Building on the Past: energy efficiency in historic buildings

Written by Thomas Yarrow on . Posted in Guest Blogs, Perspective

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Dr Thomas Yarrow is a Senior Lecturer at Durham University.  In this perspective piece, he shares some findings and implications from his current project, Building on the Past.

In the UK we are obsessed with the past. Old buildings are all around us, valued in different ways, as symbols of history and tradition. They contribute to our sense of identity and place, and have a range of social and economic values. However, preservation of these buildings does not always sit easily alongside the aim of improved energy efficiency. Micro-renewables, double-glazing and improved insulation can all contribute to improved energy performance but can also adversely affect the aesthetic qualities and historic materials that we value. Around 20% of English homes were built before 1919, and older homes tend to be less efficient than those built more recently.  Making improvements to historic buildings poses challenges, so it is important to understand what these homes mean to the people who live in them, and work with them.

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The Building on the Past project examines how ideas about heritage conservation, a set of beliefs about the value of continuity and tradition, relate to the environmental need to make historic buildings more efficient. The project aims to understand how ideas about heritage and energy futures are understood, through an in-depth study of the attitudes, values and beliefs of building professionals and home owners.

So far, much of the academic and policy focus has been on the technical factors that explain existing energy performance in historic buildings, and potential for improvement. Consequently the social factors that explain how old buildings are used and modified are still poorly understood. Our research has found that understandings about the meaning and value of the past have several important implications for energy consumption.

Firstly, the uptake of energy-efficient technologies is affected by assessments of ‘appropriateness’ that involve ideas about the past. People’s ideas about aesthetic, material and historic continuity frame their perceptions of the degree and kind of change that maintains ‘character’ and ‘authenticity’. We found these considerations are particularly important in relation to decisions about windows and micro-renewables. However ideas about authenticity can also impact on less obviously disruptive changes, for example the use of ‘artificial’ building materials such as insulation. These assessments are particularly important in relation to traditionally constructed buildings, but also inform decision-making in relation to post-war and even new-build houses.

Secondly, ideas about the past play a part in people’s daily routines and the energy they use. On the one hand, appreciation of the character of old buildings is often associated with tolerance of lower levels of heating and lighting, and with forms of behaviour that adapt to these (as in this Punch cartoon).

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Credit: Punch Limited

On the other hand home-owners’ ideas about authenticity, tradition and the past can also promote the use of less efficient technologies, including Agas and open fires. These ideas about character and history may be one reason why increased efficiency does not always mean reduced consumption – something that policy and regulatory frameworks need to recognise.

Thirdly, our research found that the way people understand character and heritage value, as well as how they understand energy efficiency, varies greatly between different buildings and situations.  This has implications for planning, showing the importance of having professionals appropriately qualified to make these assessments, and in particular highlighting the significant role of conservation officers, a role that is being undermined by Local Authority cuts.

Additionally, while much information already exists, the seemingly contradictory perspectives of heritage and energy conservation can be confusing for home-owners and building professionals. There is therefore further scope to aid decision-making, for example through models and information that facilitate building-specific assessments and balance historic, environmental and energy goals.

Our research suggests that a better understanding of what older homes mean to residents and building professionals could help inform more effective policy on both the conservation of energy and the conservation of the built environment.  To read more about the project, please visit the webpage here.

Priorities for the Energy and Climate Change Committee: ACE submission to the ECC Inquiry on priorities for holding Government to account

Written by Joanne Wade on . Posted in Consultation Responses, Perspective

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11th August 2015

The Energy and Climate Change Committee is holding an inquiry to gather views on what areas of DECC’s policies will require particular scrutiny in the coming years.  Responses to the consultation will help to inform the Committee’s work programme.  Here are ACE’s answers to the two specific question posed.

Which DECC policy areas do you think require particular scrutiny over the next five years?

The balance of affordability, energy security and sustainability is often most effectively addressed by a focus on using less energy.  Work by the Association for the Conservation of Energy, and others, using DECC’s 2050 Calculator (http://2050-calculator-tool.decc.gov.uk/#/calculator/ace-example) demonstrates how an increased focus on demand side actions can reduce the cost of meeting climate change aims.  And, clearly, using less energy results in lower costs for energy consumers.

