25 Nov 2013

Where have all our targets gone?

The Code for Sustainable Homes has come in for a lot of stick over the years. This blog hasn't spared the boot. But one thing the Code did achieve, when it was first introduced in 2007, was to make us aware of targets. The Code is split into six levels, each one being more demanding than the preceding one below. And, coupled with this, was a ratcheted timetable which suggested that we would all move up, level by level, until we reached Level 6 in 2016. Level 6 was the fabled state of Zero Carbon.

Now it was pretty clear from the start that Zero Carbon was never going to be much more than an aspirational target because it was so damned difficult to build. To get Level 6, a house had to supply all its own energy needs without recourse to fossil fuel. That meant it had to be loaded to the gunnels with PV on the roof and often this wasn't enough. There were many sites where it simply wouldn't have been possible to build a Level 6 house as it was originally envisaged. Only a politician could have dreamed this up.

So almost as soon as the Level 6 Zero Carbon target was conceived, moves started to water it down. First the definition changed to exclude certain forms of energy usage. Then allowable solutions were conceived to make it possible to offset some of the energy production. Then cunningly the actual definition of what zero carbon really meant was postponed indefinitely and eventually it became a mythical non-target, shunted into the long grass.

All along there has been this tension between energy saving and low-carbon energy production. They are quite different beasts and yet many of these eco-targets such as the Code conflated the two, so that you could save less energy if you produced more renewable power. Some saw this as a neat trade-off, others as a cop out.

And then along came Passivhaus which became fashionable in the UK after the Code was set up in 2007. Passivhaus is a target that concentrates solely on energy saving, and eschewed any additional green bling required to make a low energy house a zero carbon one. Most of the leading lights in this debate came to see the sense in separating energy consumption from energy production and the whole drive towards the Level 6, zero carbon target started to come off the rails.

It hasn't been helped by having a Tory party which has undergone a painful recasting of its green credentials and now seems to believe that energy targets and environmental regulations are not business-friendly or are, to turn a phrase, just expensive green crap.

So as we approach 2016, what has happened to our targets? If the Code is to be abandoned, and Passivhaus is still a long way from becoming mainstream, do we have any other environmental building targets to aim for? Well there are other candidates: Rory Bergin gives a good summary here of what he calls the rating tools. And there is good old Part L of the English building regulations which is neither a target nor a rating tool, but a standard which everyone has to adhere to. That's just been upgraded a little and is starting to look a bit more like a Passivhaus-verylite standard. But even Part L has become a political battleground now and it's not clear if it will ever be toughed-up again, or parked as another piece of green crap.

Scotland sings to a different hymnsheet. The Code has never been applied here and instead they have more measured reports, usually chaired by the esteemed Lynne Sullivan. She first did one in 2007 and it was a breath of fresh air compared to what was happening in England at the time. Recently, she has been called in to chair an update and it manages to cover all bases without committing to a target anytime soon.

But the issues don't go away. Should we be saddling new homes with renewable energy at all? Should we allow offsetting or allowable solutions? Shouldn't we be concentrating on building better homes instead? Should we be trying to close the performance gap between how a house is designed and how it is actually built? What about all the other environmental factors — water, drainage, ecology, materials? How much should these be targeted or legislated for? Should we have targets at all, or just basic ground rules also known as building regulations.

The short answer is that we don't know and the arguments go round and round the same circles with advocates of every avenue pushing home their own viewpoints. Against such a background, it becomes increasingly difficult to set targets as there is no longer any general agreement about what they should be.

In the meantime, Europe is coming up with a directive which requires each member state to have a  nearly zero-energy building standard in place by 2020. The working definition of this is that the nearly zero or very low amount of energy required should be covered "to a very significant extent" by energy from renewable resources. But it is up to member states to define what these terms mean.

In other words, it's not so very different from the Code for Sustainable Homes, only it's unlikely to set such a demanding target as zero carbon. The clue is in the title: nearly zero-energy. That can be as tough or as easy as you like.

