31 Dec 2010

Lynne Sullivan, OBE

I've been meaning to write about the work of Lynne Sullivan for some time, ever since I happened upon the Sullivan Report back in 2007. Lynne produced a really good guide to show how Scotland could develop its sustainable built environment, and it contrasted with many of the dubious outpourings from Westminster and Watford at around the same time. I've met her a few times since and been impressed by her understanding of all these issues that feature here on this blog, and she has helped me with one or two leads.

She now runs her own consultancy called Sustainable By Design and in truth she doesn't need bigging up by me because she has a CV that might be described a glittering if you were that way inclined. And now to top it off, she has been awarded an OBE in the New Year's Honours List. Well done, Lynne.

26 Dec 2010

Biomass splits the AECB

It's not often that a magazine makes news for what's not in it, but the winter 2010 issue of Green Building has set tongues wagging in the normally polite debating halls of the AECB, the UK's main green building movement. And at the heart of it all is our old friend biomass.

Here's the story in a nutshell. AECB founder and magazine editor Keith Hall is a big fan of biomass. He lives on a smallholding in Wales and is self-sufficient in fuel, having access to his own timber. In September, two AECB stalwarts, Alan Clarke and Board member Nick Grant (aka the PassivHaus gang) published a "discussion paper" — whatever that is — on AECB headed notepaper called Biomass - A Burning Issue. It gently but firmly put the boot into the pro-biomass argument, pointing out that burning timber actually releases far more CO2 than burning the equivalent amount of gas. The paper argued that it would be better for the environment to encourage the growth of new timber, and its use as a carbon store (in buildings, furniture, whatever): anything in fact, except burning it. And to incentivise the burning of biomass — which is what the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) is setting out to do — is just plain nuts.

This was too much for Keith Hall. He wrote on the Green Building forum (which he moderates): I'm appalled that the AECB has chosen to publish this document without a wide membership review. It is a manifesto for heat pumps and fossil fuel use. Clearly they seem to think there is no place in their passivhaus doctrine for woodburning. Well that’s clear enough.

Then Keith uses his clout as editor of Green Building to put together a “Biomass Issue” which manages to all but completely ignore the Clarke & Grant paper. It's not quite been airbrushed out — it's referred to in a feature on the online forum debate — but the central argument made by Clarke & Grant is just nowhere to be seen. It’s like someone has let off a real stinker in a crowded lift and everyone is just too polite to mention it.

But the biomass debate is not going to die down just because Hall and a seemingly large cohort of AECB members don't like it happening. With the final announcement on the RHI expected shortly, the rights and wrongs of burning timber for heating are occupying the corridors of power in Westminster. It may seem all just a little obscure to ordinary mortals, but the decisions made in the coming months will set the tone for a very long time. My worry is that the agenda is being largely driven by vested interests — forestry providers, biomass plant manufacturers, power producers who want subsidies — and that the cold, hard logic of what should be done about climate change has somehow been sidelined.

I’m not exactly an objective observer here. I’ve made it plain already that I broadly agree with the rebel paper. A little wood burning here and there isn’t a problem but switching to biomass burning on an industrial scale (which is what this is all about) is illogical and counter productive because there will never be enough timber to supply more than a tiny proportion of our heating needs and the idea that it can be seen as a little closed loop all on its tod is unrealistic.

Or to put it another way, it’s fine to live a self-sufficient back-woodsy lifestyle and to use near-free biomass to heat your smallholding, but it doesn’t begin to address the global problems we are having with our carbon burning habits. If anything should be subsidised, it should be using timber in buildings, a perfect working example of carbon capture and storage. Burning it is just undoing all the good work.

Where this leaves the AECB is something which will have to be worked out next year. But the current split is — dare I say it — totally unsustainable.

23 Dec 2010

On wood pellet prices

Info from Nottingham Energy Partnerships

Wood pellets prices
Nov 2007 17p/kg
Nov 2010 25.2p/kg
Increase = 48%
Current price per kWh inc allowance for boiler efficiency: 6p

Standard heating oil:
Nov 2007 43p/lt
Nov 2010 47p/lt
Increase = 9%
Current price per kWh inc allowance for boiler efficiency: 5.3p

Mains gas:
Nov 2007 2.72p/kWh
Nov 2010 3.58p/kWh
Increase = 32%
Current price per kWh inc allowance for boiler efficiency: 3.9p

Nov 2007 8.87p/kWh
Nov 2010 10.92p/kWh
Increase = 23%
Price per kWh: 10.92p

6 Dec 2010

Are there any architects out there?

In my unofficial role as selfbuild agony uncle, I get some interesting and sometimes off-beat requests. But Janice Diamond's email last week stands out from the crowd. She's had such trouble finding the right architect that she's built a website to advertise for one. It's here. And it looks like a fantastic site as well, deep in the heart of the Lake District. She writes:

I was hoping that you may be able to give me some advice about how to find the right architect.

For some years I have been looking for an architect to design a new home on an existing plot in Rosthwaite in the Borrowdale valley in Cumbria.

The site is in a National Trust area, a very sensitive area. At present on the plot is a pre-fabricated building built in 1921. I have spoken to the planning officer so I know that I will be able to build a two story dwelling.

I have spoken to quite a few architects in the region. I specifically wanted the architect to use 3D technology and this ruled out quite a few. A few that were recommended were too busy even to get back to me. One told me that there was over a two year waiting list, and I couldn't get back to speak to him.

One architect that I contacted did go as far as doing an outline design , did all the measurements etc but had not understood me when I said that I wanted the best of the views. He put the ensuite and walk in wardrobes for the main upstairs bedroom where the view should have been. Downstairs he put an open fire where you would want the glass windows to look at the view and insisted that this was a good idea.

I thought that I'd found the right architect when I found one that was brilliant on the 3D. However, to cut a long story short he was already very busy with too much work and I didn't feel that he had the time to spend the time on my project.

It seemed to me that the work that most architects in the Lake District are fully occupied with renovations as well.

I next contacted RIBA and they sent me some contacts in the Lake District. Two of these I had already been in touch with. I phoned a third who was based further down in Kendal and they weren't really interested as they too were very busy with renovation work and suggested I try architects further South, like Lancaster.

Please could you advise me on the best action to take, ie would it be best to advertise ? and if so where would the best place be to do this.

1 Dec 2010

Low energy homes - they don't always work

I've been banging on about low energy homes on this blog for years, and promoting the concept to all who come here. Whether it's the full blown PassivHaus standard, or a less taxing version with maybe SIPS, MVHR and a wood burning stove, it seems to me to be a no-brainer.

But sometimes it's good to pause and reflect. And it has to be admitted that building a low energy house is not always as plain sailing as advocates would like to admit. They don't all work as planned, and sometimes it's hard to put a finger on exactly what has gone wrong.

Yesterday I took a phone call from a selfbuilder in Oxfordshire who has just built a massively insulated, near airtight timber frame house which is heated by underfloor heating on the ground floor (powered by a heat pump), a wood burning stove in the living room and an MVHR ventilation system to distribute the heat around the house. All indications were that the house was well built and it had achieved an airtightness score of 1.7a/c/hr@50p (which is extremely good). Yet whilst the heated downstairs of the house was basking in temperatures in the 20°Cs, the upstairs rooms were stuck at 14°C. All that acoustic insulation put in the floors to meet Part E of the building regs was stopping the heat rising into the bedrooms, and the MVHR system simply wasn't redistributing the heat as had been hoped for. The ventilation system even had a 1kW post-heater installed in the inlet ducting, and yet still the upstairs was still freezing.

And that wasn't all. The wood burning stove was also causing problems. Despite having an airflow ducted directly to the stove, it wasn't burning efficiently and was smoking through the vent hole. And when the door was opened to re-fuel, large amounts of smoke were escaping into the living room - the so-called spillage problem already discussed on this blog. And the heat generated from the wood stove wasn't finding it's way into the bedroom upstairs.

This wasn't as it was planned. The finger of suspicion would seem to point at the commissioning of the MVHR ventilation, and the suspicion must be that the system hasn't been balanced correctly. But the installers were adamant that it wasn't their fault and were proving difficult to deal with. "We told you it wasn't a heating system, " they said, "you are expecting far too much from it." Which leaves the selfbuilders here in a bit of a hole, because what they have designed is in effect quite a complex, interactive building which depends on several different elements working well with one another. And when the outcome doesn't meet expectations, then it's damn difficult to know what to do about it.

The fallback is always to install a central heating system throughout the house. But a lot of low energy designs sell themselves on the fact that they will cope with the severest of conditions without recourse to conventional heating, and it's difficult not to be tempted by this logic. I've spoken to many selfbuilders who have done away with conventional heating systems and been delighted by the performance of their homes - incidentally the Denby Dale PassivHaus is just such a case, performing really well during this prolonged cold snap - but it's good to bear in mind that not everyone who tries this route is delighted with the results, and that if things don't work out as expected, then it leaves the client in a hole.

