Tuesday 20 August 2013

Zero Carbon Homes – Carefully Check the Small Print

Let’s call it what it now is – the Zero Changes to Homes policy

As the government revealed its most recent changes to the building regulations on energy efficiency that were breath-taking for their lack of ambition, industry professionals are left wondering what’s happened to the inspirational goal of zero carbon construction.

The solarblogger caught up with an architect friend, Marcus Nelson of MEPK, over coffee at a construction trade show earlier in the year.  He was reflecting on the spirit of innovation that the government’s policy to achieve Zero Carbon Homes (ZCH) within ten years had sparked in the years immediately after its announcement in December 2006.

“There was a sense that we were all striving to achieve something worthwhile, that it was an ambitious challenge but one that we could achieve by coming together as an industry.”

Where had that feeling gone, we wondered.

Not Quite Zero

The first sign that this challenging aspiration might be watered down was the decision over what should be included in the definition of zero carbon.

The initial announcement of the policy ‘Building a Greener Future’ in 2006 proposed a common sense definition:

“For a new home to be genuinely zero carbon it will need to deliver zero carbon (net over the year) for all energy use in the home – cooking, washing and electronic entertainment appliances as well as space heating, cooling, ventilation, lighting and hot water.”

However, government announced in 2011 that to qualify as a ZCH, only so-called ‘regulated emissions’ would need to be reduced to zero.  Regulated emissions are those that come from heating the home, providing hot water for bathing, and electricity for lighting, pumps and fans. 

So-called ‘unregulated emissions’ would not be included in the definition of ZCH.  These include for example emissions from electricity used to run appliances such as fridge, freezer, vacuum cleaner and washing machine, as well as electronic devices such as television, playstation and charging your phone.

Housebuilders had argued that they shouldn’t be held responsible for the electrical equipment that people use in the homes they build, and the government had accepted that argument.

Why stop there?  Why not argue that housebuilders cannot be held responsible for how often people choose to take a shower, or the fact that they want to heat their homes to a temperature higher than outdoors.  The precedent of taking an average for domestic hot water use and internal temperature is well established, and there is no reason why we couldn’t take an average electricity use for appliances and gadgets too. 

A common sense, “man in the street” definition of a ZCH would include the carbon emissions from running such essentials of modern day life as fridge and freezer.  Instead, fully one third of the emissions from a 2006 home have been ignored and will not be addressed by the ZCH policy.
As the chart shows, for a three bedroom end of terrace home of 85 square metres floor area with the average 2.55 occupants, this means that zero now means 15 kgCO2/m2.

One is left with the suspicion that the definition was chosen simply because it made the goal easier to achieve, and in the hope that no one would notice that zero doesn’t really mean zero any more.

Do as I say

As well as announcing the goal of all new homes being zero carbon by 2016, government also set out to use public procurement to drive the required innovation in construction products and techniques.  From April 1 2008, all new social housing built with public funding had to achieve Code for Sustainable homes level 3, a level of CO2 emissions 25% lower than the building regulations at the time.

The concept was that as the building regulations tightened up towards zero carbon by 2016, social housing would pave the way.  Always one step ahead of commercial building, helping to develop skills and knowledge in the industry, providing a scale market to drive down costs of new technologies and providing a set of ready-made solutions for the commercial developers.

In 2011, as social housebuilders were getting ready for the move to meet Code for Sustainable homes level four (a 44% reduction in carbon emissions from 2006 regulations), the government quietly dropped this requirement.  From then on, developers of social housing need only build to the same environmental standards as commercial builders.

Some social landlords have held the line and moved to Code 4 anyway, but with tightening allocations of central funding, most have not.  As the chart shows, the environmental sustainability of social housing will have remained almost static for the eight years.  By 2016 social housing should have already been building to true zero carbon for three years, demonstrating techniques and technologies ready for commercial construction to follow.

The Building Regulations that Never Came

In August 2013, around one year later than expected the government finally announced changes to the building regulations that would come into force from April 2014.  Instead of requiring a further tightening of the energy efficiency of new homes to a point half way to zero carbon, an improvement of only 6% was made.

As the chart shows, the ZCH programme is now well off target even for the watered down definition.

You can almost write the script for what comes next:

Government issues a consultation on the 2016 building regulations
Housebuilders lobby that the drop to ‘zero’ is too fast
2016 building regulations impose only a small carbon reduction
2019 promised for ‘zero’

Zero Carbon Homes was visionary and challenging, a kind of 'Apollo' programme for the construction industry.  Unfortunately instead of JFK, we got Eric Pickles...

“But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? . . . Why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? . . . We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills . . .”

JF Kennedy

"For years badly-placed wheelie bins and the proliferation of multiple bins have created a blot on the landscape.  By ensuring that developers create appropriate waste storage areas when designing new homes, we can tackle the ghastly gauntlet of bin blighted streets and driveways."

Eric Pickles 2013


See also: 'A Million Missing Low Energy Homes', comment on the Building Standards Review Consultation, also from DCLG.