A clear priority for the Committee over the next five years should therefore be to scrutinise the extent to which all elements of energy infrastructure, including those on the demand side of the meter, are treated fairly in the policy decision-making process, and that investment in the demand side of the system is adequately supported by Government policy.

What should be the Committee’s scrutiny priorities over the next twelve months?

Many of DECC’s previous policies to support energy efficiency (for example, support for the Green Deal Finance Company and the scheduled timetable to zero carbon new buildings) have already been withdrawn.  Energy efficiency investments supported through the Energy Company Obligation will largely be delivered by the end of 2015, with no further obligation currently scheduled until April 2017.  And Treasury is currently reviewing the main planks of energy efficiency policy for non-domestic buildings.

The need for early action is therefore particularly acute in relation to energy efficiency policy: investor confidence in this sector is very low despite an energy sector-wide view that investment in energy efficiency has to increase significantly (https://www.energyinst.org/information-centre/energy-barometer) and this has the potential to compromise future delivery of carbon emissions and fuel poverty targets.  Ensuring that action on energy efficiency policy is taken soon, and taken effectively, should therefore be a priority for the Committee.

If not the Green Deal, then what?

Written by Joanne Wade on . Posted in Articles and Blog, Improved Access to Finance, Perspective

Joanne Wade

The Government announced yesterday that no further public funding will be provided to the Green Deal Finance Company.  This leaves the energy efficiency supply chain at a loss to understand how the Government thinks it will meet its fuel poverty and climate change targets.  Yes, the Green Deal has not been as effective as the Government originally forecast, but the principle of a Pay as You Save mechanism to support energy efficiency investment remains sound.  Working to build on the existing framework, not pulling the rug from under it, was the way forward.

DECC are aiming to develop and establish a more stable, long-term, coherent framework for home energy efficiency: it is difficult to see how they can achieve this without finance options for the ‘able-to-pay’.  And we should not forget that this will include those on modest incomes who do not qualify as fuel poor: are we expecting them to turn to payday lenders?

The energy efficiency industry has invested significantly in the development of the Green Deal.  Government’s decision to undermine this core plank of home energy efficiency policy without first developing an alternative will in turn undermine the confidence of industry and its willingness to support whatever new framework is developed.

Energy efficiency investment remains the single most affordable way for Government to deliver on fuel poverty and climate change objectives.  So, yes, we will be working with DECC to develop a better framework for the future of home energy efficiency policy; but as of yesterday, our job and theirs became a lot harder.

Subsidy cuts; VAT increases: threat or opportunity?

Written by Joanne Wade on . Posted in Articles and Blog, Perspective

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The news for energy efficiency in the past week has seemed grim: an EU ruling on VAT rates that will increase the cost of energy efficiency investments by 14% and the announcement of a £40 million cut in DECC’s subsidies for energy efficiency.

But let’s not despair. The French treat the issue of VAT differently; using general refurbishment of domestic buildings serving as an economic stimulus as their rationale for lower rates of VAT (10% for all retrofit works instead of France’s standard 20%), rather than the social benefits argument that the UK has used. If we adopt their approach, which additionally stimulates energy efficiency investment by lowering the rate of VAT even further (from 10% to 5.5% in France’s case) for energy-related retrofit, we’ll incentivise more action on the energy performance of our homes than the 5% VAT rate alone has done.

And there are better ways for DECC to deliver its energy security and climate change objectives, through cost-effective energy efficiency investments, rather than handing out market-distorting subsidies. ACE has long called for a more long-term, robust framework that will enable the market for energy efficiency to develop sustainably, and now is the perfect opportunity for DECC to develop this.

The French VAT reduction scheme is just one example of a more systemic incentive that could be offered. Revenue neutral stamp duty or council tax incentives for the domestic sector could lead to between 650,000 and 1.75 million additional retrofits every year. Similarly, differential business rates could encourage small business owners to invest in improving the energy performance of their buildings. If these incentives are combined with a long-term plan for minimum energy efficiency standards for all buildings, together with improved access to a range of finance options, we could begin to see the change in market demand for these measures that is needed.