30 Nov 2010

On VAT in Construction

Just back from the last of this year's Homebuilding & Renovating shows (in not-so-sunny Somerset) and I am reflecting on my piss poor performance as a VAT expert. We get a lot of VAT queries from the visitors, and some of them I have to answer on stage in full glare of an audience. Which is fine when you are on top of your game and know every last detail, but not so good when your memory is beginning to resemble a colander. The questions have become increasingly complicated over the years and I no longer retain that capacity for remembering boring factoids like I once did. So for my benefit as much as everyone else's, here is my aide memoir on VAT and the selfbuilder.

• The starting point is very simple. If you are building a new house in the UK, you don't have to pay VAT on your costs. Professional developers do this by just reclaiming VAT on their quarterly VAT returns, and not charging it out on the house they sell at the end of the process. Selfbuilders are able to do the same thing without having to register as a business, simply by filling out form 431 (N) at the end of the job and posting off all their VAT invoices.

• It's downhill from here.

• The big fat question which keeps coming up is "What qualifies as a new build?"

• Gordon Brown, when Chancellor in 2001, widened the definition, so that many conversions qualified. If you are creating a dwelling for the first time (classically a barn conversion), then it qualifies. If it's an empty house that hasn't been lived in for at least ten years, then it qualifies. It gets complicated when you start talking about pub and post office conversions because if the buildings have been used partly as dwellings as well, then it doesn't qualify. The key point seems to hinge on whether or not the dwelling bit is or was "self-contained." By this it means if it shared a kitchen and bathroom with the commercial parts of the operation, it's not self-contained and it would qualify. If however there is a separate flat, then it doesn't qualify. At least I think that's where the line is drawn.

• You have to be going to live in the house. If you plan to rent it out, or use it as a holiday let, then it won't qualify for zero-rating.

• If you want a definitive answer, first check out VAT notice 708. If you are still unclear, you must go for a ruling to HMRC. Do this before you start!

• If it does qualify as a Conversion, it gets treated differently to a NewBuild. There are in fact (as far as I can work out) five different VAT regimes applying to construction. These are:

1. Classic new build. Zero-rated. You can reclaim all VAT on supplies you buy for the construction. Labour and supply and fix contracts should not charge you any VAT on their invoices.

2. Conversions. Providing you are creating a dwelling for the first time (or the ten year rule applies), then you are able to reclaim all VAT on supplies you buy for construction. Labour and supply and fix contracts should charge you VAT at 5%, which you can later reclaim.

3. Reduced rate work. If the building has been unoccupied for two years, or you are changing the number of residential units (i.e. a house into flats) then you only have to pay VAT at the reduced rate - 5%.

4. Listed buildings: you pay VAT at the full rate on repairs, whilst alterations are zero-rated. Strange but true. You may be able to apportion the VAT on the whole job, by prior agreement with HMRC.

5. Domestic building work (inc granny annexes and outbuldings). Repairs, maintenance, improvements and alterations all attract VAT at the full rate.

The definitive rulebook on all this is VAT Notice 708, an 109-page behometh. Selfbuild reclaim forms are now known as VAT notices 731 (N) for new builds and 731 (C) for conversions.

Final thought. It's a great shame the Coalition hasn't thought to pay some attention to this VAT mess. Lots of good research has suggested that if the entire construction industry shifted onto the 5% reduced rate of VAT, the tax take would actually increase (because cash jobs wouldn't be so attractive to customers). It would be good news for the construction industry, good news for most of its customers (except the zero-rated housebuilders), good news for the Treasury, and great news for everyone who appreciates a little simplicity in life. And it would put new build and renovation on a level playing field.

But whilst Shapps, Clark and Pickles have been busy creating mayhem with the planning system and the social housing scene, the underpinning VAT tax regime remains a pea-soup of confusion.

C'mon guys. There is still time to get "radical" here.

22 Nov 2010

Is Grant Shapps a Perverse Consequence?

Grant Shapps seems to be just everywhere. He tweets like a loon, and tells us all the media interviews he is doing. Today he has done BBC Radio London, Radio 2 (Jeremy Vine), The Daily Politics Show, LBC, Sky, Radio 5 and Radio 4's Today programme. For all I know he'll be on Newsnight later.

That's an awful lot of speaking. This is a guy who likes to talk, who likes the sound of his own voice. He is personable and charming, and good in front of an audience or a microphone. He even looks like one of those morphed images, halfway between Tony Blair and David Cameron. If ever there was someone built to be a 21st century politician, it would be our Grant. Only one small problem here. It's that he really doesn't appear to know what he's talking about. Despite having spent years shadowing various Labour Housing Minister's, and rehearsing his brief, now that he has arrived as the Coalition's chief housing spokesman, he's still completely at sea.

Today's topic of conversation is social housing reform. There's a press release up on the DCLG website which you can take a gander at and get the low down on what our man is on about. It's headlined "A fairer future for social housing."

Everyone agrees there is a problem (or three). But almost no one can decide what to do about it. Shapps is prone to suggesting that his solutions are "radical" — he likes that word — but methinks "tinkering about a bit" would be a little bit more accurate. A "radical" solution would be to do away with the looney distinction between social and private housing, but that's not really on the agenda because it's just a bit too, how shall we put it, ..."radical?" Instead Shapps is suggesting that we do away with lifetime tenure for social tenants and subject them to occasional means testing to see if they can afford to pay private market rates. If ever there was an incentive to stay out of work and have loads of children, this must be it. IDS must be fuming quietly in the background.

21 Oct 2010

Whither the Green Incentives?

So yesterday, George Osborne, the Chancellor, made his long awaited pronouncements on public spending. Of particular interest to this blog was the fate of the various green incentives, notably the Feed-in Tariff (FiT), the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) and the Green Deal. This is what he actually said:

The aim of all these investments is for Britain to be a leader of the new green economy. Creating jobs, saving energy costs, reducing carbon emissions. We will also introduce incentives to help families reduce their bills. We will introduce a funded Renewable Heat Incentive. Our Green Deal will encourage home energy efficiency at no upfront cost to homeowners and allow us to phase out the Warm Front programme.

The big news here is that the RHI survives. There has been feverish speculation that it was about to be ditched. There is more detail on the DECC website where we learn that:

£860 million funding for the Renewable Heat Incentive which will be introduced from 2011-12. This will drive a more-than-tenfold increase of renewable heat over the coming decade, shifting renewable heat from a fringe industry firmly into the mainstream. The Government will not be taking forward the previous administration’s plans of funding this scheme through an overly complex Renewable Heat levy.

It's all still rather delphic. Is the £860million a one-off? It sounds like a lot, but it's just 60,000 ground source heat pumps or biomass boilers, hardly enough to render them "mainstream." If commercial power plants get stuck in, the money will be gone in the blink of an eye. How will it be distributed? Who will qualify? What will the subsidies be worth? Until the details are published, we are not much the wiser. But it should at least be good news for all those heat pump suppliers whose order books have dried up this year because of the uncertainty over whether the RHI would survive in any fashion. Now they can say, "You will probably qualify for a subsidy but we can't say how much!" Great.

There is also more detail on FiTs

Feed-In Tariffs will be refocused on the most cost-effective technologies saving £40 million in 2014-15. The changes will be implemented at the first scheduled review of tariffs unless higher than expected deployment requires an early review.

It suggests that those who are currently signing up for the tariffs will be secure in the knowledge that the deal they are now getting will be good for many years. The statement that FiTs will be refocused on cost-effective technologies suggests, to me, that the very generous subsidies to solar PV will be greatly reduced, because it is by far the most expensive of the technologies covered.

As for the Green Deal? Nothing new here. We know it's coming, but what form it takes we have, as yet, no idea.

So the time for speculation is not past. I would be surprised if the RHI details will be available for many months yet. The FiT deal wasn't published until just before the FiT went live in April 2010, so I would expect those awaiting news of the critical levels of subsidy on the RHI to have wait a while longer yet. Not great news if you are still trying to decide how best to heat your home.

19 Oct 2010

PassivHaus refurb in Holland Park

Yesterday, I joined a small group viewing a PassivHaus refurb in Princedale Road, Holland Park, West London. It was another Retrofit for the Future job, this one with a budget of no less than £172k. We are in Kensington & Chelsea here, Britain's wealthiest borough, where even the social housing is worth millions. And you'll not be surprised to learn that this was social housing, owned in this case by the Octavia Housing Association. There are apparently 83 such projects going on up and down the land at this moment, keeping a fair number of sustainability-minded consultants in business through the dark days of 2010. They are all social housing projects, the idea being to work out just how far you can go with green refurbs without any budget constraints.

Which immediately begs the question, what's the point? The whole project has a certain fin-de-siecle feeling about it, especially as today is the day when the public spending cuts are to be detailed. Money like this will, in all probability, never be available again. I expect it will show that you can deliver truly low energy housing on a limitless budget, but as already discussed on this blog, that's not really a terribly useful conclusion at this point in time.

