Driving innovation in low-energy buildings: key lessons from experience in the UK and Europe

Paula Kivimaa & Mari Martiskainen

Buildings use around 40% of our total energy consumption and account for over 30% of Europe’s greenhouse gas emissions, but innovative building concepts – such as passive houses, zero-carbon buildings and whole house retrofits – are not yet widely used by the construction and renovation industry. How can we accelerate the uptake of these new innovations?  This was the question we set out to address in a recent task for the Centre on Innovation and Energy Demand.

We systematically reviewed academic studies on residential low energy buildings reported in Europe between 2005 and 2015. Contents of abstracts of 3120 hits were analysed, resulting in 28 articles and containing 40 case studies. The review sought answers to questions such as: What can we learn about successful low energy building projects?  How to support the diffusion of systemic innovation in this area? What drives such innovation? What kind of actors are needed to facilitate innovation?

Drivers for innovation in low-energy buildings

New energy efficient homes in Northampton 2007. © Copyright David M Jones and licensed for reuse under CC BY-SA 2.0 licence

So, what does drive innovation in low-energy buildings in Europe? Our research identified two important drivers:

First, environmental concerns were almost always a key motivation for undertaking the projects. For example, in a project renewing social housing in Cheshire, UK, client demands encouraged builders to integrate sustainability in their developments.

Second, in half of the cases, public policies at different levels (local, national and global) acted as a significant driver. We observed that in most cases, a mix of policies was important ranging from RD&D and deployment subsidies through innovative competitions to building codes and planning regulations. Building regulations have been important but not in every case. Voluntary government codes, such as the Code for Sustainable Homes in the UK and Bâtiment Basse Consommation (Low Energy Building) in France, were mentioned as drivers in five cases.

Interestingly, design, health and comfort, and market drivers have played a minor role to date. Only in a few cases were market drivers, such as willingness to test the market readiness or viability of the concept, important. Clearly there is potential for such drivers to become more prominent. Design and comfort could increase the appeal of low energy homes for consumers.  Avoiding poor-quality energy performance improvements is vital to avoid health problems that can sometimes be associated with energy efficient buildings (for example, when ventilation has not been planned properly).

The role of ‘intermediary’ actors

Low energy buildings can be supported by a range of actors. We focused on so-called intermediary actors that had important roles in over half of the cases. In the cases reviewed such actors ranged from local planners and energy managers to housing funds, trade bodies, government agencies and consultancies. More interesting than who they were was what they did. We identified five processes through which intermediaries influence innovation processes:

(1) Intermediaries acted as facilitators. This included actions such as connecting actors, speeding up planning and permitting processes and influencing local politicians.

(2) Intermediaries created niche markets through developing planning policies and building requirements in exemplary districts. They also did this by searching for new technological and policy designs suited to these districts, and bringing together entrepreneurs and construction companies to showcase innovations.

(3) Intermediaries implemented new practices in publically owned or social building stock by showcasing developments. They provided visions for development, created new partnerships and resources such as land, knowledge and finance.

(4) Intermediaries supported processes to create new business models for low energy housing. For example, they organised competitions for new housing designs or connected actors from different processes to generate new business ideas.

(5) Post-construction, intermediaries facilitated correct use of building technologies. They educated and negotiated with residents on how to use buildings and their technical devices (such as heating controls and so on) to ensure that they were used properly and effectively.

Our review shows that whilst there are several low energy building projects completed in Europe, learning from such projects has not received a great deal of attention in energy social science research. The review also shows that, while multiple reasons can motivate and drive low energy buildings, intermediary activities can be important throughout a building process, from idea generation and planning through to construction and end use.

Read more:

Low Energy Housing Innovations and the role of Intermediaries project

Kivimaa, P. and Martiskainen, M. 2017. Innovation, low energy buildings and intermediaries in Europe: systematic case study review. Energy Efficiency

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Energy for Society: First International Conference on Energy Research & Social Science

Jim Watson, Harriet Thomson and Benjamin Sovacool at the ERSS Conference

Jim Watson, Harriet Thomson and Benjamin Sovacool (Image credit: Mari Martiskainen)

What do folklore, yak cheese, Chinese dams and the Dakota pipeline all have in common? Energy and social science. The First International Conference on Energy Research and Social Science, held on 2-5 April in Sitges, Spain, aimed “to spotlight what the wonderful group of energy social scientists both represents, and can accomplish,” according to Professor Benjamin Sovacool, Director of the Centre on Innovation and Energy Demand. In his opening keynote speech, Sovacool highlighted the reasons why energy researchers not only need, but want to use social science. The conference was organised by Elsevier and linked to the journal Energy Research & Social Science. Read more ›

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Don’t throw out the energy efficiency baby with the Brexit bathwater

Will Brexit put energy efficiency progress in the UK at risk, ask Jan Rosenow, Pedro Guertler and Richard Cowart of RAP (Regulatory Assistance Project)? In electric appliances and heating systems – probably not. The biggest risk is in the building sector.UK policymakers will need to put efficiency first if they want to reach carbon targets and keep costs down.

