Blazing the trail

Buildings are responsible for nearly half of UK carbon dioxide emissions. Rob Bell asks whether the planned 120,000 homes at Thames Gateway can act as an example of energy efficiency for the housing sector

The South-east is the UK's largest region, with a population of 8.1M, just over 13% of the UK total. Among the country's fastest growing regions, housing supply is a key issue. In an attempt to address the shortfall, in 2001 the government published the Sustainable Communities

Plan, undertaking to see 120,000 new homes built in the Thames Gateway by 2016.
The is UK struggling to meet its carbon reduction targets. And the government appears reluctant to tackle emissions from private transport. Hence, energy efficiency in new homes has become a focus for environmental policy as the country begins to reach the limits of reductions that can be squeezed from industry.

Nearly 50% of UK CO2 emissions are caused by building, or maintaining and occupying buildings, with homes alone accounting for around 25%.

The World Wildlife Federation's (WWF) regional development officer, Mark Ellis-Jones, says: "If we are serious about tackling climate change, new housing must enable householders to reduce those emissions. And, because homes built to higher environmental standards use less energy, they not only reduce CO2 emissions but will also reduce consumers' energy bills."

Strategy manager at the Energy Saving Trust Zoltan Zavody believes minimising the emissions of new housing is key to the UK's climate change strategy. "The long-term issue is that by 2050 the UK needs a 60% reduction in carbon emissions," he says.

"Clearly at the moment the houses we already have on the ground are where we can do the most work. But one third of homes we'll have by then are still to be built - and there will be a lot of them. And because we have to reduce emissions as a whole, the new build by 2050 will account for roughly one third of the emissions we can allow from housing stock and still hit our targets.

"It's quite shocking because we're building quite efficient homes but we risk missing our reduction targets because there are going to be a lot of new buildings."

The government is well aware of the need to address energy efficiency as part of the drive to house the South-east's growing population. And it has tightened the standards required under Part L of the Building Regulations. Associate director at BRE, Neil Cutland says: "The new Part L came into force this year, a 20% higher standard than the previous version, with the intention declared to continue to move forward rapidly.

A mechanism is also now in place so that it is easier for government to progressively tighten standards without the need for long periods of consultation."

A Code for Sustainable Buildings is also planned, which Defra says will "establish higher standards for energy and water efficiency, as well as waste and use of materials, helping to deliver truly sustainable buildings". However, the code was announced in 2001 and has still not been published.

John Slaughter, spokesman for the Home Builders Federation, says: "The idea of the code is to help point the way towards future changes in the regulations, which is a sensible approach. But we're in a difficult situation because we still don't know what the code is going to look like. HBF is represented on the steering group but we don't know when it's going to come out."

There are hopes that, when the code eventuates, it will drive wider action by developers, who have been accused of dragging their feet on the energy issue. Zavody says: "There's a general perception that the industry is conservative and tends to build to minimum standards. Recent research showed that one-third of new houses didn't even meet indicative standards - and that was prior to the revised, tighter Part L requirements."

Slaughter, however, defends the sector. "The 20% tighter standards in the new Part L are part of a 40% increase in standards over five years," he says. "So new buildings are now reasonably energy efficient - significantly more so than existing building stock. But this is just a starting point, and we want to go further.

"We don't have an issue with moving towards higher standards - and we recognise the concern about climate change. The issue for us is how to achieve them. While there are a number of issues, we need a rethink of the traditional approach to regulation, which tends to be too proscriptive. We'd favour an approach based on achieving agreed performance standards."

However, the HBF has fears that government's insistence on higher energy-efficiency standards is beginning to reach a point of diminishing returns. "There is a widespread feeling in the industry that the additional benefits of higher standards will not generate a massive improvement in performance," Slaughter says. "There are also tensions between pursuing energy efficiency and other aspects of the building regulations, such as air quality and ventilation. Energy efficiency is at its core about insulation and air tightness. Can you push for further steps in that direction and achieve indoor air-quality standards, with their obvious links to problems such as asthma?"

Slaughter also says that with some climate change inevitable - and hence increased summer temperatures - greater wall thickness and air tightness may create their own problems. "We need an approach to construction that will deliver buildings that can be kept cool in summer without air conditioning, with its obvious energy issues," he says.

Cutland however, is not convinced: "It's true that the further you go the less room you have to manoeuvre, but whether we've hit that point is a matter of opinion.

"And the cost-effectiveness equation is changing all the time. For example, technological advances and grant schemes have made micro-turbines much more affordable than five years ago. If you hit diminishing returns, you need to start looking at the next step you can take. Now that we're building fairly energy-efficiency homes, let's look at how we supply the energy demand that's left, through photovoltaic (PV) panels, micro-turbines or micro-CHP (combined heat and power).

Homes can potentially become net energy exporters and help address the carbon footprint of existing housing stock. So, even when we get to a zero energy house, we shouldn't give up."

The opportunity to take housing developments to this next level is perhaps the most exciting aspect of the Thames Gateway proposals. Zavody says: "Looking to the future, it's one thing requiring minimum standards, and another to say that high-profile developments such as the Thames Gateway should only meet those standards. It should be a trailblazer demonstration of what can be achieved to the rest of the UK and whole world."

John Maxwell, senior manager at Environ UK, describes the issue of energy efficiency in new homes as "absolutely critical - the best opportunity to have an impact on carbon dioxide emissions from buildings".

Maxwell is also a renewables enthusiast, and says it is essential that renewable energy generation is incorporated into the Thames Gateway plans. "In the last couple of years, the issue has become much more serious, with the country looking like it will fail to reach its targets," he says. "So hats off to London mayor Ken Livingstone for putting pressure on the planning authorities to insist on the demonstration of 10% renewables from developments."

Livingstone has installed PV panels on his roof. And Tory leader David Cameron applied to install a micro-turbine at his London home. Inspiring the general public to follow their example will be critical to making the Thames Gateway development truly energy efficient.

However, enthusiasm does not necessarily translate into action. Slaughter says: "There has been little consumer demand: house buyers haven't been interested in paying a price premium for a cutting-edge environmentally friendly home. In this debate you have to take the public with you to enable properties to be developed that not only meet environmental requirements but that people are happy to live in.

"In the real world, something like fitting energy-efficient light bulbs doesn't necessarily work. People may not replace them with the same, or they might not fit their designer lamps. And there's no use building something people don't want to live in."

So a process of education alongside regulation will be needed if the Thames Gateway is to become an inspirational example of how sustainability can be incorporated into new housing stock. But, with clear leadership from the government and an engaged development sector on board, the much-needed new housing in the South-east could become a beacon for the future of sustainable housing.

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