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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One comment on “Transforming the Low Energy Housing sector
  1. Alex Hunt says:

    Great article – not sure I’m “strongly opposed” to Bonfield – but definitely more action less talk is needed and I’m not convinced another accreditation system and new logo is what’s needed to drive demand… finance will always be the key to this.

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