OK, at this point many people chip in with the Economies of Scale argument. It goes something like this. "If we started doing this sort of job by the tens of thousands, then the costs would fall dramatically. We would have teams of builders and consultants who really knew their stuff, and the component prices would tumble. It would be win, win."

Unfortunately, the Holland Park job does little to support such an argument. It is an immensely complicated conversion, painstakingly designed, argued at length with the planners, and slowly being pieced together by the most patient of contractors.

Just take the windows as an example. Princedale Road is fairly typical of affluent West London. It's a conservation area. Nothing unusual there. The house is a Victorian terrace with sliding sash windows. The planners want to keep the look of the front elevation - not an unreasonable request, as the whole street consists of similar houses with sliding sash windows. But PassivHaus and sliding sash windows are not exactly a marriage made in heaven. It's not that sliding sash windows can't be used in a PassivHaus, it's more that no one has ever tried, and the architect on this job (Marion Baeli, pictured here) reckoned that it would be impossible to meet the stringent airtightness levels with sliding sashes. Marion decided it would be preferable to build triple glazed windows that simply looked like sliding sashes. It's not that unusual - the big joinery manufacturers have been turning out kit like this for years.

But the planners had other ideas. Conservation area — must be genuine timber sliding sashes. So an almighty ding-dong ensues, familiar to many people who live in nice old houses and want to undertake renovations with a sustainable theme. Heritage lobby v environmentalist. You'd think they would be singing from the same hymn sheet, but they aren't, they are poles apart on issues like this.

Eventually, Marion sort of held sway. What she has come up with is a set of triple glazed windows that the builders have made themselves, and which look for all the world like Victorian sashes, complete with brass handles, but which perform like German tilt and turn windows. Well, the bottom half does: the top half is a fixed light. If ever there was a clash of cultures, this was it.

Other aspects of the job were similarly complex. Threading the ducting for the MVHR unit proved to be thoroughly fiddly, and almost every room in the house has some odd-shaped ply boxing in it to conceal the ducts. The massive insulation has been applied internally, and this has included the party walls on either side, which has significantly reduced the room sizes. There was a lengthy discussion amongst our group about whether it was easier to insulate internally or externally: the truth is that neither is remotely easy. Oh, and the water storage: there's two tanks, totalling 500lts of stored hot water. Sort of thing you see routinely in Switzerland or Germany in a large basement, but in 3-bed terrace in Holland Park? That's really stretching it, methinks.

So I came away full of admiration for the work undertaken here by the team, but also acutely aware that this sort of job just can't be rolled out across the nation's housing stock. Not only is it absurdly expensive, it's also incredibly taxing, way over the competency levels of the average small builder. We have to be realistic about this. What the future holds, none of us can know, but I'd put a bloody big bet on this sort of project never getting beyond the demonstration stage.

14 Oct 2010

The Kitchen Queen

When I started writing the Housebuilder's Bible in 1993, I had in mind to produce a long, rambly tract, the sort of thing that you might hear from someone who just happened to be propping up the bar at the Pig and Whistle. I figured that there were loads of little things that builders knew and ordinary members of the public didn't, and I set out to lift the lid on the builder's secrets.

But over the years, the tract got ever-longer and more rambly, and I found out that there were masses of stuff that builders didn't know and neither, for that matter, did I. My book seemed to enter a new phase of explaining how all these new technologies worked, and how Part X and Part Y had suddenly changed everything anyway. What started out as a piece of timeless folklore turned into a grumpy discussion paper, as I tried to figure out where exactly you stuck a heat pump or a pellet boiler when you were at home.

The internet should have taken over where my book left off but, by and large, it hasn't. Instead it appears to be mostly populated by salesmen and apparatchiks, intent on pumping out a line, and not really concerned with both the pros and the cons. Independent advice is very thin on the ground.

In the homebuilding arena, there is very little that makes me think "Wow, that's useful." There's Tony McCormick's excellent Paving Expert site which goes from strength to strength. There's an interesting site run by Mike The Boilerman which will covers many modern plumbing and heating issues, and tells a few tales. And there's a new one I have recently come across, run by Marion of Advanced Kitchen Design in Nottingham, called Majjie's Blog.

Majjie takes on a writing form that I instantly identify with. It's that bloke (or, in this case, blokette) down at the bar of the Pig and Whistle again, mixing up facts with opinions, and generally being extremely entertaining whilst also being a fund of good, hard information. Priceless.

Here's a flavour of what she writes, explaining to kitchen muppets what the difference is between solid surface and quartz composite worktops. Bloody useful if you are thinking about getting a new kitchen.

There's a lot of confusion about the man-made worktops and - to be fair - the distinctions between the different types is getting blurred now - but basically:


• the surface material, of solid surface worktops, varies from 2mm to 13mm thick and is fabricated onto timber or chipboard boards - or cores - to form a worktop of the desired thickness (often with, for the very thin materials, a thicker surface on the front edge)

• the surface material is softer than other types of worktop - easy to scratch - and not very heat resistant (even to the point that some of them tell you not to pour boiling water straight into the integral sinks!)

• glossy solid surfaces (presumably developed to compete with polished granite) are a nightmare to keep looking good - very easy to scratch - I wouldn't recommend them at all

• matt finish solid surfaces are warm to the touch, can have virtually invisible joins (better on some colours than others), scratches are relatively easy to remove (see latest blog!) and more serious damage can be repaired (but pure white and black colours will mark more easily than the browny, beigy mottled colours)

• for the thicker surfaces, integral sinks can be made in the same material (although not necessarily the same colour)

• solid surfaces are very hygienic (including where joined) and non-absorbent so, although they will mark and scratch, they shouldn't stain (they're often used in toilets and laboratories ... uhmm, perhaps that's not a great point to mention in their favour!). The integral sinks can also be seamlessly joined to the worktop.

• the thinner, cheaper, solid surface worktops need to be fitted to strict guidelines - otherwise they're prone to cracking - and they can't be used for unsupported breakfast bars ... but they're available as blanks, don't need templating and can be fitted on-site - so they're much cheaper (Maia, Minerelle, GetaCore, Encore etc.)

• solid surface materials - at least the more expensive, thicker, acrylic based ones, like Corian, Avonite, Hanex and LG Hi-Macs - are thermoformable and can be made into great curves in almost any dimension - you can have curvy worktops, with bull-nosed front edges, swooping down to the ground and rolling up again ... if you want to!

• the more expensive solid surfaces come in a HUGE range of colours

• solid surface material is translucent - so lends itself to creative lighting effects (especially for splashbacks)

• they're all made from mineral powders and bits, mixed with acrylic or occassionally polyester resin (the latter is nastier to work with, even less heat resistant, less thermoformable and small radius curves can be a problem - but it produces much brighter colours, is actually easier to work with and more fire resistant - the two can be mixed) ... I think! It's difficult to get definitive info. (I believe Minerelle has polyester in the mix.)


• quartz composite worktops are basically artificial stone - made in big 30mm thick slabs - and treated in exactly the same way as granite worktops

• they're made from 93 - 95% quartz/stone particles - just stuck together (so to speak) with acrylic resin (and pigments, pieces of mirror etc. are also added)

• they're much harder than solid surface worktops and stronger (because they're slightly more flexible) than granite ... so less likely to crack and can be cut into more complicated shapes than granite

• the big advantage of quartz composites is that they (like solid surfaces) are completely non-absorbent and hygienic (they don't need sealing like granite, to protect from curry sauce, coffee, red wine and the like) but they're VERY much more scratch and heat resistant than solid surfaces

• the disadvantage - compared to solid surfaces - is that joins are just like granite; the two ends are just butted up and any gap filled with resin/silicon. The neatness depends on the fitter.

• sinks can't be seamlessly joined (apart from a newly introduced integral sink in Silestone) - but are usually undermounted (or you can just use standard inset sinks)

• all good quality, 30mm thick, quartz composite materials are made on one type of huge (Italian-made) Breton machine, reportedly costing 12 million Euro - so there aren't that many about - and the manufacturer also provides the resin material. There isn't usually room for more than one manufacturer per country and all are keen to export, As far as I know there isn't one in the UK. Quality is governed by the quartz/stone mix, small variations in additives and the rigour of the quality control in the factory. The market leader is Silestone (made by Cosentino, Spain) - which is the only one that includes anti-bacterial Microban in the mixture - and they're very innovative with colours and using re-cycled material in their stone mixture. It's also the most expensive. The other main players are: Quarella/Pianoforte - Italy; Caesarstone - Israel; DuPont Zodiaq - USA; Compac - Portugal (but Spanish company); Cimstone - Turkey; Technistone - Czech Republic. The waters are muddied slightly, though, by own-brand names (most of which will be from one of the manufacturers already listed). Rumour has it that there are cheaper and inferior materials on the market, from China and India - not made on a Breton machine - which are not as strong and stain easily. I don't know how true that is. There is certainly a Breton machine in China and one bought in India (although I don't know if the latter is in production).

