was originally done to avoid formaldehyde off gassing but they have stuck with it to produce a unique sponge-like product that remains flexible. This flexibility is one of the keys to its success because it produces a truly airtight barrier and one that will stay airtight indefinitely. Hood tells me that this factor alone makes Icynene much more effective than almost any other insulation system. “We don’t believe boards are really effective because the caulking around them is never going to be done perfectly and in any event it will crack over time.”

So far all well and good. However, Icynene faces one or two problems before it can become widely adopted in Europe. “Europe is U value obsessed,” says Hood. “We believe we can get excellent performance from this product at fairly minimal thicknesses and that, whilst we could apply it at 300mm depth, there is no point because the performance improvement is absolutely minimal. Why waste footprint needlessly?”

Europe however is still feeling the effects of a nasty little tiff with the multifoil industry which, in truth, is still not satisfactorily resolved. The multifoil manufacturers make very similar claims and thus far have not been able to establish them via traditional testing methods. Icynene is a very different product to multifoil but the claims made by Hood and his colleagues have many similarities. Thus far Icynene has won BBA approval for use in walls and roofs, but only as a substitute (in performance terms) with glass fibre and/or polystyrene, which makes it rather poorer than the polyurethane family. But Hood’s contention is that it’s actually much better than all the other available mainstream insulation products and to prove it he has hired the building scientists at Napier University in Edinburgh to run some tests on Icynene in their laboratory in Glenrothes, a facility I visited last year with the UK Timber Frame Association. Results should be available soon. If they confirm Hood’s contentions, it could re-ignite the debate over the effectiveness of the established testing method, the guarded hotbox test.

Many people will think that we’ve been here before. The multifoil debate raged for many years and it was all based around the validity or otherwise of the guarded hot box as being the best (or only) method for measuring the effectiveness of insulation materials. The difference this time is that, in Icynene, we have a manufacturer who can quite happily supply insulation at any thickness. As Hood explained to me: “We can spray at whatever thickness the client wants, we just don’t want to waste their money, or use more material or footprint than is necessary. We think that’s green. And we think the move in Europe towards PassivHaus-style massive insulation is a costly mistake.” With Icynene installed in over 200,000 buildings including several LEED platinum standards, it could be that our future insulation standards could once again be up for debate.

17 Mar 2009

Demand Control Ventilation

There was an interesting product on display at EcoBuild that I hadn’t seen before. It’s a whole house ventilation system from a Dutch outfit called Itho and they call it Demand Control Ventilation. You can read the blurb on their website, but the crucial factors here are that:
• it’s extract only
• there’s no heat recovery
• it only works when CO2 detectors say GO
• it uses much smaller ducting than MVHR systems

Why should it be of interest? It presents a challenge to the orthodoxy of built tight, ventilate right which is enshrined in SAP Appendix Q. This dictates that first you should seal up your house, as if it was an aircraft fuselage, and then introduce an air handling system which should work 24/7, even in the summer months. OK, by adding heat recovery, you minimise the heat loss, but nevertheless it’s an awful faffle to get all the kit in place and it needs to be balanced to ensure that it works as designed. There are bound to be a lot of MVHR systems out there that don’t perform anything like they were intended to.

In contrast, extract only on demand ventilation is a much simpler concept. The idea of using CO2 detectors to turn the system on and off is theoretically sound, as it tends to be CO2 concentration in rooms that makes the atmosphere stuffy. CO2 build up in an enclosed bedroom overnight can be a big issue (background reading at www.veetech.co.uk) and it’s one that MVHR deals with very crudely — by pumping warmed air INTO the bedroom rather than extracting it.

In contrast, having a system that turns on only when CO2 levels call for it seems both logical and economical. Also, if people sleep with their windows open (which they do precisely to avoid CO2 build up) then the ventilation system won’t come into play. With an MVHR system, you risk double ventilating.

At the moment, it seems CO2 detection ventilation systems don’t really cut the mustard with Appendix Q and Itho are faced with months if not years of expensive testing to get the system accepted by UK regulators. But I wouldn’t be surprised if, in the long run, ventilation systems like this don’t come to predominate in the UK climate.

POSTSCRIPT: Just spoken with Simon Kaye, one of Itho’s UK sales team, and he confirmed that this system is not Appendix Q compliant, and therefore will not meet the higher levels of the Code for Sustainable Homes. Thus far, only Holland has approved the use of Demand Control Ventilation in low energy housing and they have found that it’s more energy efficient than MVHR, which Itho also market. However, to get accepted into the UK market, this product will have to undergo extensive testing, costing upwards of £40,000. At this point in time, Itho have no plans to do this because it’s not clear that there will be a large enough market to justify testing, so for the time being its likely to remain a curio, rather than a practicality. However, selfbuilders not having to reach Code Level 3 or 4 may be interested in the product.

