Why aren’t we tackling energy efficiency in buildings when it’s so simple to solve?

5905213394_77ab6664ca_z.jpgThis post is by Andy Ford, director of the Centre for Efficient and Renewable Energy in Buildings (CEREB) at London South Bank University and Bruce Tofield, associate consultant with the Adapt Low Carbon Group at the Passivhaus Enterprise Centre, University of East Anglia.

What’s the easiest thing that we could do to reduce energy use, tackle climate change and make life healthier, more affordable and more comfortable for millions of people in the UK; something that will also promote higher productivity, quality and skills?

Simple. All new homes and buildings should be built to an energy standard ten times more efficient than the average home that exists in the UK today. We know how to do it. It would cost very little. But we are spectacularly failing to achieve it.

Action to combat climate change needs to happen now. Buildings consume almost a third of all the energy used in the UK. About two thirds of that is for heating, one fifth of all energy used.

Once constructed, buildings are around for decades or even centuries. Building new homes and buildings to poor standards of energy efficiency locks the problem in for decades.  Lord Deben, the chair of the Committee on Climate Change, has admitted that we’re in danger of building new houses now that will have to be expensively retrofitted in future because they are so energy inefficient.

Huge contrast between average homes and energy efficient homes
Innovate UK’s four year Building Performance Evaluation (BPE) programme found that, on average, non-domestic buildings use 3.6 times more energy than predicted by their designers. The results are broadly the same for homes. The BPE programme also identified poor indoor air quality and overheating concerns in many of the buildings studied. And they were looking at buildings considered to be well designed and constructed. The average building is worse.

In contrast, in new social housing built to a high standard of energy efficiency, residents love both the warm, healthy and comfortable environment they provide and also the low heating bills, with annual gas bills as low as £120. Likewise, in a new energy efficient school, annual heating bills are ten per cent or less than current recommended good practice for schools and the internal environment is far healthier than the norm, which means more alert and attentive students.  This is what could and should be routinely provided for all new buildings nationwide.

Things won’t change without clear ambition
This problem is one of quality, not cost. The All Party Parliamentary Group for Excellence in the Built Environment (APPGEBE) has just issued a report with recommendations for a new quality culture and better skills training to improve the quality of new homes. Sadly, such recommendations, however well intentioned, will fail without clear direction and support. These calls echo exactly the ambition of the Egan report, Rethinking construction, nearly twenty years ago.  Since it was published, little has changed.

Quality problems are inevitably worse in the retrofit of existing buildings. In one extensive test of Green Deal style retrofit, average savings in gas bills were only a quarter of those predicted and average electricity bills actually rose.

But there is a way forward. If London and other big cities demanded that major new house-building projects, such as those at Lee Valley or Barking Riverside, were conducted to Passivhaus or similar quality standards, the standards would then more easily spread to new builds and retrofits across the nation, bringing costs down. Appropriate training should be given to everyone involved, from architects to tradesmen, to ensure that the quality standards are met.

We’re missing huge benefits
Imagine how absurd it would be if, instead of banning incandescent lightbulbs, the government was still encouraging their use because they were cheaper to buy, even though LED bulbs ten times more efficient and much cheaper to run were readily available. By focusing only on the numbers of houses built, and not their quality, that’s what is happening with buildings.

The cost of transforming quality would be modest but the benefits would be huge. It would give us buildings that promote productivity and well-being. It would enable growth in a high quality UK industry, providing opportunities for skilled people and innovative supply chains. It would cut energy costs for consumers for heating and cooling buildings and help reduce fuel poverty. Cities could become more energy independent and low carbon. And, last but by no means least, it would help the UK to meet its carbon reduction targets.

It’s exactly the innovative stimulus the economy needs right now. Brexit or no Brexit, life really would be better for all.

Photo: Peter White, BRE


  • Absolutely right, and well said. Just remember though that we also desperately need all new housing to be water neutral as well, at least in south-east England, where there are virtually no spare water reserves, and certainly none sufficient for all the houses that would have to be built in the region to meet the current demand.

  • Absolutely correct, Passivhaus should be the required standard for all new houses, but the mass house builders will lobby government until the cows come home to stop this happening, it might affect their bottom line very slightly. All our houses are energy efficient, not all certified but designed using Passivhaus Planning Package and our clients enjoy the massive benefits.

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