You can see now, why I write blogs - naturally garrulous when it comes to writing! (I shall now turn this into a blog, of course). The distinction between the two types of worktop is being blurred because manufacturers are bringing out thin layer quartz composites fitted to boards - in the same way as the thin, solid surface materials are - and there are also some 30mm thick, solid, solid surfaces, such as Apollo Slab Tech and Velstone . I don't know whether or not the thin quartz surfaces are still made on Breton machines ... I suspect some aren't ... and they don't have a track record yet, to see if they have problems - with cracking - or with the join between the top surface and the 30-40mm upstand at the front.

You wish you hadn't asked now, don't you!

Great stuff, Majjii. If anyone knows of anymore sites or blogs like hers, let me know and I'll pin them up in my blog roll.

12 Oct 2010

£6k v £60k

Spent yesterday at the UK's first PassivHaus Conference, ably hosted by Alexis Rowell of Cutting the Carbon, who had hired Islington Town Hall Assembly Rooms, and also arranged a number of site visits in the afternoon session. Well organised, too, with around 250 people in attendance. Lots of familiar faces there, and buckets of enthusiasm for PassivHaus as a concept.

We also had a visit from Chris Huhne, the Coalition's minister for Energy and Climate Change, who made a 15 minute speech and answered a few questions from the floor. I thought he spoke quite well, but I heard one or two rather more negative comments from fellow participants. He bigged up the Green Deal, saying that it would be coming into effect with the forthcoming Energy Bill, which he expected to pass into law by next summer, and that he wanted every home in the UK to benefit from it between now and 2050 in "just one visit."

No figures were put on the Green Deal, but the indications are that it will be a soft loan of around £6,000, which can be paid off via the anticipated savings from lower fuel bills. The question is, will it work?

Now you can do a certain amount for £6,000, but it doesn't deliver a low-energy retrofit. Earlier in the day, I had visited 89 Culford Road, a Victorian terrace house nearby which has been given the PassivHaus treatment. This involved gutting the place, putting in a steel cage and rehanging all the floors, adding copious amounts of internal insulation, replacing all the windows, and threading in an MVHR system. The clients ended up with a stunning conversion (really lovely house, guys), but it had cost them an arm and a leg. Robert Cohen (the owner) told us that he thought the costs were around £60,000 just for the energy efficiency measures: seeing the house is just 120m2 in floor area, that's a gob smacking amount of money.

I don't know whether Chris Huhne was aware of this project, but he did refer to a similar scheme he had recently visited in Liverpool which had cost, in total, over £100,000. I expect this was one of the Retrofit for the Future projects which are being carried out all over the country at the moment, average spend about £120,000 per unit. No way, said Huhne, is that a realistic amount to spend on a retrofit. For once, my sympathies were with the politician.

But, on the other hand, £6k doesn't buy very much in terms of energy saving. Indeed, it may cause more problems than it solves for, without a coherent ventilation strategy, many amateur attempts at dry lining and draft proofing simply end up with pools of condensation and black mould. £6k puts us into that territory.

Now it may be that when the Green Deal is finally revealed, it will have one or two added elements that address these problems. Chris Huhne kept referring to a series of disasters which had happened to the Australian version of the Green Deal, where cowboy builders had been caught nailing through electricity cables and, as a result, the scheme has been derided in the Australian press. "We don't want that happening here," he said. At this point, he sounded like a true politician: afraid, very afraid.

But if £6k is too little, and £60k is too much, then the challenge must be to work out how to make robust alterations that cost somewhere in between. For a start, it might help us to define exactly what the hoped-for outcome should be. PassivHaus is great at using minimal energy to deliver even temperatures and really comfortable surroundings — shirtsleeves all winter — but in reality very few UK homes can achieve this level of comfort, even with a heat load ten times the PassivHaus standard. So it may be that we have to aim lower: say, looking for retrofits that manage to avoid condensation and mould problems and can guarantee residents a basic temperature, like 16°C, through most of the building, on a minimal heat load. Hair shirt heating. Anything above that would be classed as a luxury.

PassivHaus is already addressing these problems — to an extent — by introducing a lower standard for retrofits, known as EnerPHit, which is based on a much easier to achieve heating metric of 25kWh/m2/a. Whether this hits the sweet spot for the UK retrofit market remains to be seen, but EnerPHit still requires dramatic airtightness improvement and MVHR, so the likes of Chris Huhne will probably not be banging on the door just yet. MVHR can be difficult to incorporate into a new build, but in a retrofit it can be next to impossible to find the space to run all the ducting, without going through a total gutting process at costs which make demolition and rebuilding begin to look like the cheaper option.

This is all good stuff, close to the nitty gritty of what this blog is all about. My feeling is that this government (just like the last one) is all at sea on the retrofit debate, and is about to throw a large amount of money at it without really understanding the issues. As yet, I am not convinced that the PassivHaus standard is the solution for the UK retrofit market, but I am bowled over by the enthusiasm of the UK standard bearers. If anyone is going to sort out this conundrum, it's this lot. Count me in.

4 Oct 2010

Good Gracious, George, don't give up

Just back from a wet weekend in Wales, attending the AECB Annual Conference at the Centre for Alternative Technology. Star turn there was local resident George Monbiot who made great use of the fabulous clay amphitheatre (OK — lecture hall) that forms the heart of the new WISE building. George talked without notes or slides for 75 minutes in the gathering dusk, and as the evening light faded, his mood grew ever darker. I was spellbound.

Much of the content of his thoughts will be familiar to those who read his columns in the Guardian. (Or you can RSS his articles here). Copenhagen - a disaster. Cancun - don't expect anything at all. Obama can't deliver and without the USA on board there is no hope of replacing Kyoto with anything much at all. The problem is that the nation states are each arguing their particular corner and that no one is prepared to deliver anything really substantial in the way of carbon emission cuts. And for the first time the whole political process is going into reverse, as more and more people are becoming sceptical about climate change, further weakening any political resolve that once existed.

So far, so bad. That much I anticipated. But he finished with an examination of why the climate change campaign had been so spectacularly unsuccessful, concluding that at least part of the problem was that it had been conceived as a liberation movement similar to other great campaigns of the late 20th century, like feminism, gay rights, civil rights and anti-roads protests. But in reality, combating climate change isn't really like any of these other issues: it's fundamentally a rather boring economic, rational matter that the world either acknowledges and acts upon, or doesn't. There is no liberation involved anywhere. Quite the reverse.

I would go one stage further and suggest that climate change negotiations have also become bogged down with issues regarding equity of resources in general, and human wealth in particular. This is because the amount of carbon we burn is closely related to how much money we have, both as individuals and as nations. And you can't equalise the amount of carbon we all consume without equalising the wealth of nations.

That might be on the agenda for some people, but most people in the West want to stay rich, and don't want to see their wealth level down to something like they enjoy in, say, Turkey, or Brazil, or wherever we need to be in wealth terms to get our carbon habit down to an acceptable level. Now the way the climate talks are presented, this part of the agenda is pretty well hidden from us, but my guess is that people are wise to what is really going on, which is why the right is so quick to spot "communist conspiracies" and the like every time they hear the phrase "global warming."

In that sense, they are right. The debate has been shaped by the Monbiot's of this world. They have hijacked a technical issue and turned it into a moral crusade, using climate change as a vehicle to bring about a worldwide redistributon of wealth. That's not to say they aren't justified in pointing out the anomalies of carbon use across the world, but it's hardly surprising that the presentation of the issues has brought about a huge and powerful counter-reaction by the lobby groups that want to keep wealth where it is, thankyou very much.

It's not as if capitalism itself is the enemy (as someone in the audience suggested). Capitalism as a way of organisng human endeavour is full of examples of self-restraining ordinances where laws are put in place to stop free-market practices running riot. The pharmaceutical industries only exist thanks to the laws of patent; design, software and entertainment are each underpinned by copyright law, and even the arms industries concur with various conventions on what you can and can't make. And we have a working example— in the Montreal Protocol — of chemical industries stopping the use of various gases implicated in climate change. Capitalism is easily reformable, if it's seen to be in the common good.

So why is carbon reduction so intractable? Just why is it proving so difficult to get a meaningful political framework we can all sign up to? Are we all so hooked on cheap energy that we can't imagine a world without it? Does carbon underpin the very basis of Western society? Does its removal from our lives threaten our civilised values? All good stuff for another day.....

Meanwhile, you could do worse than dip into Zero Carbon Britain 2030, a CAT publication that was also given an airing at the conference.

28 Sep 2010

Ed Miliband's Reckless Adventure

Ed Miliband has featured on this blog before, when I questioned his integrity as Minister for Climate Change during the Copenhagen summit in December 2009. It struck me at the time that he was a disingenuous chancer, and subsequent events seem to have born this out.

