Close to home: getting to net zero means decarbonising the UK’s housing stock

Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash

Two years ago, the UK became the first major economy in the world to pass a law pledging to bring all greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050. Achieving net zero means balancing the amount of greenhouse gases we emit with the amount we remove, and it’s a critical factor in tackling climate change by reducing global warming.

But, according to the government’s independent adviser on tackling climate change, the UK will be unable to meet the net zero target without the near-complete elimination of greenhouse gas emissions from 29 million homes. 

The necessity: why buildings need to be decarbonised

In 2014, emissions from domestic properties accounted for 34% of total UK greenhouse gas emissions. A combination of high energy prices and improvements in energy efficiency brought that figure closer to 19%. But those reductions have stalled, and because the UK’s building stock is one of the oldest and most energy-inefficient in Europe, the need to decarbonise is even more urgent.

The benefits: environmental, health, economic

While achieving net zero is one good reason for making our buildings more energy efficient, decarbonisation offers further dividends.

Energy efficient homes are cheaper to run, reducing the levels of fuel poverty that affect millions of households. They can also bring health benefits in the form of healthy air temperatures, lower humidity, better noise levels, and improved air quality.

In addition, a nationwide programme of decarbonising buildings could make a vital contribution to the recovery of the economy from the coronavirus pandemic. A recent inquiry by the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee  (EAC) found that investing in energy efficiency alone could create 34,000 full-time jobs within the next two years. In the longer term, energy efficiency investment could support an estimated 150,000 skilled and semi-skilled jobs to 2030.

The problems: high costs, skills uncertainty and a “disastrous” insulation scheme

The UK government says the cost of decarbonising homes is between £35 billion and £65 billion. But the EAC believes that this seriously underestimates the cost of upgrading the energy efficiency of homes. With 19 million homes in England requiring energy efficiency installations, this could cost £18,000 per home, even before the installation of a heat pump.

Another area of concern is skills. Brian Berry from the Federation of Master Builders told the committee that every tradesperson in the country needs to be upskilled in retrofit techniques in order to secure overall competency in the supply chain:

“We need to upskill people in the building industry because there is a need to understand how their skills interrelate to one another. You cannot just pick out one bit of this. It has to be seen holistically, which is why I think there needs to be a national retrofit strategy, a clear political direction and a commitment to reducing carbon emissions in our homes.”

The EAC was also outspoken in its criticism of the government’s flagship home insulation scheme. The Green Homes Grant was launched in 2020 to offer £1.5bn in subsidies for insulation and low-CO2 heating. However, only 6.3% of the money has been spent, despite exceptionally high demand.

The committee said the scheme was rushed and poorly implemented, and described its administration as “nothing short of disastrous.” Just six months after its launch, the scheme has now been scrapped. Instead, energy saving upgrades and low carbon heating will be delivered to homes through local authorities in England.

The recommendations: strategies, incentives and insights from overseas

There’s no shortage of suggestions for driving decarbonisation forward. The EAC has called for a government strategy for the next decade to give industry and tradespeople time to upskill and to give households the right signals to invest in energy efficiency. The committee also recommends that VAT on the labour element of refurbishment and renovations is reduced to 5%, a measure also supported by the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors.

It’s also worth looking at ideas from overseas. In February, research by the University of Edinburgh reviewed the heat decarbonisations policies in nine European countries. The report highlights particular progress made by the Nordic countries in decarbonising buildings’ heat supply and in making greater use of electricity as a potential future source of low-carbon heating.

The solutions: putting promises into practice

While the challenge of decarbonising homes may be daunting, a growing number of housing providers are taking steps to cut emissions from domestic properties.

The Welsh Government has provided £20m in funding for Optimised Retrofit. Through this scheme, 28 social landlords can retrofit homes and test the ways heat and energy are produced, stored and supplied. If it’s successful, the scheme could be the model for decarbonising all of Wales’ 1.4 million homes by 2050.

