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Turning the dream of 2016 into reality

ImageThe Government has announced that all new homes will be carbon neutral by 2016. But who is going to make sure these all comply when so many homes being built clearly don’t come up to scratch?

House building is no longer a political backwater. Prime Minister Gordon Brown has seen to that. The policy urgency is simple: it is about numbers. It is also officially about becoming more energy/carbon friendly.

Effectively this market place is no different from any other: it is about supply and it is about demand. We don’t supply many new homes each year. Out of 24m homes in Britain, just 160,000 were built last year.

Contrast this with Ireland where there are not much over 2m homes in total. But they built 90,000 new ones last year. One twelfth of the population of the UK, but over half the number of new homes.

Ostensibly, homes are built with a 50 to 60 year lifespan in mind. Cost-effectiveness calculations, regarding which energy saving measures are currently mandated under the building regulations, actually presume an even shorter period. In practice, this is a gross under-estimate. The Environmental Change Unit at Oxford University has calculated that, at present turnover rates, a home built today will still be occupied in the 25th century. We don’t pull down many homes.
So, supply is short. What about demand? Although our population increases only gradually, there has been a quantum leap in the overall number of households compared to 50 years ago: the average household contains fewer people, but each person occupies far more space.

Constructing 240,000 homes a year

Gordon Brown is hoping to increase construction to 240,000 homes per year (or less than three times the number being built in Ireland). He has announced that many of these will be in ten new eco-towns. And that by 2016 every new home built will be zero carbon. That will mean no attachment to the natural gas network for heating, and every appliance dependent on non-fossil fuels for power.

The Home Builders Federation (HBF) has grabbed the agenda. Instead of civil servants, this industrial lobby is providing the secretariat for all the official feasibility studies as to how this objective can be realised.

The Federation does not have a good track record regarding delivering energy-efficient homes. Energy standards were first introduced into the building regulations in 1978. Since that time, the minimum standards have been sought to be upgraded on seven separate occasions. Without fail, the HBF has with monotonous regularity sought to minimise their requirements. I well recall their long-time director, Roger Humber, opining: “What is the point in trying to keep the heat inside the building, if the world is heating up outside?”

Even when the standards are eventually agreed – always at least 12 months later than originally planned – they don’t come into force immediately. Any home, for which approval has been acquired under the old regulations, can get built to those lower standards. Or not even those, it seems. After years of anecdotal complaints about cheating, and fruitless pressure upon the government to check on levels of compliance with the building regulations, the Energy Efficiency Partnership for Homes eventually commissioned a full before-and-after study to see whether what was approved on the drawing board was available to those on the ground.

We employed Building Research Establishment scientists to visit 100 occupied homes. Armed with details of the local council official specifications, they checked what had been installed. And what had not. Or had been installed partially. Or wrongly.

More energy-saving errors

The conclusions were deeply worrying. Not perhaps so far as studio or one-bedroom flats are concerned – it is actually rather difficult to get these wrong. But the bigger the home, the more energy-saving errors were found. (And, of course, our inspectors realistically could not dig up the floors or open up external walls to check insulation levels.)

So far as four-bedroom homes and above were concerned, it was almost the exception where the builders had actually complied with even the minimum standards. Perhaps one reason why the requirement for obligatory energy performance certificates for existing English homes being marketed, began only with such larger homes?

Nonetheless, the goal of zero emission homes by 2016 remains. In the interim, energy standards for all new homes are to be tightened. In 2010, to the Government’s Code Level 3 for Sustainable Buildings. Then, again, higher in 2013.

All homes built with public money already have to comply (officially!) with Code Level 3. Perversely, any council wanting any new private home to reach Code Level 3 now is effectively being blocked by the Housing Minister, Yvette Cooper, from requiring such higher standards. This is in deference to our old friends at the HBF, who threaten that placing such an extra “burden” upon them would reduce the number of new homes they are able to build.

That threat is sufficient to worry ministers, desperate to increase the number of housing units constructed. Whether we can marry concerns for quantity as well as quality remains to be seen. What is absolutely certain is that it is a lot more cost-effective to make homes energy efficient when under construction, than to have to retrofit them afterwards.

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