He's grabbed the main prize, the Labour Party Leadership, by selling out to the unions, stabbing his brother in the back in the process. Now I can't look at him without thinking he's a poisonous shit, and I wouldn't trust him to run the tombola at my village fete. Instead of electing a new leader, the Labour Party stage managed a public humiliation of epic proportions, and I suspect the ramifications will reverberate for a long time to come.

24 Sep 2010

Selfbuild reclaim statistics update

I have been taking at look at the UK’s selfbuild VAT reclaim figures. These are a key statistic, used to measure the size and the health of the selfbuild market where, uniquely in Europe, new homebuilding is zero-rated for VAT purposes. What I have managed to glean from the Revenue & Customs are figures for DIY VAT reclaims from March 2008 to August 2010.

There were 11,115 claims processed in YE Apr 2008, 10,067 in YE Apr 2009, and 3,675 in the first five months of this current tax year. Extrapolated forward, that suggest a yearly total of around 9,000 for YE Apr 2011. Whilst the number of selfbuild reclaims is currently falling by about 10% a year, the average payout is rising from £7,800 (2008) to £8,750 (2010 to date).

How do these figures compare with the past? The last time I did this exercise, in Aug 2007 (at the end of the housing boom), the average number of reclaims had been between 10,000 and 12,000 for more than ten years. The size of reclaim had grown from £4,000 in the 90s to £6,500 in YE 2007.

So there is both good and bad news for selfbuild in these figures. The number of reclaims is in decline, though that's hardly surprising given the state of the property market generally — in fact, selfbuild has proven remarkably resilient. If this year's trend continues, then this will be the first year this century that the number of reclaims has fallen below 10,000. But the size of the market, measured by cash being spent, is holding up well. The total VAT payout in each of these years I have just looked at looks like it's going to be of the order of £85m.

What the figures reveal
Firstly, they don’t really tell you the size of the selfbuild market. The only people that make DIY reclaims are non-professionals who aren’t registered for VAT and who buy materials on their own account. Therefore there will be lots of selfbuilds that never appear in these figures. We have to guess how many more, but you won’t be far out if you were to add 30%-50% to these numbers.

On the other hand, people completing half-built homes (inc loft shell complexes) can also make DIY reclaims under this scheme, so there are some claims coming in that aren't really traditional selfbuild. But how many loft shell apartments are being sold at the moment?

What about the dramatic increase in the amount being spent? I can see two obvious reasons for this. Firstly,people are building larger homes (or maybe they are building a greater proportion of large ones and a smaller proportion of small ones). Secondly, selfbuilders specifying more upmarket materials, in line with housebuilding generally. Granite worktops, underfloor heating, hardwood floors, etc. Doesn't sound very recessionary, but it tallies with a greater number of larger homes. As mortgage finance has been difficult these past few years, there would seem to be a greater proportion of silver-grey selfbuilds. And that's hair colour I'm talking about, not cedar cladding.

If you want to know more about the DIY VAT reclaim scheme, the relevant page is here.

Just because it's a PassivHaus, it doesn't make it Green

Still ruminating about Wednesday's Grand Designs, which featured one of the first certified Passive Houses in England, an extraordinary earth-sheltered structure built under an existing barn in the Cotswolds. You can read about it here.

It has already sparked a fair amount of controversy, much of it visible on the Channel 4 website. I liked this one. Not very eco in my view. It's all very well coming up with the technical solutions; PV, passive design, insulation etc. What about the carbon footprint of this project? First of all; location, in the middle of the country-side is not a very sustainable place for a home. Car journeys everywhere. Secondly, What about the 3500 cubic metres of soil and stone? Where has it gone and how much fuel was used to get it there? Then you have the temporary steel frame, lots of concrete and other building materials. A large carbon footprint. All for what? Energy savings and a good view from the roof. I'm hopeful that the next Grand Design won't be based on this level of eco-bling.
Posted by Mark Butt on 23/09/2010 13:23:31

Well you can always find someone to carp about something. My issue is that this house wouldn't have been built underground if it hadn't been for the ridiculous state of our planning laws - it sneaked through under the old Gummer clause which allows building in open countryside if the design is exceptional (i.e ridiculously expensive). There's nothing remotely green about that, and making it a PassivHaus doesn't really alter that at all. It would have been much more sensible to build a more modest structure above ground and, no, it wouldn't have ruined the view.

It gets worse. The first certified PassivHaus structure in Ireland is up and running and, guess what, it's a branch of Tesco. Now, there is no reason why Tesco shouldn't build a low-energy store in Tramore - it probably makes good business sense for them - but there is enough of the old hippy in me to feel distinctly queasy about anything to do with the giant, town-eating, car-loving monster that is Tesco plc. If they are part of the solution, then I must be part of the problem!

14 Sep 2010

More on the biomass debate

My last post resulted in the following email:


I came across your blog this morning. I’ve seen a few discussions lately about the “greenness” of wood burning and I have a question of sorts you might be able to shed a little light on.

If I developed a mechanical widget that pulled CO2 out of the atmosphere and reacted it with some black magic producing useable energy and returning the CO2 a brief instant later to the atmosphere at the same rate it was removed a brief instant earlier, no doubt I’d qualify for all sorts of subsidies, praises and accolades.

So why is it, when I do the same thing over a slightly longer period of time, it’s suddenly as bad or worse than sending equivalent tonnages of carbon that’s been sequestered for a few tens or hundreds of million years into the atmosphere? On that time scale, burning even 100 year old wood is a very short carbon cycle.

Burning a 100 year old chunk of wood is simply putting back the carbon that was in the atmosphere 100 years ago, not increasing the total on a geological time scale and doing so prevents adding some amount of fossil carbon to the total in circulation.

We can’t, but if we could live entirely off burning wood, growing new wood at the same rate we consumed old wood and not release another atom of fossil carbon into the atmosphere, the natural sequestration of carbon would ensure that atmospheric carbon levels would decline very quickly, wouldn’t it?

So why all the fuss over burning wood?

Just curious.


Rick Gresham
Portland, OR

The nice thing about this letter is that you can immediately see the good points of the pro-biomass burning argument. Burning biomass is just fine because it doesn't add a whit to atmospheric CO2. Surely it can be at least part of the solution? You might just as well draw energy from the destruction of wood as let it rot naturally? All good points.

But the counter points are just a little stronger.

• The finite globe. There isn't and never will be anything like enough biomass available to burn to keep 6-10 billion people warm and happy. It will be a struggle to keep everyone fed. So why encourage burning it? It's not the solution.

• OK, you can't eat trees. But it's a two stage process. The first bit - the growing of it - is good news for atmospheric CO2; the second bit - the burning - is bad news. On balance they cancel each other out, but how much better it would be if we could encourage the first bit and delay the second bit. If the gap between growing and burning could be extended from 100 years to 200 years, then we are giving the atmosphere an extra 100 year breathing space at a time it could surely do with it. Therefore, it follows that if we should subsidise anything, it should be the use of biomass as a building material, thus extending the capacity of biomass to lock up carbon for longer than would happen naturally.

• There is a British-centric argument going on here which may not translate in woody Oregon. We have a proposal on the table to introduce a subsidy for burning biomass, the first of its kind in the world, to be known as the Renewable Heat Incentive. It's controversial, as you can imagine. So the argument here isn't just whether it's good or bad to burn biomass, but whether it's a good idea to give money to people to get them burning it.

• Rick's widget would be something new. It would be a miracle. It would change everything. In contrast, timber and biomass resources are things we are already blessed with. They do act like this miraculous widget, but only if everything that is burned is subsequently replaced. In other words, only if the resource is sustainably managed. That bit is critical. In fact, it's key. If we subsidise the burning of biomass, we risk upsetting this balance. People will hunt out biomass to burn without any guarantee that what they harvest will be replaced. And the more the craze for biomass grows, the bigger this pressure will become.

• We are not talking about a few wood burning stoves here. They are not the problem. It's the industrialisation of the process which threatens everything. If you start switching coal-burning power plants over to biomass (and it's already happening), then this supposedly huge untapped resource is very rapidly going to be coming under pressure. The more pressure on the resource, the less likelihood it will be managed sustainably. Just ask the fishermen.

13 Sep 2010

Biomass: a big dead end?

Why is it that government consultation documents are so long? It seems that 140 pages is the standard length. Added to the turgid writing styles which are routinely adopted, it makes it incredibly tiresome to try and tease out the points they are making. Very often, they can be summarised in a few choice bullet points (though sometimes little important details get hidden on pages 92 or 114).

If you want to see a difficult topic dealt with succinctly and sensitively, take a look at this discussion doucment posted on the AECB website. It’s written by two AECB stalwarts, Nick Grant and Alan Clarke, and it deals with the thorny issue of whether burning biomass is really as green as its been made out (by several lengthy government sponsored consultation documents). The answer, even more succinctly put, is No.

You could write masses more about this topic, but the argument wouldn’t get any clearer or more coherent. For they argue that growing wood (or other biomass crops) just to burn is really just another form of offsetting. And that, as wood burning releases more CO2 than mains gas (per kWh), pretending biomass is a near zero-carbon fuel is a conceit. And to subsidize wood burning, which is what the Renwable Heat Incentive proposes, is a nonsense.

