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Baker Homes Blog

Four problems with zero carbon homes and what we can do about them

Posted by Andrew Eagles on 17/03/15 07:30

It is quite easy to argue that this government has backtracked on their commitments to environmental issues. One policy with continued support though is the commitment for new build homes to be built to zero carbon from 2016.

The commitment to a far reaching goal for new build homes is impressive. It compares starkly with policy towards existing homes, where funding to improve the UK’s leakiest homes (the energy company obligation) was dismantled at short notice. There are four key opportunities to improve the zero carbon policy as it stands.

Skills skills skills - the definition was amended to exclude energy required to power your TV, fridge, computers and other appliances. This “non regulated energy” which is now excluded, accounts for 20-40% of the energy you use in a home.

Is it wrong that the definition has been watered down? We think not. The new definition of zero carbon is still significantly further than current building regulations. With only two years before we are meant to be building zero carbon homes it will be exceptionally challenging for many to meet this standard though. Many of those building homes may struggle to up skill.

What is needed is a comprehensive plan to train those involved in the delivery of new homes.  This includes additional and secure support for the zero carbon hub, dedicated training on fabric energy efficiency and air tightness but most of all ventilation.  There are real concerns that without an adequate understanding of ventilation our homes will be moldy and unhealthy.  There are many other elements the sector needs to understand better if they are building to more energy efficiency levels.  One that stands out for Baker Homes is overheating. Our climate is changing.  Warmer temperatures,  the urban heat island effect and poor design can make homes uninhabitable or dangerously hot in the summer.  

Setting the bar the right height – There is significant flexibility for those building to zero carbon. If a home is built with energy efficient walls and roofs and there is adequate air tightness builders can pay into a fund to reduce emissions elsewhere rather than reduce the bit of carbon from their homes.

This could be useful. That fund could be used to improve some of the UKs leakiest homes located near the development sites. Given many old homes will have four times the energy bills of these new homes, that is to be applauded. But we need to ensure that the proceeds stay within housing, and are targeted at the retrofit of existing stock. The ‘price’ of carbon for the proposed allowable solutions will also be critical. If too low, it will restrict the improvements that can be made to existing homes.

It has been proposed that “small” developments – likely to be less than 24 homes – be excluded from building to zero carbon. This intention should be reversed. It could mean that a large proportion of our new build homes are not zero carbon homes at all.

Encouraging innovation - On speaking at a recent event for developers not one of the 40 builders in the room were considering heat networks for their developments, some of which were for schemes of over 600 homes. This is a real barrier to reducing our carbon emissions. Heat networks are very cost effective in building to low carbon, particularly where there is scale.  

Heat networks are being taken forward on schemes from as little as 150 homes. Energy Services Companies, (ESCOs) offer a way to take these costs off the books of the developer. Yet few are using them.

It should be possible to challenge developers to consider methodologies such as heat networks on viable schemes. Planners need to be empowered and upskilled to do this. It is important that viable solutions are considered before developers consider paying into a fund to offset emissions.

Baby out with the bath water - In order to simplify standards the Department for Communities and Local Government has excluded many environmental issues. As an example, use of sustainable materials is no longer mandatory. That is a shame.

Sustainably sourced timber, such as Forest Stewardship Council timber, was required through previous standards.  As a result sustainable timber is now the norm, protecting millions of acres of rainforest around the world and the living conditions of the people that depend on them.

New Government standards exclude sustainable sourcing or consideration of embodied energy and environmental impacts. This means hundreds of thousands of homes will be built without knowing if the timber is sustainable.

Additionally nobody will check if the base materials for steel, concrete and others were extracted and manufactured with human exploitation. The pollution caused in the manufacture of materials will also be ignored.

It would be simple to rectify. The Homes and Communities Agency has a statutory duty to encourage good design and sustainability. They could, as they have done in the past, be a force for good in encouraging sustainable well designed homes. All that is needed is a statement in their affordable housing programme guidance. Many associations have spoken to us of their appetite for leading on these wider environmental issues. The HCA would be pushing at an open door.

The move to zero carbon is positive. With some small changes this policy could be the catalyst for a sustainable future with a higher quality of life for people that live in those homes and everyone else.  


Topics: Retrofit, Zero carbon, Energy, Allowable Solutions, New build

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