I also learnt that there is only one CO2 detector but that each outlet valve has a sensor which feeds via Cat 5 cable to the detector. If CO2 is detected as being high in one room (say a bedroom overnight), the fan switches on until CO2 levels are reduced to normal. The other valves dampen while this is happening. There is also a humidity detector built into the unit which is wired to sensors in the wet rooms. The success of the system obviously depends on the detectors continuing to operate correctly. I would think that it would only make sense if there was a service contract in place to check all this out. But then, ideally, an MVHR system should be regularly serviced as well, and I bet very few actually are.

12 Mar 2009

Europe's smallest towers?

I misread the headline. I was sure it said “Foster unveils Western Europe’s smallest towers.” I smiled. I thought, what a lovely story, the guy’s got it at last. Let’s hear it for tiny towers.

But it was, of course, tallest, not smallest. And here they are in all their glory lording it over Paris. No, our tax-exile starchitect doesn’t get it at all, does he?

God, I think I’m turning into Prince Charles.

10 Mar 2009

Builders rates softening

There’s really no definitive way of knowing exactly how much a builder charges because every contract is different and each rate is negotiated on a job-by-job basis. But there is a lot of evidence around that labour rates are softening across the board in response to the recession.

Having said that, recession bites in some funny and unexpected ways. I keep hearing about builders who are rushed off their feet and have order books as long as ever. A plumber I know locally (in Linton, Cambs) told me he’d never known it so slow, but that his brother (a plumber in Swindon, Wilts) was snowed under, so much so that my local plumber was now working three days a week in Swindon. Just why Swindon should be busy, whilst Cambridgeshire is quiet, seems to defy common sense, but that’s often what happens.

Other tit bits. A groundworker I know was getting £160 a day for agency work a year ago. Now the rate is £80 a day. Ouch if you are looking for work but good news if you are paying for it. My bricklaying contact tells me that the rate per thousand bricks laid has softened from around £420/k down to £360/k (though be warned that this rate is subject to a lot of regional variation — many quieter areas of the country never got as high as £360/k in the boom). And at EcoBuild last week, I gleaned that rates for timber frame erection were down from £20/m2 to £15/m2.

6 Mar 2009

On Germaine Greer

Spent much of Wednesday and Thursday at EcoBuild. Overall impression was that it was bigger and busier than last year. How much of the traffic was the semi-employed, filling in another day without meaningful employ, we’ll never know.

But if you do want to fill a day, EcoBuild is a great place to do it. For starters, they had some very interesting speakers — celebs you would not normally expect to see at a building event — and all on view for free. I caught Michael Portillo, Mathew Parrish, Dan Cruickshank, Nigel Lawson and Germaine Greer, and Boris Johnson’s kid brother Leo (just like Boris only a brunette). All of them spoke fluently, some even made sense, but the one I felt like blogging about was Germaine Greer.

QUESTION: What was she doing there in the first place? ANSWER: she seems to be something of a housing pundit these days. I’m not altogether sure why, as she has almost nothing to say on the subject that is remotely coherent. She strides to the podium and delivers a series of knock about, grumpy old woman style thoughts, gets lots of laughs from the audience (because she is funny) and that’s it. But what she actually did was give a long list of things she disliked about modern housing. I didn’t write any of this down but from memory it included:
• wheelie bins (disfiguring)
• fences (naff)
• staircases (too many, and sometimes used as a “feature”)
• bad design (but she didn’t say what good design was)
• too many 2, 3 and 4 bedroomed houses
• too many flats
• gardens not big enough
• too many gardens
• solar panels on rooftops
• wind cowls (pointed, because Bill Dunster was next up – he managed to look really piqued – maybe he was?)

She went on and on, shooting her mouth off, picking off targets like she was on a machine gun on the front line at the Somme. All good stuff, and the audience lapped it up, but afterwards it left a strange taste in the mouth. Was she in favour of anything at all? Or was she just playing the gallery for a laugh? Has Germaine Greer really got anything useful to say about housing, or is her elevation to pundit status merely a commentary on the fact that there is now a vacuum out there?

2 Mar 2009

On English Heritage

Thanks to Old Bollocks to alerting me to some scams going down at English Heritage, as exposed in yesterday’s Sunday Times.

It’s not an area I write about much, but I’ve long felt that the whole conservation scene is verging on the edge of being one big scam. This article is important because it takes the battle to English Heritage in a way that’s not happened before, basically accusing them of abusing their powers. I suspect that the author in question, Richard Girling, is opening up a Pandora’s box.

My one continuing beef about English Heritage and the whole conservation lobby is the sheer size of it. There are, according to the article, 350,000 listed buildings in the England. In my book, that’s about 300,000 too many.