The argument isn’t black and white. It makes sense to burn some biomass, as not everything woody that we grow can be used for anything other than burning, and you might just as well burn it as let it rot in the ground. But that's no reason to subsidise it. A more coherent approach would be to subsidise the use of wood or other biomass products in buildings, to lock away the carbon for as many years as possible.

24 Aug 2010

Denby Dale PassivHaus revisited

Seven months on from my previous visit, I take a day out to travel up to Denby Dale in Yorkshire to have another look at the now nearly completed PassivHaus, the home of Geoff and Kate Tunstall, and to meet the builder, Bill Butcher (pictured left). The three hours in their company passed very quickly, much of it spent over a delicious lunch. What did I learn?

Passivhaus is a very technical subject. Every time I dip into it, I learn a little more and realise that there is also a lot more I don’t know and/or don’t understand. The basic tenet - to reduce space heating requirements to a minimum - is common sense, but getting there requires a fair bit of discipline and a fair bit of science. Things like where in the wall you should place the windows, how you stop wind washing over and around insulation, and just how big a hole you are allowed in a Passivhaus to get that airtightness down below 0.6. (in fact Denby Dale came in much lower, at around 0.3).

• One of the big delights of the Denby Dale Passivhaus is that it’s a cavity wall construction, with most of the heavyside materials coming from the local builder’s merchant. Some sceptics said it couldn’t be done as a cavity wall construction, but here’s the living proof. It is probably the only one like this in the world (though there may be something similar in Northern Germany where cavity walls are also used). Bill had to design a number of details to get it to work, most notably the insulated aluminium cappings on the outside of the windows.

• Since the Denby Dale house has received a lot of publicity, the Green Building Store has been approached by a number of people who would like to “build a Passive House” but already have plans drawn up and agreed. You can’t realistically do that, because once you put the plans through the PassivHaus Planning Package, there are almost certainly big changes going to happen. The advice is to start out with the aspiration to build a PassivHaus, and to have the initial design work put through PHPP at the outset. PassivHaus is integral, not a bolt-on.

In fact, the suggestion was that if you are really interested in building a PassivHaus, you could do much worse than go on a one day course run by the PassivHaus trust, and take your architect along with you.

• Cost and certification. The cost of "going Passiv" consists of two parts. One is the extra cost of using specialised materials, triple glazing, added insulation, etc. The other is the added consultancy fees. These can vary enormously depending on how the scheme has been conceived and who is driving the design. If the architect is already up to speed on PassivHaus, it's probably no more than five days extra work to make the design sing, but if the client or their chosen designer already have strong ideas of what they want and the result has to be Passified, it will be a much longer process. Experience suggest it could take 15 - 20 days, and the cost could easily be £5,000 to £10,000 extra. The final step, certification by the PassivHaus Institute, costs around £1500.

As you can see, it's not easy to say exactly how much it costs to build a PassivHaus, or how much extra it might cost over and above building to conventional standards. Yes, it’s expensive. But what we are really talking about here is quality control. If you don’t certify, then how do you really know you are getting a PassivHaus? If you do, you get a plaque like this.

•MVHR systems. I discovered that they need pre-heaters as well as post-heaters. The pre-heaters are there as frost protection because when the incoming air falls below -4°C, you start to get problems with frost in the heat exchangers. In Germany, a lot of incoming air is put through earth pipes which act as pre-heaters, but this can be much easier to do with a basement, something usually absent from British homes. It was felt at Denby Dale, this was not a practical or cost effective solution, so a small electric pre-heater has been fitted, controlled by a frost stat.

• Wood stoves? Passivhaus are not homes without heating, but they are efficient enough to be able to rely on small post-heaters placed in the MVHR system - effectively turning the MVHR system into a warm air heating system. So you don’t need a wood stove. However, many people want a focal point fire, and we had all seen examples of Passiv Houses in Germany and Austria that had wood chip or pellet boilers with flues. Just how you manage to incorporate such a beast within a Passivhaus and still get the required air tightness test is something that remains a bit of a mystery.

Bill suggested that alcohol stoves might be a way around this issue. I’d never heard of alcohol stoves before: if you google alcohol stoves, you get links to camping gear, but apparently in Germany you can buy alcohol-fired indoor stoves which don’t require any flue.

• PassivHaus probably works best with contemporary-styled homes. Think clean lines, hard surfaces, minimalism. Wood stoves? probably not. Cat flaps? I don’t think so. Letter boxes? Mounted on the outside wall please. You need to learn to drive a PassivHaus. Know when to open windows, know when to boost the ventilation system, know when to change filters. It’s not difficult, certainly no more difficult than getting your head around a car’s climate control system. But you do perhaps have to start thinking of your home as a machine for living in. You can’t just start knocking it about, adding new bits here and there. This may in fact be one of the major criticisms of PassivHaus - it’s not readily adaptable. Even things like running a cable through for a satellite dish, or a new phone line, are frowned upon. Sure, you can do what you want to your PassivHaus but it will cease to be a PassivHaus if you mess it around. Just like it will cease to act as a PassivHaus if you sleep with the windows open.

So building a PassivHaus is a lot of trouble to go to if you don't respect it's integrity. However, the one really big plus for PassivHaus is that it works, and has been shown to work over a large number of buildings. Whereas it is beginning to look fairly simple to build to a performance metric of around 45kWh/m2/a, to get right down to 15kWh/m2/a requires discipline in the design, attention to detail in the building and co-operative, willing residents.

17 Aug 2010

Feed-in-Tariffs: the Sums and the Risks

There’s been a lot of discussion recently about the financial attractiveness of FiTs and, in particular, whether any of these deals which offer you free electricity in exchange for your roofspace are a good deal. I thought I’d run my calculator over the FiT offer and proffer some thoughts.

Firstly, what is the offer? It’s complicated. The place to find detailed information is the Energy Savings Trust website. There are four different technologies covered by the scheme, being Solar PV, Wind, Hydroelectric and Micro CHP. For most people in most properties, hydro and wind are not going to be options; micro CHP might be, but the one I am looking at is the one where most of the action is and will be, which is roof mounted solar PV.

The offer on existing buildings is this (it slightly less for newbuilds):
• You have to bear all the installations costs yourself. Both the kit and the installer must be MCS certified.
• The output is metered and you are paid for every kilowatt hour of electricity you produce at a rate of 41.3p per kWh
• Further to this you are paid an additional 3p per kWh for electricity that you export, rather than consume at home.
• These payments are inflation-indexed, tax free and will last for 25 years
• In addition, you will be spared paying for the electricity that you would have purchased from the Grid had you not been using your home-made electricity.

So is it worth it?

You have to estimate how much it will cost you, how much electricity your plant will generate, and what income/savings you will receive.

As a rule of thumb, it seems that most people are opting for a 1.5kW system, and it’s costing around £10,000 to install. It’s a good benchmark to start from. A 1.5kW system is quite large - it will probably involve 10 or 12m2 of PV on the roof.

How much power will this produce? Let’s assume it’s around 1,250kWh/annum. Maybe that’s a little generous - it rather depends on where you live - but we’ll leave it here. It means that the PV arrays operate at an average of around 20% of peak power in daylight hours.

And let’s assume that around half of the power you generate is consumed at home, and the other half is exported. What is the financial value of these 1,250kWh?

• The value of the generation tariff is 41.3p x 1250kWh = £516
• The value of the export tariff (remember we are exporting 50% of what we produce) is 3p x 625kWh = £18.75
• The value of what we save is 625kWh x 10p/kWh = £62.50

In total, that’s £597.50. Let’s call that £600. Or 6% of what we paid upfront to install the system. This more or less tallies with what DECC set out in their Consultation Document.

Tariff levels have been set to provide an expected rate of return, in real terms, of approximately 5-8% for well sited installations, taking into account the risks associated with deploying the different technologies and the likely effect those risks would have on investors’ willingness to invest. As the tariffs are linked to inflation, in nominal terms this rate of return could then be considered to be approximately 7-10%.

Is that an unbeatable return? I don’t think so. It’s OK, but hardly outstanding. Especially when you take into account that the capital outlay has to be written off. The actual return is also very difficult to predict. It depends on a number of assumptions.

• The installation cost: I’ve pencilled in a fairly conservative figure of around £7,000 per peak kWh installation costs. You might get it for less, but would it be any good?
• The longevity of the PV system - just how long will it last? No one can say for sure. They might be good for 50 years, or they might be useless after 10 and need replacing. What happens in case of a major malfunction? Or theft? Or, in accountancy terms, how quickly should the value of the PV array be written down to zero?
• The efficiency of the system - are they going to continue producing the same amount of electricity, or are they going to tail off after a while?
• Will there be maintenance costs? How long will the inverters last?
• How long you will stay in the house? And if you think you'll move on before the 25 years is up, what effect does adding PV to a roof have on resale values? Apocryphal evidence suggests that it adds only marginal value, certainly nothing like the capital costs incurred.
• Future inflation rates? And future electricity prices? And will the electricity price outstrip the overall inflation rate? I think most people signing up for FiTs think this will happen, but it’s pretty much unknowable.
• The legislative risk. The assumption is that the feed-in tariffs are as safe as gilts, and that if the government promises to pay them for 25 years, then they will have to stand by that promise. But 25 years is a long time.....

