When you’ve been in any industry for a long time you do develop a perspective on long-term goals and how many are missed for lack of commitment.
Right up there at the top of that list is the ambition to reduce the carbon emissions from homes. And just to remind everyone, our homes account for roughly 15% of all greenhouse gas emissions in the UK.
Theoretically, we’ve been aiming to build zero carbon homes for over a decade. As long ago as 2007 H+H was involved in two pioneering house designs demonstrating how a fabric-first approach could lead t a practical, serviceable and long-lasting house design meeting the zero carbon target.
However, in the recession that followed the 2008 financial crisis that focus evaporated and it has taken another decade for the target of zero carbon to re-emerge.
The first question is, will the pressure to achieve zero carbon survive the economic shock of COVID and Brexit combined with the need to accelerate the delivery of new housing?
The second question is: should it?
Personally I don’t doubt the urgency of reducing carbon emissions. I’m old enough to remember different weather conditions and I don’t doubt the science behind carbon reduction targets.
However, if government is relying on private sector housebuilders to reach housebuilding targets, then it needs to make financial sense for them to do so, and introducing significant new design requirements now, such as those laid out in the Future Homes Standard, will be hard to swallow.
It would be less so if there were more of a level playing field between the 200k new homes built each year and the 26 million that are already occupied.
It is good to see Government focusing on retrofit and the Green Homes Grant is a welcome first step – but it can’t work on its own. There needs to be a long-term financial advantage for homeowners to occupy a more energy efficient home – perhaps a council tax link not only to property value but also to efficiency, or a reduction for the most energy efficient homes.
With that caveat in mind, and in the context of the Government providing welcome support for the house building industry, it is not unreasonable to suggest that the sector should respond by supporting the overall objective of faster carbon reduction.
We know that it is technically possible to build zero carbon homes and I would suggest the following five considerations to help keep us on track for reaching that target.
1. Keep innovating, but focus on the long term. We need new houses to be standing for a very long time, so it makes sense to prioritise fabric first approaches that ensure the building continues to perform regardless of technology.
2. Allow a realistic time frame for the introduction of new regulations. The current Future Homes Standard suggests that new performance standards should apply to all houses started after implementation rather than completions. This could dramatically reduce the time taken for all new homes to conform to the most recent standards, but housebuilders will need time to adjust their plans accordingly. As long as a realistic time frame for introduction is set in stone, then builders and their suppliers can plan and invest to meet the deadline.
3. Consider emissions from the entire housing stock together and continue to investigate both technical and financial solutions to the improvement of older housing stock.
4. Focus on decarbonising energy generation.
And finally, most importantly,
5. Don’t backtrack. If no-one believes that the targets will stick then there is no incentive to meet them.