Last month, Sutton Council launched an energy-efficiency programme to transform draughty properties with high energy bills into net zero carbon houses which are warmer and cheaper for residents. The programme is based on a successful Dutch initiative known as Energiesprong (energy leap). In the Netherlands, 1300 net zero energy refurbishments have been completed, and a further 500 are being built. The initiative involves insulating the external walls and roof areas, replacing windows and doors and installing new solar panels to power a new central heating and ventilation system. Sutton is the first London borough and the latest UK housing provider to adopt the programme, which has already been taken up in Nottingham and Maldon.

Many housing associations are at the start of their journey to net zero, but a National Housing Federation survey has shown that two thirds of social housing landlords have started planning to make their homes greener and warmer. Three quarters (74%) of survey respondents expect to retrofit homes in 2020-21. A similar proportion (73%) expect to retrofit homes in 2021-22. However, the survey also reported that lack of finance and continuing policy uncertainty remain major obstacles to decarbonising homes. That’s important, particularly given the cost of decarbonisation of social housing – £104bn by 2050.

The future: decarbonisation begins at home

Local authorities, housing associations, and the construction industry are all keen to transform existing homes into greener, warmer places to live in. At the same time, residents – especially those having to make the choice between heating or eating – need to be taken out of fuel poverty. And, as we’ve seen, achieving net zero will only be possible by making the nation’s housing stock more energy efficient.

With so much riding on decarbonisation of domestic properties, the need for more funding as part of an ambitious policy approach is clear. As the UK prepares to host the critical climate change talks in Glasgow this year, there has to be a better understanding that tackling the climate emergency starts on our own doorstep.


Further reading from The Knowledge Exchange blog on housing and energy efficiency

Is this the future of social housing?

Goldsmith Street: Mikhail Riches / Tim Crocker 2019

Last year, a development of 105 homes on the outskirts of Norwich became the first social housing project to win the prestigious Royal Institute of British Architects Stirling Prize.

The Goldsmith Street estate was built by London architecture firm Mikhail Riches for Norwich City Council, and is the largest Passivhaus scheme in the UK. Passivhaus is an approach to building that provides a high level of occupant comfort while using very little energy for heating and cooling.

Goldsmith Street has been carefully thought through, and adjusted to take account of changing economic and environmental circumstances. In 2008, Norwich City Council selected Mikhail Riches to design the estate. The council had intended to sell the site to a local housing provider, but when the financial crash happened, the council decided to develop the site itself.

The architects have striven to ensure that the development acknowledges the historic context of the site:

“The design seeks to re-introduce streets and houses in an area of the city which is otherwise dominated by 20th century blocks of flats… Street widths are intentionally narrow at 14m, emulating the 19th century model.”

The homes themselves have been built to strict Passivhaus standards which include:

  • very high levels of insulation;
  • extremely high performance windows with insulated frames;
  • airtight building fabric;
  • ‘thermal bridge free’ construction;
  • a mechanical ventilation system with highly efficient heat recovery.

Passivhaus standards typically reduce heating energy consumption by up to 90% as compared to traditional housing. For residents in the Goldsmith Street development, heating bills should be about £150 a year.

Eco friendly housing

In recent years, local authorities and housing associations have been responding to the increasing demands for housing stock to have lower maintenance costs, lower energy costs and fewer emissions of carbon and other gases that can be harmful to the environment and human health.

The Passivhaus Trust has highlighted a growing number of local councils and housing associations that have been exploring Passivhaus standards as a way of tackling these issues.

One of the most ambitious social housing Passivhaus projects is Agar Grove in the London Borough of Camden. Previously a 1960s estate with an unenviable reputation, Agar Grove has been rebuilt with affordable and energy efficient homes. The first phase, involving 38 social rented homes was completed in 2018, and has already won awards for sustainability and community consultation. Once complete, the 500-home estate will be the largest Passivhaus development in the UK.

Cunningham House, Glasgow: Page\Park Architects

In Glasgow, the city’s first Passivhaus development for social rent was opened by Shettleston Housing Association in September 2019. The project provides nineteen new homes for older people in an innovative design that combines a five storey Passivhaus tower with a converted church building. All of the homes benefit from high levels of thermal insulation to augment the sandstone coat of the existing church structure. The project was named the best affordable housing development at the 2019 Inside Housing Awards.

