22 Jan 2010

The Denby Dale Passive House

On Monday, I went to Yorkshire to visit the Denby Dale Passive House and the Green Building Store. Six trains, every one on time, each one a pleasure to travel on. £68.

I had previously met the couple building the house, Geoff and Kate Tunstall, at the Homebuilding & Renovating Harrogate show in November where I was giving a seminar about low energy design. The Tunstalls introduced themselves and suggested I pay a visit. Whilst there has been much talk of Passive Houses in the past few years, very few have been built in the UK and (I believe) this will be the first one in England to be certified as a Passive House. You might quibble that lots of low-energy homes have been built to near Passive House standard, but the Passivhaus Institute in Germany is quite specific about its standard and charges quite a lot of money to issue a Certificate.

The reason it’s being Certificated is that the builders — the Green Building Store — want to develop an expertise in this field and they feel that certification is a worthwhile process in helping establish a quality mark for them. Theirs is a fascinating business, housed in some old mill buildings near Huddersfield, employing around 35 people who are split between assembling joinery, product sales and contracting. The merchant side of their business already sells a number of Passive House products — triple glazed windows and doors, mechanical ventilation with heat recovery, air barrier tapes — and it seemed sensible for the contracting side to move in the same direction.

Which is where Geoff and Kate came in. They wanted to build a house down the bottom of their garden in Denby Dale, where they had lived for many years. They initially had no particular interest in low-energy design: if they are known for anything, it’s their love of SuperBikes, which their son Tom races. They certainly had no intention of becoming Passive House pioneers, but a meeting with Bill Butcher, one of the directors of the Green Building Store, persuaded them that this was the route to go. Both Geoff and Kate seem somewhat bemused — and delighted — by all the fuss this house is making. It’s not a large house — two storey, three-bedroomed jobbie — and it’s not the sort of house that would feature on Grand Designs — i.e. it’s not in-your-face architecture and, when it’s finished, you will walk past it and won’t look twice (although it sports a natty glazed section in one corner.) Bill Butcher came up with a fixed price of £141,000, which met the Tunstalls’ budget, and that was enough to persuade them to run with it. At around £1200/m2, it’s not so very different from what selfbuilders are paying for new houses elsewhere, especially ones that are built by a main contractor.

So why is this Yorkshire Passive House different to any other run-of-the-mill eco-house, of which there are now thousands? Why does Building magazine give it airspace via its own dedicated blog site? As Geoff put it very simply as he drove me from Wakefield Station to the house: “There’s no green bling.” This is code for no heat pumps, solar panels, pellet stoves, rainwater harvesting, the range of products which assails the would-be selfbuilder today. Passive Houses sing to a different hymn sheet. Everything about them is designed to reduce the space heating requirements, to ensure maximum comfort for minimum effort. Sounds completely unremarkable but the fact is this philosophy runs counter to the direction the government has been shaping the future of our housebuilding industry and, in particular, the little loved Code for Sustainable Homes, which appears to work mainly by awarding points for Green Bling and sometimes even manages to penalise Passive House-style features.

So the Denby Dale house is more than just a Passive House. What we have here are the makings of a small-scale rebellion against the government line. Its leading lights are the AECB (of which I am a member, albeit a rather passive one) who are promoting Passive House as an alternative model to how new homes should be built. They would like to abandon the Code for Sustainable Homes, and make Passive House the gold standard instead. With a change of government in the offing, there is just a chance that they might succeed, or at least succeed in Passifying the Code. Let’s hope Grant Shapps is reading this…..and thanks to Google Alerts he might just be!

It’s no coincidence that one of the other directors of the Green Building Store, Chris Herring, is also current chair of the AECB, and therefore fully conversant with the semi-political nature of this little battle. The AECB has its roots in the counter culture of the 1970s and feels at home taking on Goliaths. It also has some A1 brains on board, people who arguably know more about building science than anyone else in the country (at least at the small-scale end of things). Despite having very limited financial resources, their research output is superior to anything coming out of the BRE, the organisation that is largely responsible for the Code.

What they don’t have is much track record of having built Passive Houses. It helps enormously that Passive House is recognised around the world as the leading low energy standard for housing. It’s become a brand in its own right. In contrast, the Code for Sustainable Homes means nothing outside England & Wales. It also helps that Passive House is a proven concept — there are now around 10,000 Passive Houses in the world, although I understand that only about 1,000 have been certified by the Institute.

Because of all this, the house down the end of Geoff and Kate’s (pictured hereabouts) garden has assumed a significance they cannot have dreamt of when they first contacted Bill Butcher. It’s not just a low energy house, it’s a Passive House. And it’s not just a Passive house, it’s an assault craft landing on the beach that is the Code for Sustainable Homes. By 2016, when in theory the Code should kick in fully and all new homes should be “zero carbon”, you would not be allowed to build this house. For a start, it is going to have a gas boiler — not permitted under Code Level 6. And it will have nothing in the way of home-generated electricity (although the Feed-In-Tariff coming on stream later this year may cause Geoff and Kate to reconsider).