Cost-effective carbon emissions reduction and resource efficiency

Written by Joanne Wade on . Posted in Articles and Blog, Energy White Paper, Perspective

Joanne Wade

The incoming government promised in their manifesto to cut carbon emissions as cost-effectively as possible.  As energy efficiency remains the most cost-effective source of emissions cuts, can we therefore look forward to a much needed shift in policy focus?

At first glance, it may seem not: there is little explicit mention of energy efficiency in the Conservative Party manifesto, and absolutely no recognition of how its multiple benefits can contribute to other government policy aims.

But increased energy efficiency can help deliver more competitive businesses and less wasteful public sector organisations. Investment in warmer homes helps families to stay healthy.  And local energy efficiency investment can stimulate local economies, creating worthwhile jobs for local people.

These are all arguments that should make sense to the government: it is up to us to make them persuasively and show how our sector can help them deliver on their election promises.

The strange tale of the Secretary of State, the DECs, and the quiet consultation

Written by Andrew Warren on . Posted in Articles and Blog, Perspective

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Last Wednesday Communities Secretary Eric Pickles concluded an unusually swift and unpublicised (at least, by him) “public consultation” into whether there is any purpose in requiring Display Energy Certificates (DECs) for public buildings.

These are the A to G ratings which for the past seven years you should have expected to find exhibited “in a prominent position” in any of the 58,000 buildings occupied by the public sector, that you might be visiting. That means central and local government offices, libraries, sports centres, schools and colleges, hospitals and surgeries, museums, and so on.

This very Thursday – just six working days after his “public consultation” closed – Pickles is due to receive from his officials their considered conclusions. How do I know this?

I am the present chair of the British Energy Efficiency Federation. The membership of BEEF is made up of 18 of the trade associations most directly involved with the energy efficiency market: it was created by the then relevant Department back in 1996, and has continued to meet on a quarterly basis under the auspices, and in the offices, of whichever Department holds the energy efficiency brief (currently DECC).

Let’s tip the balance back towards demand management

Written by Andrew Warren on . Posted in Articles and Blog, Energy White Paper, Perspective

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Reducing demand is better value than continuing to plough money into increasing energy production. So why do we continue to favour energy production?

In almost all circumstances, it is cheaper to avoid having to use energy than it is to produce it. This is a mantra with which most will be familiar: it has been enunciated by practically every objective strategic energy study for decades. Again this month the European Commission repeated it forcefully, in its magisterial paper setting out the case for a full Energy Union.

So, if demand management is much better value than generating new supplies of energy, why do our political leaders in the UK consistently set out to handicap energy saving – while energetically promoting production?

Our response to CLG consultation on Display Energy Certificates (DECs)

Written by Pedro Guertler on . Posted in Articles and Blog, Consultation Responses, Perspective, Public Sector Leadership

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ACE has responded to CLG’s consultation on ‘Display Energy Certificates: current regime and how it could be streamlined and improved‘. You can read our response here, and a summary of our response below.

When Display Energy Certificates (DECs) were first introduced, it was because CLG themselves identified that they were a) more appropriate for display in public buildings than Energy Performance Certificates (EPCs) and b) more cost-beneficial.

There is evidence referred to in the consultation itself, that DECs drive energy savings. There is also clear evidence from abroad, that regular operational ratings (of the kind contained in DECs) drive significant energy savings in the buildings in which they are used and displayed.

To remove schools and universities from the DEC regime totally contradicts the spirit of the recast Energy Performance of Buildings directive. Its intention is for DECs to apply to all buildings occupied by public authorities and also all buildings frequently visited by the public (the directive cites “shops and shopping centres, supermarkets, restaurants, theatres, banks and hotels” as examples). Schools and universities fall into both these categories, and the directive’s implication that they have to be included could not be clearer. Many more buildings should have been included as well, which is why the Government had intended in 2011 to extend DECs to the types of commercial buildings listed above.

The public sector should lead by example. The recast Energy Performance of Buildings directive states that “the public sector […] should lead the way in the field of energy performance of buildings” and “should set an example by showing that environmental and energy considerations are being taken into account and therefore those buildings should be subject to energy certification on a regular basis”. To remove or scale back the DEC regime would fly in the face of these requirements.