Now if I was a financial advisor suggesting income streams for my wealthy clients, I am not sure I would go a bundle on the Feed-in Tariff. You can purchase index-linked gilts with inflation-proofed yields above 2% and your capital is both safe and instantly retrievable. Or you can buy Vodafone or Glaxo with yields above 5%, both with less risk involved than putting PV on your roof, and with a better chance that your initial capital would still be worth something after 25 years.

And If I was a businessman borrowing money at anything over 4%, I’d steer well clear, because the upside depends on everything working well, and the cashflow is negative for many years (until the capital is paid off). If inflation kicks in, then the investment begins to look clever, but then inflation has a habit of making all borrowing look clever.

As it stands, the Feed-in-Tariff is a bit like buy-to-let, only with a wasting asset. Which is why I am surprised we are seeing companies setting up to harvest this subsidy. Despite the Guardian describing FiTs as “super lucrative,” I reckon they are anything but. Have these guys really done their sums? Or do they know something we don’t?

13 Aug 2010

More thoughts on housing demand

Some really interesting comments on my last post, deserving of a new post. A well-briefed and articulate "Anonymous" lays into my argument, basically buying the Barker/NHPAU/New Labour line that we should be building 3 million new homes by 2020.

He/she writes I'd say there are some clear signs that some people need more housing in the UK - high housing costs relative to incomes, instances of overcrowding, street homelessness and sofa surfing...

• The high cost of private housing is/was caused by easy credit and favourable tax status. Sometime in the 1970s, housing became "an investment opportunity." The truth of this is demonstrated by the Irish property bubble which saw a phenomenal increase in housebuilding activity, accompanied by a huge surge in prices. People were building homes there because there was money to be made, not because there was a shortage of houses. It's all come crashing down now and there are apparently estates of empty new homes in the Irish Midlands with not a buyer in sight.

• Overcrowding. Relative to what? Sure there is overcrowding but it's nothing compared to our Victorian forebears, or to many third world countries today. And there are many more examples of undercrowding (is that even a word?): single older people living in large family homes that they have paid for and don't have to move on from. Both are bad uses of resources. Think of the number of empty bedrooms in this country which are lucky if they get slept in more than once a year. How many? My guess is many millions.

• Street homelesness. This surely is a litmus test of housing demand. These are people with nowhere to live at all. But if government stats are to be believed, the number of homeless people has fallen dramatically in the past few years. Hardly evidence of an undersupply of housing.

So my beef is this. There is actually no way of telling whether we have too much or too little housing, anymore than we can know if we have too many or too few roads. What we have is a housing stock of around 23 million homes, and some rather poor ways of allocating them across a population of around 65 million. Obviously, if we increase the stock to 25 or 26 million homes, there will be more room for everyone (unless of course the population increases by five or ten million), but this isn't necessarily a good use of scarce resources when so much of our existing stock is in a poor state of repair and/or is under occupied.

There are also sustainability issues here as well. However close to zero carbon these new homes might be, they are still going to add to the carbon output of the UK. In today's Times (paywalled, so I won't give a link) Conservative peer Simon Wolfson continues to trot out the usual pro-development line without so much as a word about the environmental impact all these new homes will have. His idea is to compulsorarily purchase bits of dull farmland and hand them over to "independent bodies made up of leading property developers who would be given a free hand to build the best they can." He's obviously been watching The Normans. He goes on "At a time of economic woe this type of project would create wealth, jobs and growth — not to mention new income streams for a Government that could do with the revenue."

But this is precisely the sort of lazy thinking that created the credit crunch in the first place. It's Labours eco towns, only stripped of the eco. It sounds just like the Irish Bubble Mk 2. The dumbest of dumb growth. And all in the name of "an insatiable demand for new housing."

9 Aug 2010

If targets don't work, maybe bribes will

Grant Shapps is this very morning doing the media rounds, chirrupping about one of his pet initiatives, which is offering councils money for allowing new homes to be built within their boundaries. This is not new money. Rather it’s taken from “existing revenue grants” - i.e. money that central government already pays to local government. So there is a downside here as well. Councils taking on less than average amounts of new housebuilding will, in effect, be getting penalised.

All the old shibboleths are being wheeled out.
• "Homebuilding is good for the economy and good for communities." If so, why is it so unpopular? And why would councils need all this encouragement?
• "Housebuilding is at its lowest level since 1924 - we can’t go on like this.”
• "The council house waiting list stands at 4.5 million in England alone — it doubled under Labour.”

Again and again, policy is being set within these very narrow terms of debate. The reason the council house waiting lists have expanded so dramatically is because private housing has become so damned expensive (it's a tax haven, after all) and private rented housing is so damned insecure. In contrast social housing, now being built to higher standards than private housing, and where rents are subsidised and tenure is for life, has become an aspiration. The wonder is that there are not far more people on the waiting lists. Building a few more social houses each year isn't going to have any effect on this state of affairs whatsoever.

And just what is the "correct" level of housebuilding anyway? How can Shapps boast that he has dismantled Labour's target approach, and yet at the same time have the nerve to say that we are not building enough houses. Isn't that just like being told that there is still a target in place but we won't tell you what it is (Hint - it's more than were built in 1924). Is there a national population target? No. Is there an occupant density standard? No. So how the hell can anyone say there are not enough homes being built?

In the absence of any credible yardsticks against which a target can be set, the debate keeps coming back to this waiting list for council houses. "It's 4.5 million and rising." This is the lynchpin of the not enough homes argument. But, of course, it's nothing of the sort. Rather it's a sad reflection of the fact that the ownership of private housing is now out of reach to many millions. They accept that the best option for them now is social housing and so they join the queue. All quite logical. But unless private housing becomes a whole lot cheaper (which probably means some politically inexpedient taxes on property ownership), the social housing queue will stay at much the same length however many social houses we build. It's not really a problem we can build our way out of.

What would be nice is to have some adult debate about this, rather than the constant repetition of these circular arguments about the "need" for new homes.

5 Aug 2010

The Mackay Calculator

Well, we now know what Prof David Mackay has been up to at DECC. Rather than fiendishly devising infuriating incentives, he has been beavering away on a spreadsheet the size of Hyde Park, attempting to put some maths into the carbon reduction targets. It’s called the 2050 Calculator and it’s here. It’s open source and Mackay asks for interested parties to download it and play with it, and even tinker with the source code to try and improve it. Whether it will be the sort of thing that attracts the Linux set, I have my doubts, but there’s no harm in asking.

The Guardian launched its own carbon calculator back in April. It makes an interesting compare and contrast. The Guardian’s version is far simpler, and the graphics are much better. It works on a series of sliders which give instant feedback on the effects of your choices. In contrast, the DECC calculator is clunky: instead of slider controls, you get multiple choice boxes. Click on one of these and the graphic changes, but not instantly, and usually the change is so small that you can’t actually take in the effect your action has had. Maybe this is deliberate, maybe it isn’t, but it’s disconcerting at best.

The briefs are different too. The Guardian’s calculator is altogether a darker shade of green, looking at issues like low carbon diets and consumer consumption. The DECC calculator is more complex, giving a total of 134 choices, but they are more narrowly focused on pure energy issues.

The depth of the work going into this calculator is revealed in a supporting document called 2050 Pathways Analysis, a 246 page epic which takes off from where Sustainability Without Hot Air left off. Here you can read the assumptions that Mackay has made, and in many ways this is more interesting than simply playing with the calculator (which pales very rapidly - I doubt it will keep many people interested for more than a few minutes).

What stands out is that some actions have huge consequences - a massive switch to nuclear power, carbon capture and storage - whilst most have very limited impact, second-order effects at best. Our great debates about heat pumps, biomass and the rights and wrongs of the Code for Sustainable Homes look pretty trivial in the face of all this.

And there are assumptions in this Calculator which presumably have to be taken as political givens, when in fact they should also be questioned. For instance, Mackay seems to be happy to accept that over the 40 year period the population grows by 25%, the number of households by 50% and GDP by almost 200%. I’ve always felt that these growth assumptions are ludicrous in the face of the problems we are up against, and that we should be aiming for a stable population, a stable number of households and a commitment to smart (i.e. low carbon) growth. Ok, it’s just my opinion, but why shouldn’t they be presented as options for limiting energy demand? Why are they off limits?

What would be nice to see is a simple executive summary which explains what all the assumptions are, and then ranks the importance of the actions we can take. I know its complicated. Everything is interconnected. Nothing is quite that straightforward. But it doesn’t get easier to understand by presenting it as a Calculator.