Brexit has opened a new era in British politics. After the vote to leave the EU on the 23rd of June 2016 there is considerable uncertainty in all policy areas. Energy efficiency is no different.

Discussing the implications of Brexit for energy efficiency policy, a Member of Parliament recently asked during a hearing of the House of Commons’ Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, “now that we have left the EU, what new freedoms do we have?”.

In reality, the EU never prevented Britain from being more ambitious on energy efficiency—it set minimum standards allowing Member States to define their own approach based on those standards.

Many of the UK’s energy efficiency policies such as building codes and product policy have been implemented in the context of EU directives. As a result, individual households now use around 30 percent less energy than they did in 1970, with the bulk of this decrease occurring since 2004. At 2016 energy prices, this has reduced the average household energy bill by around £420 per year.

Total household gas use decreased by 19 percent between 2000 and 2014, despite a 12 percent increase in the number of households and a 9.7 percent increase in population. Much of this success story is driven by European policies. So now that the UK leaves the EU—does Brexit put future energy efficiency progress at risk? Read more ›

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Transforming the Low Energy Housing sector

“Insulation is not sexy. Energy efficiency is not sexy. Putting more insulation in your walls that you will never see and you will never even know is there, is not sexy.  But your bills are a bit lower,” said Alex Hunt, a sustainable building consultant and partner with Bright Green Homes.

Is it time for the Low Energy housing sector to shed its frumpy image and have a face lift? What needs to be done to bring about a low energy housing transformation? That was the question at the heart of a workshop on Low Energy Housing organised jointly by the Energy Savings Trust and the Centre on Innovation and Energy Demand.

Low energy housing may not be “sexy”, but it is important. Domestic buildings were responsible for approximately 23% of total UK carbon emissions in 2014. Under the Climate Change Act, the UK has to achieve at least an 80% reduction in the carbon emissions from our homes by 2050. If we are to be ready by to meet those carbon targets by 2050, the industry needs to transform. Despite the urgent need, according to Philip Sellwood, CEO of the Energy Savings Trust, the government’s green ambition has been “roughly halved” in recent years.

Clearly, current national policy support for the low energy housing sector is minimal. If government isn’t going to force people to improve the energy efficiency of their homes through regulation, then consumers need to see the benefits of buying low carbon homes or carrying out low energy retrofits for themselves. How could consumers come to see low energy housing as something that they want and are willing to pay for? Stakeholders from government, the housing industry and campaigning organisations came together at the workshop to find some answers.

Workshop participants sit at a table discussing steps forward at the workshop.

Workshop participants discussing steps forward at the workshop.

Sell the sexy design and not the energy efficiency

Energiesprong, a Dutch initiative, has clearly picked up on the importance of shedding the frumpy green image. It sells their product as a “makeover for your house.” It’s proposing a package that transforms houses into “net zero energy houses”. This is done by installing new smart heating and cooling technologies, prefabricated housing facades and insulated rooftops with solar panels. It all comes with a 30 year warranty, and is paid back, they say, through the money saved on energy bills. Nine houses in Nottingham owned by the Nottingham City Homes housing corporation will be the first in the UK to undergo the renovation this spring.

Providing incentives

This issue was identified as crucial by a number of participants. Hunt proposed that if building works carried out by an accredited building company improved a household’s energy efficiency by a band or two (say from D to B), then a household should be able to claim back the VAT for the works. This would encourage people to carry out energy efficiency measures by accredited, reputable builders carrying out high quality work, thus improving the energy efficiency of older housing stock in the UK and reducing the appeal of “cowboy” builders.

