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Government scraps “zero energy” targets

July 2015

In its latest weakening on green initiatives the government has decided not to go for “zero carbon” new housing by 2016. EU policy is that all new housing should be zero carbon by 2020/2021 and England decided to get in early and start doing it by 2016 (Wales attempted to implement it earlier – 2014)

This change of policy has come out in the document “Fixing the foundations: Creating a more prosperous nation” on page 46. It is part of a CFE drive to try to speed up the building of new housing. To quote the paragraph:

The government will therefore –

There are two interesting points about this change in policy:

  • the “allowable solutions” was already a euphemistic watering down of the original “zero carbon” principle.
  • the last bit about “should be allowed time to become established” is either a major copout on behalf of the government or else an admission of the dreadful state of the housebuilding industry in the UK, or both.

Probably it is about recognising the fiasco which would ensue if higher construction standards were made law. The overall quality of the housing produced by volume builders in the UK is lamentable. This is graphically described in the short video “The Future of Housing” which covers the subject of air-tightness in humorous detail.

But to be fair, it is not only the big volume builders to blame for poor housing. The whole culture of the building industry tends to be one of low educational standards and low expectations.

compare builders with car mechanics

It’s quite interesting to compare people’s experiences of car mechanics and builders. These two groups of trades people, usually male, tend to be from a mainly similar educational background and culture.

A car mechanic will generally repair your car in a fairly reliable way and it will probably be done in a very short time period; possibly a day or two. It might involve the very accurate fitting of highly technical parts drawn from a range of hundreds of makes and models. The price quoted will be fairly accurate as will be the time for completion. You might then pick up your car and reasonably expect to drive away at high speed and know that everything is safe and reliable. (Not true in every case of course.)

A builder, meaning a small building company, will come up with endless reasons for why the job can’t be done quite the way you wanted. They will ignore drawings, specifications and requests in a macho sort of way, they will leave your job and go to work on a different one if you complain about anything. They will demand money up front and they will refuse to remedy mistakes. (Not true in every case of course.)

It’s interesting to conjecture why these two trades have such differing cultures

So it’s not about the ‘impossibility’ of zero carbon housing. It’s about the poor culture surrounding the building industry. In most of Northern Europe a qualified builder will have studied for three, four or five years, will have qualifications to at least degree level and will be conversant with highly technical working practices. Here it tends to be about being a bit handy with DIY.

To be clear, zero carbon building is not rocket science. A recent project by Cardiff University (with an interestingly well timed announcement) is a zero carbon house which comes within the budget of housing association and council housing costs, i.e. £1000/sq.m.  So money is not the problem. This is by no means the first such zero carbon building and the Passivhaus system is ideally suited to become zero carbon if solar collectors are fitted. Also check out the zedfactory

So the government has correctly identified the likely outcome of pursuing a zero carbon policy. The fiasco would be that virtually no new houses would achieve the necessary air tightness standards (and probably most would have the insulation standards bodged). And this would not look good.

Of course self builders and custom builders are very often aiming for better than the minimum standards in terms of insulation and air tightness and are willing to go the extra kilometer.



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