28 Jul 2010

Renewable Heat Incentive: the chaos continues

I have already blogged extensively about the Renwable Heat Incentive (the RHI), and the problematic nature of this proposed subsidy for heat pumps, biomass boilers and hot water solar panels. It was launched back in February 2010 as a “consultation document” but, in truth, it was rather more than this because it gave details not only of the projected subsidies available but also of a timetable. It stated that it would come into effect in April 2011 and that anyone installing renewable heat equipment after July 2009 would qualify for the incentive. That sounds like a a detailed proposal to me. The document called for responses by April. That deadline has long since passed and there has been no word since then about what will happen next.

A change of government in May hasn’t helped, particularly as spending cuts now seem to be the order of the day. Potential customers are all delaying orders until the position of the RHI becomes clear. Manufacturers and installers are now having to lay off staff because the market has dried up because of the confusion. All that is needed is some guidance from central government to relieve the situation.

So yesterday, Chris Huhne, the Energy Secretary, gets up in parliament and delivers his first annual energy statement. Everyone connected to this small industry is holding their breath for news of the RHI. And this is what he says. “In the heating sector, I can confirm our strong commitment to action on renewable heat. The Government is considering responses to the Renewable Heat Incentive consultation and will set out detailed options following the Spending Review.”

Groans all round. That could mean anything. It certainly doesn’t sound like anything soonish. My guess is that we now won’t see any response to the RHI Consultation until sometime in 2011. By which time this small industry will be a whole lot smaller.

27 Jul 2010

The Accidental Landlords

I’ve never been a big fan of buy-to-let. I don’t do it, and I don’t tend to write about it. But I am not hung up about it and I know lots of people who swear by it, and use it to build their life savings up. Normally they are pretty savvy and know what they are getting into, but I do have some friends who have been bounced into it and haven’t a clue what it’s all about. And I thought I would share their tale with you.

The house in question is in a terraced street in Nottingham. They have no connection with Nottingham and live about 100 miles away. It came into their possession via an inheritance. Very nice too, you might think, except that the property has a mortgage on it and the rent they receive only just covers the mortgage, so it’s not exactly a bountiful gift. They’d very much like to sell it and pay off the mortgage and have done with, but the house has a sitting tenant and he won’t let them have access. They don’t have a key and they don’t have a phone number. So they write and make appointments, and drive to Nottingham, but he doesn’t open the door. He is either deliberately out, or he hides inside. They stand outside, scratch their heads, and feel foolish. Then they drive home, having wasted a day, and wonder what on earth they should do next.

How should they proceed? I don’t know. Buy-to-let is not my thing, partly because I wish to avoid situations like this. I thought I’d blog about it and maybe garner some suggestions.

19 Jul 2010

Why are we saving water?

Is it me or is there something fundamentally wrong about Part G and the water calculator? It troubles me. I think the introduction of the water calculator methodology is taking the building regs into areas where they really shouldn’t be venturing. And I think it’s all going to come unstuck.

For those readers who haven’t a clue what I am banging on about, you could do worse than read through some of the stuff I have already blogged about on this topic. In essence, the regs now require that when you submit plans for a new house, you have to show that your water-using appliances will notionally only consume 125litres of water per person per day. You do this via a little spreadsheet-type-thingy called the Water Calculator which ranks appliances such as showers, taps, toilets and washing machines and gives them all notional scores set out in litres/person/day.

You can see where they are coming from, and I understand how the Water Calculator came into being. They want us to use water wisely and not just pour it down the drains.

There are two very simple ways of achieving this goal, and one very complicated one. The simple ways are to 1) charge the right amount for the water and 2) insist that appliances sold should meet defined efficiency standards. The complicated way is what Part G is now insisting on. Which is to try and regulate the end user behaviour by making them purchase water efficient appliances when they are building a new house.

The problems with this approach are numerous. Firstly, it only applies to new homes. Thus regular power showers will still be available from stores, but you will only be able to buy them if you want to replace an existing bathroom. Can you imagine how infuriating that will be to people building a new home? Can you imagine going to buy a new TV and being told you can only have a plasma one if you live in an old house?

So what will happen? People will get their eco-shower heads passed by the building inspector, and then rip them out and put in the power showers they have by now started salivating about. Nothing illegal about this at all. It’s just what happens when you make unenforceable regulations like this.

Nowhere in this Calculator approach is there any recognition of whether a particular shower or tap or bath is any good. It’s all down to the flow rate, or the flush quantity. For instance, a 4lt toilet is only beneficial if it works on the first flush. If you have to flush two or three times every time you take a dump, you might just as well fix an 8lt loo. But the spreadsheet isn’t concerned with this at all.

Manufacturers can’t even produce “Part G compliant” gear, because Part G doesn’t set any limits for indivual appliances; it’s only concerned with this overall total of 125lts/person/day and it leaves the end users to decide how they will meet this target.

Part G has also got holes as big as a swimming pool. Literally. Swimming pools are exempt from the calculations. Far be it for me to turn class warrior, but somehow this little “oversight” does rather stick in the craw.

But there is something else that troubles me too. Whilst I am convinced by the arguments that we should be using less fossil fuel, I still have my doubts about whether water is quite the precious resource that we keep being told it is. Put another way, why are we being asked to make all these sacrifices?

Are we actually short of water? The situation varies enormously across the country. Not something Part G can take into account as it applies across England & Wales. Even in the dry and populous South East, we are rarely hit with water shortages. If there is an impending crisis, it is likely to be as much an infrastructure failure as anything. We could have invested in a national water grid, but instead have chosen to do things on a piecemeal basis.

The one thing which would make matters worse is a huge housebuilding programme in places like the Thames Estuary. Limiting water consumption in areas like this makes sense, but it could easily be done by local bye-laws. It doesn’t require national building regs to be changed.

What about the environmental impact of using water? Again, a very difficult thing to measure, because there are many impacts and they are not readily comparable. But an interesting blog piece over on oCo Carbon suggests that one major impact, the carbon intensity of unheated tap water, is quite small. It ranks at 0.59gmsCO2/lt. This means that the carbon intensity of the water piped into the home of the average 150litre/day person is just 32kg/annum, the equivalent of running a 6watt appliance throughout the year. It’s dwarfed by the energy used to heat much of this water — as much as 50% of what we consume via the mains is heated before it’s poured back down the drains.

Now there are good arguments to limit the flow of heated water in order to save energy, but this is not what Part G is all about. It’s explicitly trying to stop us using too much water, not trying to stop us using too much hot water. If hot water was the target, then there would be no need to include toilets in the Water Calculator.

To be fair, the topic of water consumption is more complicated than my brief summary suggests. We are also indirect consumers of water and almost everything we consume involves the use of water somewhere along the way, sometimes extraordinary amounts of the stuff. The same blog piece points to a report which suggests that our water footprint is 30 times larger than what we directly consume in our homes. It may well be, although just how you would go about measuring it is something I can’t begin to comprehend. But no way is Part G and its Water Calculator going to have any effect on this and it all makes a mockery of Part G’s attempts to limit the flow of our show heads.

6 Jul 2010

A tale for our times

Northstowe and the Cambridge Guided Busway were inextricably bound. Northstowe, a proposed eco town of 10,000 homes, made no sense without the Guided Bus. And the Guided Bus, the world’s longest such route, made no sense without Northstowe residents using it to get in and out of Cambridge, 6 miles away. And because other new settlements around Cambridge had been built before the transport infrastructure was in place — thus turning them into car dependent exurbs — the Guided Bus route had to be up and running before Northstowe became a reality. That was the Plan.

But now it looks as though Northstowe has been cancelled. It certainly hasn’t been started, and there is no appetite to make a start. Another crucial part of the transport infrastructure that had to be in place before Northstowe became a reality was the upgrading of the overloaded A14, the east-west trunk road that bisects the countryside between Northstowe and Cambridge. This project was about ten times more expensive than the Guided Busway and, guess what, it’s been put on hold indefinitely by the new government.

But at least we have a Guided Busway? Now even this is in doubt. It’s nearly two years late, and it’s still being “snagged.” The original budget of £120million has been blown apart. The latest estimate puts the bill at over £160million. Worse still, 25% of the costs were to be raised from the developers of Northstowe. Hmm. That's never going to happen unless someone actually builds Northstowe.

The rumours circulating now are that the council has no desire to ever open the Guided Busway because it will lose money from Day One. It is in fact quite content to keep the “snagging” going because it’s cheaper than subsidising the operating costs. Looks like we could end up with the world's most expensive cycleway.

Cambridge’s over-arching growth agenda looks to be in tatters. For years, we were told that businesses were queuing up to move into our science parks, our hospital was about to expand from employing 11,000 to 17,000 and that there was an unquenchable demand for low cost housing. Now it all looks like pie in the sky. Just another example of ambitious plans being funded with easy credit, and expropriated profits from developments.