20 Feb 2012

Middle class paint

Great article here by Amie Tsang in the weekend's FT on Heritage Paints.

It all started when Farrow & Ball launched a National Trust range in 1991. F&B have grown from strength to strength on the back of this and last year had a turnover of £42m, and they now export to France, USA, Germany and Holland. Then along came Patrick Baty who runs Paper & Paints and who started Little Greene, a me-too business which aligned itself with English Heritage.

Then Crown and Dulux got in on the act — look for Heritage ranges — and then Fired Earth, Sanderson, Zoffany and Designer's Guild. Oh God, I'm getting lost. There's more here in a Telegraph article from 2006.

So what's the deal? Well, they cost about twice as much as ordinary paint — the going rate seems to be around £50-£60 for 5lts — but they are better made in that they have more pigments in them. At least, that is, according to Kevin McCloud. But then he has lent his name to the Fired Earth range so he just might not be a reliable reporter on such matters.

What about authenticity? Well it's here that Amie's article begins to sing because she has taken the trouble to interview a number of experts who all end up saying much the same thing. Which is pretty much that they don't really know how authentic the colours are because everything tends to fade. She quotes Helen Hughes, a paint archaeologist — there's a job I never knew existed — who says "traditionally, it was just a man with a bucket, mixing on site." Now that's how I used to make cement!

So what we get is a modern take on what we imagine traditional paints were like, but without the lead and arsenic and other nasties that were commonly used.

Does it matter that they are not authentic? Of course not. It's all a marketing exercise. What you are buying here is taste. Use these and you are unlikely to make a horrible mistake with your colour schemes. Whereas in the bad old days we used to slap on magnolia everywhere because you'd never go wrong, now you can pay the premium and use a heritage paint and it'll look cool. I'm surprised John Lewis haven't got in on the act. To date, they only sell Sanderson's paints.

16 Feb 2012

Pathways to Darkness?

My interest in the energy debate knows no bounds. I have recently dedicated at least four lengthy train journeys, pouring over my trusty iPad, to reading two newly published pathways and trying to make sense of them.

I feel I deserve a medal. This stuff is not easy going and, as I look around the carriage at other people reading novels or magazines, or staring vacantly at the passing countryside, I sometimes wonder why I am doing this. I'm certainly not getting paid for it and every now and then I get overcome by the urge to doze off. Nevertheless, it is interesting, sort of, and I have a feeling that if I don't do it, no one else will.

First out of the traps is the delightfully named Less is More which, as has already been pointed out on Twitter, weighs in at an ironic 282 pages. The document - it's basically an ebook - has the imprint of the AECB. It has a foreword, an executive summary and then, on page 22, a preface by AECB chairman Chris Herring. It's principal author is David Olivier, who I have known for 30 years, and the whole project has the feel of being his magnum opus. It's full of fascinating insights and little-known facts. For instance, did you know that:

Energy efficiency measures can reduce a tram's electricity consumption by some 75% from 4 to 1kWh/vehicle.km, although doors are opened so often that winter space heating is likely to take another 0.5kWh/vehicle.km, even with reversible heat pumps.

or that Chaudes-Aigues in Central France has had geothermal district heating since the 14th century?

Less is More is full of these little teasers that make energy wonks like me trill with delight, and make you marvel at a life spent collecting such gems. But this great strength is also its weakness because somewhere in all these pages you become aware that the bigger picture is getting lost and that our pathway through the woods has become obscured by all the fascinating discoveries we have made along the way.

Because the destination of the pathway is to get to 2050 with the lights on, our homes warm and almost no carbon getting released and, in this respect, Less is More doesn't convince. It's future is something pretty similar to the one that Denmark has mapped out — there are lots and lots of references to Denmark — which involves no nuclear power and not that much in the way of renewables, but lots and lots of energy efficiency and piped heat networks. But nowhere is there an explanation of why Denmark's pathway is the one we should follow and nowhere is there an examination of whether Denmark has got it right.

Nuclear power is dismissed because the risk of an accident is uninsurable and therefore this constitutes a hidden subsidy which makes it, in turn, uncommercial. I'm not convinced by this argument either. But it's arguably beside the point, because the whole thesis is based on the idea that we simply don't need very much energy by 2050, and certainly not very much electricity. The government line — broadly speaking that espoused by David Mackay and the 2050 calculator project — is that we should decarbonise the grid and move everything towards electric powered this and that. Less is More doesn't buy into this, and pushes towards using a combination of waste heat, liquid fuels derived from surplus windpower and concentrated solar power, and a world dedicated to energy efficiency. Or negawatts, to borrow a term from Amory Lovins.