Recent analysis by University College London shows that 8,500 buildings with continual DECs over three years and larger than 1,000m2 achieved 3% annual energy savings in 2011 compared to 2009. In our estimation, this is roughly equivalent to £18m savings. If all 42,000 large buildings with DECs achieved the same saving, the total would be £89m. The total cost of the DECs regime is £7.8m, one eleventh of these savings. It is likely that DECs were a significant factor in starting these buildings on their energy management journey, which may well not have occurred in their absence. For every £1 saving on the DECs regime that CLG could achieve by abolishing it, the Department is putting at risk up to £11 of savings already achieved, and countless additional savings which an effective DECs regime would continue to drive. Furthermore, the savings calculated exclude the value of carbon savings achieved, employment and other spill-over benefits.

What CLG is proposing is to abolish (or severely truncate) a DEC regime which is proven to drive energy savings in public buildings and therefore make savings to the public purse. Far from freeing up resources for frontline services, abolishing DECs would at best reduce any energy cost savings being achieved and at worst enable the public sector to hide their wastefulness from the taxpayer and encourage profligacy. At a time of increasing pressure on public budgets and the need for more transparency to better account for public spending, the proposals to abolish or truncate a DEC regime which demonstrably saves far more money than it costs to run is plain stupidity.

The regime can be streamlined and improved, and a proper engagement and consultation exercise should be undertaken to find the best ways of doing so. As it stands, the current consultation, which has not even deigned to assess the benefits of the regime alongside its costs, is meaningless.

New fuel poverty strategy for England doesn’t really cut it

Written by Garry Felgate on . Posted in Articles and Blog, Energy Efficiency as Infrastructure, Minimum Standards for Existing Buildings, Perspective

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The Government has today published its new fuel poverty strategy for England. While welcoming the intention to bring the homes of the fuel poor up to a high energy efficiency standard, we believe the target date of 2030 is far too long to wait. We also believe that all low income households – not just those that are fuel poor today – should be improved.

It is cost-effective and practicable to improve the homes of all 6 million low income households to a C energy rating by 2025 – with 2m improved to this level by 2020. If we just focus on fuel poor households, other low income households will simply drop into fuel poverty if their circumstances change negatively or fuel prices rise.

Finally, we are worried about the caveat that households will only be improved ‘as far as reasonably practicable’. This should be removed or at the very least tightly defined to ensure that it cannot be used by future Governments as an excuse for failing to implement the strategy. While there may occasionally be circumstances in which reaching the target is impossible or prohibitively expensive, a blanket caveat is simply a recipe for delay and inaction.

We raised all of these concerns when the Government published and consulted on its draft strategy last year. We are disappointed that our concerns, shared by countless others in the NGO and academic communities, have been ignored.

Kick out this absurd policy

Written by Andrew Warren on . Posted in Articles and Blog, Perspective, Zero Carbon Buildings

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Buy a new home from a small company. And guarantee higher fuel bills, increasing emissions and general confusion between regulators and consumers. Sounds like a poor deal all round, both for the purchaser, and the marketing prospects for smaller construction companies?

I would agree. But nonetheless Communities Secretary Eric Pickles seems determined to foist this absurd proposal onto the marketplace as soon as possible.

Since 2006 it is has been agreed policy among the three major political parties that all new homes built from 2016 should emit zero carbon. This became legally binding (albeit by 2019) under the 2010 recast of the European Energy Performance of Buildings directive.

ACE's Seven Energy Efficiency Asks for the 2015-2020 Parliament
  1. A new Energy White Paper (#energywhitepaper)newlogo (large)
  2. Buildings energy efficiency as infrastructure investment (#infrastructureinvestment)
  3. The public sector must take a leadership role (#leadbyexample)
  4. Zero Carbon standard for new homes and commercial buildings (#zerocarbon)
  5. Minimum energy efficiency standards for existing buildings (#minimumstandards)
  6. Incentives for energy efficiency retrofits (#retrofitincentives)
  7. Improving access to finance for energy efficiency measures (#accesstofinance)

Read about our seven asks in full; follow us on Twitter; and subscribe to our occasional email updates on progress below.

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