Meanwhile, the City of York Council has released plans to build more than 600 homes across eight sites over the next five years that will be built to carbon zero standards. The council has pledged that 40% of the homes will be affordable, with 20% retained for social renting. The developments, also designed by Mikhail Riches, will have very high energy efficiency standards that exceed standard Passivhaus levels. It’s predicted that residents’ heating bills could be around £60 a year.

Homes for the future

There is a now a growing sense that housing, as well as consuming great amounts of energy, can also be a positive force for change. Energy efficient homes can make a strong contribution to climate change adaptation measures, can make housing more resilient to increasingly common extreme weather events, and can provide opportunities to improve economic development, quality of life and social equality.

In the past year, with many local councils, combined authorities, devolved administrations and the UK government declaring ‘climate emergencies’, the pressure on housing providers to lead by example has intensified. At the same time, governments are setting out plans to ensure new homes are more energy efficient.

The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government is currently consulting on the Future Homes Standard, which includes proposals to increase energy efficiency requirements for new homes from 2025. Similarly, the Scottish Government plans to introduce new regulations to ensure all new homes use renewable or low carbon heating from 2024. A 2019 report commissioned by the Welsh Government has recommended major changes to most homes in the country, including a major programme to improve insulation and heating.

Goldsmith Street: Mikhail Riches / Tim Crocker 2019

The success and widespread publicity enjoyed by the Goldsmith Street project is likely to encourage other local authorities and housing associations to explore the possibilities of Passivhaus. But although the benefits are great, Passivhaus also presents significant challenges for housing providers.

Up-front costs are higher for Passivhaus developments, and there are additional maintenance and replacement costs. The technical requirements are strict, in order to ensure the maximum levels of airtightness and insulation. In addition, there is a shortage of skills needed to achieve the exceptional standards of construction demanded by Passivhaus (Norwich City Council has overcome this by bringing together a network of specialist contractors with the necessary expertise to work on Passivhaus projects).

Despite the challenges, Passivhaus seems to be offering a compelling answer to the significant problems of fuel poverty, climate change and the demand for high quality, affordable housing. As more local authorities and housing associations demonstrate its affordability, Passivhaus is breaking away from its image as a resource for the privileged and moving into the mainstream of social housing.


Further reading: blog posts from The Knowledge Exchange on energy efficiency at home

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. 

Eating or heating: tackling fuel poverty in the UK

nastural gas flame

It is a complete scandal that people die because they can’t afford to heat their homes. ‘I, Daniel Blake’ shows the tragic circumstances and daily dilemma of ‘heating or eating’ faced by many thousands of people in Britain today.”

Those were the words of I, Daniel Blake lead actor Dave Johns as he backed a report published in November 2016 by the charity National Energy Action. The report, which looked at the health problems related to fuel poverty, claimed that a child born today may never see fuel poverty eradicated from the UK unless more assistance is given struggling families.

Identifying the “fuel poor”

In England, according to the most recent official government statistics, more than 2.3 million (10%) households are living in fuel poverty. Leeds, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Cornwall are among the places worst affected. At risk groups include single parent households with dependent children, rural households, and those living in the private rented sector. Research also highlights that those customers who use prepay meters, which include a large proportion of the most vulnerable customers, are more likely to be “fuel poor” as they do not have the flexible tariff options and reduced rate deals which are offered to customers who pay via direct debit.

The picture is not much better elsewhere in the UK. A report produced by the Scottish Fuel Poverty Strategic Working Group estimated that there are currently over 800,000 households (35%) living in fuel poverty, with levels as high as 50% in rural areas. Meanwhile, in Wales the latest estimates suggest that 23% of households are currently living in fuel poverty.

heater gauge

Tackling the causes of fuel poverty

Not being able to afford to heat your home, or having to choose between eating or heating is the stark choice many families in the UK are being forced to make, however it is clear that fuel poverty stems from a number of different factors, including the cost of fuel, the price of energy, and rising energy consumption habits.

The latest Scottish Government strategy on tackling fuel poverty suggests that four drivers of fuel poverty need to be tackled before fuel poverty can be eradicated. These are:

  • Raising incomes  8 out of 10 households (in Scotland) in income poverty are also fuel poor.
  • Making energy costs affordable  in many cases the cost of fuel is rising faster than household incomes.
  • Improving energy performance in housing  people living in a home with low energy performance are 3.5 times as likely to be suffering from fuel poverty as those in a home with high energy performance.
  • Changing habits of energy use  adopting energy-saving behaviours can make a significant difference to fuel bills by reducing overall demand. There is also a need to better understand and increase use of “green energy”.