But that’s not to say that it’s low tech. There is, of course, the little matter of the Mechanical Ventilation with Heat Recovery (MVHR) system, which is a core principle of Passive House design. That’s already been subject to lengthy discussion on this blog and now is not the place to re-air this debate. You might say this is “Green Bling” but MVHR is not the sort of green bling to attract subsidies or special tariffs. The Tunstalls have no problem with the air quality being dependent on MVHR, though there is an ongoing dialogue about whether the post heater fitted to the ventilation system should be electrically powered or gas driven. And there will be a small gas boiler installed to heat the hot water. Everything else about the house will be passive in both senses of the word.

When I visited on Monday, the first air tightness test had just been carried out and the result was an amazing 0.4 air changes per hour under pressure (the Passive House standard requires 0.6 — the average new UK house scores around 7.0). It shows that we can build to these exacting standards if we put our minds to it – this in a cavity wall house as well. Whichever way you look at it, Denby Dale is a remarkable project.

19 Jan 2010

Political Science

This Labour government is so awful I cannot wait for it to go. Please, please, please, election come and put us all out of our misery. The only problem is that the incoming Tory administration is likely to be just as bad, if not worse. I saw this table, culled from Ellee Seymour's excellent blog, and it filled me with a sense of foreboding. Just who are these people? You can just see that come 2014, or 2015 or whenever the election after next happens, we will still be arguing about the same things. Like "Is climate change even happening?" Or "How can we ditch Europe?" How I long for a breath of fresh air.

9 Jan 2010

Is blogging dying?

This morning I learn that my blog has made it into a Top Ten List. I am No 7 on the UK's Property Blogs, and one of the few there not to act as a newsfeed for a series of articles elsewhere which, in my view, isn't true blogging. I don't know whether to be delighted or deflated.

I have now been writing this blog for the best part of 5 years and it no longer feels quite the fun thing that it once was. My postings are down in number and less varied in content and, though the number of comments seems to be rising, the readership levels have plateaued. It's also noticeable that blogging, as a method of communication, seems to have stopped growing. There are very few must read new blogs coming on stream and many of my favorites (see my blog roll) are much less active than in the past. It's not just me.

Has everyone moved elsewhere? Is Twitter where the action is? I sort of doubt it. You can't really write on Twitter. Is it Facebook? Not really. Or is it just a sign of the times? Is it the recession/depression that is causing us to write less, and to be more pessimistic?

Certainly, the mood in the property business is pretty depressed. Whilst there are one or two brightspots, especially in the selfbuild sector, an awful lot of people who back in 2007 would have been phoning me up for a chat or gabbling away to me at conferences or exhibitions, now seem to have their heads down, concentrating on survival. Remember that depression is psychological state as well as an economic condition and the two are closely related. The phone stops ringing, the stories dry up, the industry events are few and far between, people get isolated, the sense of gloom grows. And blogging becomes problematic. Who wants to read nothing but bad news? Who wants to write it?

So hats off to Stovax who took the trouble to dig me out yesterday and invited me to come and visit them in Exeter. They have some good news about their products (wood burning stoves) and they want to tell the world. Where better than on Britain's No 7 Property Blog!

Next problem. How the hell does one get to Exeter when the whole country is buried in snow?

5 Jan 2010

On Housing Benefit

A challenging and thought-provoking piece in the Times called “We are picking up the bill for Right-to-Buy” by Ross Clark. It highlights some of the iniquities of our housing benefit system, which costs near enough £20billion a year to keep afloat. It is particularly obscene in the richer neighbourhoods of London where claimants are apparently living the life of Reilly in luxury homes at taxpayers expense. And many of them appear to be foreign and black, giving the Daily Mail apoplexy. Whether the situation is quite as comfortable as described by our right-wing press, I have my doubts, but there can be little doubt that the whole system is a mess and it’s not clear exactly what can be done about it.

Clark’s solution is this: resume building social housing with an emphasis on family units (this is primarily where the problem lies). But people have been saying this for years and it hasn’t exactly got us very far. The social housebuilding programme has been largely funded by slicing off some of the profits that the landowners and private developers were making, and now that these have more or less vanished, this avenue is looking a little thin. To re-invigorate it now would cost billions – money which simply is no longer available.

But would Clark’s solution really improve matters, or is it just more sticking plaster? The problem is essentially that we have created a two-tier housing market. There is the private sector, which is expensive and insecure (esp. for renters), and the social/council sector which is cheap and very secure. And subsidised to the tune of £20billion a year. This creates an enormous demand for social housing, a demand that is probably unquenchable as things stand. Building more social housing may go some way to meeting the current demand, but is going to create even more demand further down the pipeline, and may well end up costing even more to subsidise. It doesn’t strike at the root of the problem, which is that there are two different markets operating and cheap and secure housing is always going to be preferable to expensive and insecure, even more so now as windfall profits from owning private housing have been put on hold.

A more logical solution would be to have just one housing market. To do that, you have two options. One would be to privatise the social/council house sector, and remove all housing benefit, instead supporting the poor by some other method – for instance, giving them money and letting them decide how to spend it. Alternatively, you could nationalise all housing and have it all rented out by the state. Somehow I don’t expect to see either of these two options featuring heavily at the forthcoming Election!

Boiler Scrappage Scheme

The Boiler Scrappage Scheme kicks in today in England (only). It is offering £400 to set against the cost of replacing an old rust bucket with a gleaming new A rated boiler. I don't know that much about it, but the grants are being handled by the Energy Savings Trust and the link is here.