Intermediaries to connect actors

Dr Paula Kivimaa and Dr Mari Martiskainen from CIED presented their research on both retrofit and new build projects in Finland and Brighton. Dr Kivimaa has found that while building regulations and national policy set the direction of low energy housing, local government can have an important influence acting as an intermediary to connect actors during the planning stages of projects. Their research suggests that intermediaries, such as architects, local government or annual eco home events, which bring together different groups to share ideas and plan, are vital for inspiring and driving low energy housing projects forward.

Dr Mari Martiskainen. Credit: CIED

Dr Martiskainen shared an example of two home-owners who had built a new eco-home in Brighton, which she called a “hot spot” for low energy housing. The couple had long been interested in building an eco-home, having been inspired by a visit to the Centre on Alternative technology (CAT) in Wales. While they wanted an eco-home, they also wanted the house to “look and feel good”. They visited the Brighton and Hove Eco open houses every year to gather ideas, while their architect acted as a ‘local champion’ during the process of building a zero carbon home. But Dr Martiskainen was quick to point out that intermediaries do not work in isolation. They are not immune to changes in policy, such as the removal of zero carbon homes policy.

Connecting the end user with the home

Donal Brown, a sustainable construction consultant also undertaking research with CIED into the barriers to low energy buildings in the UK, believes the answer is “reconnecting the end user with the home”.

Donal Brown.  Credit: CIED.

Unfortunately most speculative builders don’t care about a building’s energy performance because they will likely build speculatively on the land or buildings might be resold four or five times before being lived in. There is currently no interest in making the building any greener than they are mandated to. But adopting a “grassroots, bottom up approach” changes the incentives, says Brown. Self-build eco projects are built for an end user who will live in the house for 30 years and can see the long-term benefits of building a low energy house.

Keep it simple, stupid

“There is no one way for innovation to go,” Sellwood said, but, “simplicity is key”. Keeping solutions simple by avoiding lots of legislation and green tape was one of the key messages to come out of the workshop. For example, Hunt believes his suggestion on claiming back VAT could work, because of its simplicity.

The new quality mark that is being recommended by the Government’s Each Home Counts Review (also known as the Bonfield Review )[PDF], in order to build consumer trust, failed on this criteria, based on the reaction from some of the workshop participants. The review aims to increase the quality assurance of work by recommending the creation of a quality mark for all energy efficiency and renewable energy measures to ensure consumers “can be properly protected and advised when they install energy efficiency and renewable energy measures in their homes”. Those who wish to use the standard will have to adhere to a consumer charter, a code of conduct and codes of practice.

Hunt, a builder who has carried out a number of energy efficiency retrofits on homes, was strongly opposed to the Bonfield Review. He called it “another talking shop, another set of accreditation, another stamp.” Donal Brown, agreed. “Builders have been hammered with all this compliance” he said. “Yet it only addresses 20% of the issue,” said Brown. “The problem is demand – people aren’t asking for retrofit – it’s not a product people want to buy. Unless we force people to do this [through regulations] the demand has to come from the consumers. But people don’t even know what the benefits are.”

Building that consumer desire will be a crucial task for the low energy housing industry over the next few years.

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Tidal lagoon energy in Wales

The report of an independent review of UK tidal lagoon energy was published on 12 January 2017 by a former UK energy Minister Charles Hendry. The report praises the proposed ‘pathfinder’ tidal lagoon in Swansea Bay as a ‘no-regrets option’, and sets out a supportive case for developing the sector.

The Hendry Review was commissioned in February 2016 by UK Government to assess the strategic case for tidal lagoon energy as a new industry in the UK. This followed a successful planning proposal by Tidal Lagoon Power (TLP) to develop the world’s first tidal lagoon in Swansea Bay, as well as a subsequent programme for a ‘fleet’ of five larger projects, including three in Welsh waters (Cardiff, Newport and Colwyn Bay).

Despite the Swansea Bay project appearing in the 2015 UK Conservative Party manifesto and receiving development consent in June 2015, uncertainties around cost and subsidy subsequently prompted the UK Government to commission an independent review. Its aim was to examine the ability of tidal lagoon energy to cost-effectively contribute to the UK’s energy mix, and the level of subsidy required to do so.

Tidal lagoons generate electricity by enclosing an area of sea adjacent to coastline with a sea wall, and capturing the energy from the rise and fall of tides using turbines. A number of lagoon projects in Wales have been proposed due to the significant tidal range along the Welsh coastline – particularly in the Severn Estuary, which has the second largest range in the world. Read more ›

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The views and opinions expressed here are solely those of the individual authors and do not represent Sussex Energy Group.

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