But what about energy suppliers?

In December 2016, a report from Turn2Us suggested  that two million households suffer from fuel poverty. Subsequently, the “big six” energy suppliers met at Westminster to discuss what they could do to help tackle fuel poverty. At the moment, there is no legal requirement for energy companies to take action to reduce fuel poverty. However, they are coming under increasing pressure to help tackle fuel poverty, by reflecting some of their profit margins in the rates they give to customers. The idea of automatically putting vulnerable or “at risk” customers onto the lowest fuel tariff was discussed. However the bulk of the discussion, according to reports, concentrated on how to increase awareness of existing options, including the government-led Warm Home Discount, individual support grants, the Cold Weather Payment, and practical support from suppliers themselves.warm fire

Practical strategies to tackle fuel poverty

A number of schemes have been developed to try to help tackle fuel poverty, with national roll outs being supplemented by more localised programmes often funded by local authorities or charities.

In November 2016 the Scottish Government pledged an extra £10m to be spent on tackling fuel poverty. £9m was allocated for councils and housing associations to make it easier for tenants to heat their homes. A further £1m is to be made available to provide interest free loans to help people make their homes more energy efficient.

Other schemes have also been introduced by local authorities to try and tackle fuel poverty, including Ready to Switch? Launched in November 2012, Peterborough City Council’s collective switching scheme uses the combined buying power of residents and businesses within the community to negotiate cheaper prices with energy companies. According to figures from Peterborough Council, to date, hundreds of households have switched to save on gas and electricity, with some reducing annual bills by nearly £150.

Boilers on prescription (BoP) is a new funding stream which is being tested in a number of local authority areas, including Sunderland. The fund is managed through NHS Clinical Commissioning Groups, and householders at risk of cold related illnesses are referred for heating upgrades via health professionals. One of the main ideas behind BoP is to reduce a resident’s need for NHS interventions by improving their thermal comfort at home. It is hoped that a warmer, healthier home could reduce the number of GP appointments or emergency admissions.

Energie

 

Altering the design of new homes and subsidising the retrofitting of older ones is also a key policy strategy for tackling fuel poverty. Providing homes which are designed or adapted to be energy efficient through improved insulation, the installation of solar panels or using appropriate lighting or heating systems will allow the government not only to reduce fuel poverty in the present, but should also reduce the likelihood of more people falling into fuel poverty in the future. Reducing the demand for energy by creating homes which use less of it may also help to drive down the cost of energy, resulting in even bigger savings. However, it is not just the responsibility of individual homeowners to carry out these improvements. Local authorities, housing associations and private landlords also need to (and have in many instances) recognise the vital role they play, particularly in relation to more vulnerable customers who are at increased risk of falling into fuel poverty. Retrofitting has been increasingly popular in other parts of Europe, as these case study examples show.

The issue of fuel poverty in the UK does not appear to be going anywhere fast. Despite the attempts of governments across the UK to reduce the figure, in many areas the number of people falling into fuel poverty continues to rise. While there are individual areas of good practice aiming to help some of the UK’s most vulnerable families to heat their homes, it is clear that a wider commitment to combat the underlying causes of fuel poverty is needed, along with a recognition that there is a responsibility across the board to provide help and information to families suffering as a result of fuel poverty.


If you found this article interesting, you may also like to read our blog on the Dutch Energiesprong model and our research briefing on retrofitting (member access only).

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team. 

PassivHaus … a home for all seasons?

Passivhaus

Image by Pichler Haus, released under a standard Creative Commons Licence

By James Carson

This week, eight contenders are waiting expectantly for the results of the 2015 UK PassivHaus Awards. The awards celebrate sustainability and good building design, with the focus on the PassivHaus concept.

What is PassivHaus?

PassivHaus is an approach to building that is designed to eliminate the need for traditional central heating systems by combining:

  • excellent levels of insulation
  • passive solar gains and internal heat sources
  • excellent level of airtightness
  • good indoor air quality, provided by a whole house mechanical ventilation system with highly efficient heat recovery.