Less Is More sets out to show that negawatts are cheapest and best, and is at its strongest when describing how a future built environment might work. But negawatts will only get you so far and, for one thing, you can't really do a convincing pathway without dealing with the transport sector. If you don't electrify transport, it's hard to see where you will get the carbon savings from. Transport does get dealt with in the appendix, but the electricfy-it-all option is dismissed in favour of making what we have more efficient.

The reason for our coming to this view is that none of the post-oil options for road, sea and air transport appear attractive.

Maybe this is true, but a pathway still has to deal with this. And if it's not a complete pathway, what is exactly is it all about?

The same criticism applies to Achieving Zero, which emanates from Oxford University's Environmental Change Institute, although it too bears the hand of an author, Brenda Boardman, who will be familiar to all who trawl these areas. Achieving Zero is subtitled Delivering Future-friendly Buildings so you can at once see that, like Less is More, its solutions will be somewhat skewed towards buildings — transport doesn't even get a look in here. It's also been supported by Greenpeace which may have helped with the production costs but doesn't do a great deal to establish its independence.

Not that it's slavishly following a Greenpeace line. Like Less Is More, its future scenario is non-nuclear, but it doesn't make a big thing about it because the emphasis is all on energy efficiency in our buildings. Where it differs from Less Is More is in its emphasis is on policy levers, such as using Energy Performance Certificates as both carrots and sticks to encourage building owners to undertake refurbishments. And there is an examination of Personal Carbon Allowances which just about everybody interested in this field sees as a really good idea but politically would seem to be a complete non-starter.

Achieving Zero falls into the trap of assuming that the existing housing stock can be upgraded easily. "Beyond 2025, the need for any space heating will disappear as properties are made low-energy or brought up to Passivhaus standard." I wish. This is no mean feat and I fear it would take rather more than the odd council tax rebate or stamp duty holiday. It would be simpler and possibly cheaper to demolish and rebuild every house in the UK - at a rate of around 750,000 houses per year. (Last year we built just 100,000 new homes, by way of comparison.) Methinks she underestimates the size of the task in hand, let alone the complete impracticability!

The main problem with both these publications is that they are painting a nuclear-free, energy constrained 2050 when it's now beginning to look that this may not be such a great idea. If you replace difficult to manage renewables (farmed electricity) with a steady flow of low carbon nuclear power, then the actions needed to meet 2050 obligations change drastically and the scope and depth of energy efficiency measures becomes much more manageable. With nuclear, we don't have to dig up every road in the country, we might not have to rebuild every house, we may even get away without carbon rationing. Whilst it may not be what green builders want to hear, the nuclear option is beginning to look far more achievable, far more acceptable. To my mind, this is now the big question to address and any pathway that choses to ignore it is starting in the wrong place.

13 Feb 2012

Problems with cavity wall insulation

One of the first blog pieces I ever wrote, in November 2005, concerned cavity wall insulation (CWI), and examined the likelihood of there being problems. At that time, my blog got published in two different places which wasn't the cleverest idea I ever came up with as my own blog piece on this topic never got a single comment, whereas the other one gleaned no less than 85. If you Google cavity wall insulation problems it still comes up on the first page, despite being six years old.

This morning I sat down and read all the comments and tried to make sense of them. Most of them are observations and anecdotes, a few are pretty desperate cries for help and mixed in here and there are around a dozen cases of people getting mould or damp problems which they attribute to CWI. In every case, they have then received short shrift from both their installers and the guarantors. The issue seems to be that it's not possible to say definitively that their problems result from having CWI installed and so the buck is easily passed. But surely the chances are that they can't all be making it up, or jumping to the wrong conclusions. Something mouldy is going on here.

Now my article starts out with a dig at Jeff Howell who is the Telegraph's building agony uncle and who maintains a website with extensive articles containing his thoughts and observations. Had I known what comments would follow on from my blog, I wouldn't have been so critical of Jeff because it seems that he has genuinely tapped into a pool of discontent about CWI and, as he says, he is just about the only person giving it a voice.

Behind this are some big questions. What percentage of homes that have had CWI have gone on to report damp or mould problems? How can you tell which as yet untreated homes are likely to suffer problems? Have we adequately assessed the risks?

At the tail end of last year, DECC published the results of a study into CWI, looking at the issues with the many as-yet-unfilled cavities and how best to address them. It could have looked at issues with already-filled cavities but chose not to. Is this because this would have been off message — i.e CWI is a good thing, so why point out that it might not be? Or is the problem with damp and mould so minute that they feel it's not worth worrying about?

If it's the latter, then they could greatly strengthen their case if they were to publish the numbers of complaints received about problems resulting from CWI, rather than pretending that they are irrelevant. The internet (and Jeff Howell's postbox) is full of dark rumours, and it's high time we shed some light.