Target culture is all very well as long as the target is far into the future or costs very little to achieve. But the demise of the Code — it's not yet decided but it now seems likely that it will disappear soon — shows that when the targets get too tough, it's our resolve that weakens. This mirrors the process which has gone on behind the scenes at the various climate summits that have tried to update Kyoto. Targets are fine as long as they only apply to others, or are far out into the future.


  1. The target always seemed to me to be set by politicians who little cared about the technicalities of how it could be achieved or what the cost might be. As ever, it was all stick with very little carrot. This is far from the first government programme to quietly fail once it becomes clear that a sound-bite target is hard to reach.

    Meanwhile, on the ground, I'd argue builders have no more access to the tools and information needed to build energy efficient homes than they did a decade ago. Nor do they seem to have the incentive - as home owners see high fuel bills as the fault of the energy companies, not their poorly insulated homes.

    I'm very much unconvinced by the argument that if you tighten the screws enough then someone will come up with the technical solution you're looking for. Financial and legislative pressure only go so far, when we need better building technology and home buyers with a desire to see that technology. Squeezing the builders in the middle doesn't give direct incentive to either their suppliers or their customers.

    Everyone who visits our (SIPs) home comments on the high quality of the environment. Few believe it in any way relates to their home - in the UK we're trained to suffer our housing rather than taking pride in it.

  2. The sooner it goes the better.

    The tendency to suffer our housing will continue as long as its supply is limited by planning policies and the resulting seller's market and lack of competition. Self-builders don't get a look in and the amount of social housing constructed is well below the number of units needed by people who are virtually homeless.

    I recently read that in the USA the average used house from an estate agent is about $180,000. Probably around 150-200 m2 which some Americans consider a normal three-bedroom suburban house.Yet in the UK a house half the size is typically sold for £180,000.

    This appears to make the cost of UK housing floorspace over three to four times greater than US floorspace. Granted, their aesthetics aren't always top-notch, but this disparity seems ridiculous considering that US building workers are paid for their labour and their houses normally include as much insulation as ours.

    I don't even believe Passivhaus is a sensible target yet for mass housing, given the obvious "performance gap".

  3. Everything seems impossible until it is done. We have the technology to build safe, affordable, healthy living spaces to Code 4 without renewables and to Code 6 with. One posssible solution is The Mantle Building System, www.mantlepanel.com

  4. Go for the low hanging fruit first, they royally mucked up by sticking on all the complicated bells and whistles first.

    *Significnatly* more insulation, reducing cold bridging, these are all relativly easy to push for, and educate builders on, detailing doesnt change much, and it's easy for building control to spot "mistakes".

    Then you work on air tightness, which is all down to build quality, which is where we suffer, and all you do is slowly ramp up the requirements, insist on testing, and the market will take care of the rest, it's not really difficult to get good airtightness, you just need to whip the "I've always done it this way" brigade into either retiring, or getting better.

    Then you add the bells and whisltes.

    Instead we've tried to do everything at once, builders are to stubborn to learn, or to lazy, to much ignorance, to many mistakes are made, and here we are.

  5. Targets that are far off or inexpensive are pointless - they're not targets at all!

    Making things better IS an effort, it does cost money, it does require willpower. How often do things make themselves better without any effort? When was the last time your car drove itself to the MOT station, swapped its own brake pads, filled itself up and gave itself a clean for no cost?

    It is possible to design multi storey buildings that are zero carbon. It is possible to build to passivhaus levels of insulation and airtightness. It is all possible, it's just not easy.

    And a world without targets? Yeah, maybe we're better off without them, maybe developers might suddenly grow an environmental awareness and moral conscience overnight and, hey presto, they decide to build zero energy homes. Or maybe developers will carry on trying to make us much money as possible by building the minimum required and selling for the maximum marketable rate? Unfortunately home-buyers are more interested in whether there is a wall big enough to take their 52 inch plasma than how much energy they might save - sad but true - so the market is not going to be the answer for a while yet either.