Since its small beginnings as a German-Swedish collaboration in the 1980s, over 30,000 buildings around the world have been built using the PassivHaus approach.

The benefits of PassivHaus

Energy efficiency lies at the heart of a PassivHaus building. The PassivHaus Institut, which plays a leading role in promoting the concept, has claimed that these buildings can achieve energy savings of up to 75% compared to average new builds.  PassivHaus proponents also claim that the buildings have significantly better levels of air quality, and greatly reduce carbon emissions.

Practical issues

While the long-term energy savings are impressive, PassivHaus buildings are not without their critics. Among their concerns:

  • Cost: The higher standards of PassivHaus buildings, including triple-glazed windows, mechanical ventilation systems and vacuum insulation, all add to the costs of PassivHaus construction. The consensus seems to be that PassivHaus will increase build costs by 15% to 25%, and it’s believed that the higher costs have limited the concept’s application to a handful of private housing developments in the UK.
  • Construction time: Because of the optimum performance demanded of them, PassivHaus buildings can take longer to install. In the Republic of Ireland, concerns about slower construction times during a serious housing shortage has prompted the government to oppose plans by local authorities in Dublin to make the PassivHaus standard mandatory for new homes.  PassivHaus proponents in Ireland have condemned the moves as short-sighted, and claim that PassivHauses won’t slow down construction.
  • Adaptability: Another criticism of the PassivHaus concept is that it’s not readily adaptable, and that structural alterations may interfere with the integrity of a PassivHaus building.

A building or a lifestyle?

There have also been claims that residents may themselves have to adapt to PassivHaus living.

“Building a house to this standard means agreeing to live a certain lifestyle, which if lived to the book can work very well, and has been proven to do so time and time again. You must appreciate, however, that building such a home is a lot of trouble to go to if ultimately you do not want to live the PassivHaus lifestyle.” (The Green Home)

However, PassivHaus supporters dismiss the idea that these buildings are too complicated to maintain:

“The ventilation system, not common in conventional buildings, is user-friendly and easy to operate with fewer controls than a normal television.” 

PassivHaus in the UK

The PassivHaus concept was slow to take off in Britain, but more and more UK architects have become interested in PassivHaus since 2013, when the government committed to implementing zero carbon homes from 2016. The zero carbon homes standard will require house builders to decrease all carbon emissions from energy arising from fixed heating and lighting, hot water and other fixed building services, such as ventilation, in new homes. It’s worth noting, however, that the zero carbon standard is less strict than PassivHaus.

The PassivHaus approach is not limited to residential properties. Among the buildings shortlisted for the UK PassivHaus awards this year are a primary school, an office and an education centre.

Elsewhere, the University of Leicester’s Centre for Medicine is currently under construction, and is set to be the UK’s largest PassivHaus building. It’s estimated that the high levels of insulation and a state-of-the-art heating, cooling and ventilation system will reduce the university’s energy bill for its new teaching and research facility by 80%, compared to the previous building.

PassivHaus may also be able to contribute to alleviating Britain’s housing crisis. A social housing project currently under construction in Rainham, east London, aims to demonstrate that PassivHaus is a commercially viable solution to the UK’s shortage of affordable homes. The builders of the 51-home project claim that this will be the first PassivHaus development to be let entirely at affordable rents.

Future prospects

Inadequate heating, poor insulation and high energy costs have become significant factors in the rise of fuel poverty among households in the UK. At the same time, there is a pressing need to reduce dependence on fossil fuels. So, it may be that the buildings being showcased at this year’s PassivHaus awards may come to be seen as ahead of their time.


The Idox Information Service can give you access to a wealth of further information on housing; to find out more on how to become a member, contact us.

Further reading*

 Footprint: three Passivhaus projects, IN Architects’ Journal

Lancaster co-housing (a Passivhaus development), IN Products in Practice

First look: only way is social for Essex Passivhaus homes (energy efficient social housing), IN Property Week

Keeping cosy in Rainham (affordable housing scheme built to Passivhaus standards), IN RIBA Journal

Lessons from Germany’s Passivhaus experience 

*Some resources may only be available to members of the Idox Information Service