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Tackling the other housing crisis

This is a guest post by Bruce Tofield, who led the University of East Anglia’s involvement in the European energy saving project Build with CaRe.

Earlier this year, we provided detailed evidence of several major barriers that are inhibiting a transition to low energy construction and refurbishment of buildings, and showed how these could be overcome.

Transforming our buildings to, or close to, passivhaus energy efficiency is the biggest opportunity available to reduce global energy use.

Heating homes
In recent months it has become evident that progress to a renewables-based electricity system can take place much faster than had been anticipated.  Achieving such a desirable transition, however, will need much more effective action on demand reduction.  Green Alliance has shown leadership in promoting cost effective new ways to reduce electricity demand in particular.

Now we need to focus on buildings and on gas.  Nearly one-third of all final energy used in the country is for homes and around two-thirds of this energy is for heating alone, the great majority being for gas-fired central heating.  Energy used for domestic heating has risen since 1970, not fallen, because improvements in boilers and insulation have been more than offset by a desire for warmer homes.

The average domestic gas bill was around £300 at the turn of the millennium but is now considerably more than double this – a result of increasing global gas prices.  We can only have any hope of meeting climate change targets – as well as of keeping bills down – if we can hugely reduce the heating needs for homes and buildings as well as decarbonising electricity.

But new homes and buildings don’t perform as they should.  Every thorough study of new UK buildings for the last twenty years has found that they use more energy – sometimes a lot more energy – for heating and cooling than their designs indicate.

Higher bills, poor health and climate change
The implications of this energy performance gap are profound and worrying.  If we carry on building homes (and other buildings too) in the way we do today, energy use and carbon emissions will be far higher than planned.  Whatever building codes might say, and no matter how demanding regulations might seem, there will be a disastrous legacy of higher bills, potentially poorer health, and the UK unable to meet climate change targets.  Problems with new build will be magnified in work to improve the energy efficiency of the existing building stock.

We have now published an analysis of how low-energy buildings can be successfully delivered.  Sadly, we conclude that unless quality across the design and construction process radically improves, as it could do by adopting the passivhaus standard, this ambition cannot be met.

Homes last for a long time, just like fossil fuel-powered electricity power stations.  Embarking on a massive housebuilding programme without making sure that what is built is fit for purpose would be extremely negligent and a huge burden on future generations.  This problem of the energy performance gap is a second housing crisis.  It is just as serious over the long-term as the housing shortage everyone is talking about today.

There’s a simple solution.  Build and refurbish homes to a high quality standard.  Building to the passivhaus quality standard is the route to better homes, lower bills and better returns as well as to a more competitive and innovative construction industry.  Far-sighted developers now realise that building passive is more cost-effective because maintenance will cost less, prices will be stronger and rental streams better protected.

The new Future Homes Commission report has got many things right, recommending a three-fold increase in the number of new homes built each year, kick started by an independently managed £10 billion Local Housing Development Fund.  It should also have declared that passive is the right way forward.

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Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank focused on ambitious leadership and increased political support for environmental solutions in the UK. This blog provides space for commentary and analysis around environmental politics and policy issues as they affect the UK. The views of external contributors do not necessarily represent those of Green Alliance.

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