From Housing Crisis to Housing Transformation

29 09 2011

The housing market crisis presents a unique opportunity to transform the quality of housing in England, to stimulate innovation, to create new business opportunities and supply chains, and to transform skills in the construction sector.

Build with CaRe, a European project with ambition to mainstream low-carbon construction, has brokered contact and learning between continental partners and housing associations and businesses in the East of England. As a result, new initiatives are now a reality on the ground with architects, housing associations and construction companies working together to deliver passivhaus and similar very low energy construction.

The National Housing Federation has this week warned of a housing market crisis. As the NHF notes, at the heart of the problem remains a chronic under-supply of homes with hundreds of thousands of people locked out of the housing market.

Homes built today will be occupied for over fifty years. It is essential that any response to this housing crisis stimulates innovation and takes a path that will enable new homes to be models of energy efficiency in the decades to come and to provide environments that enable health and wellbeing for their occupants.

By requiring that housing associations work with industry partners to build low-energy passive homes, the route out of this crisis can become an opportunity to fast-track UK construction to innovate, to develop the skills needed to build to very high quality standards, and to develop the supply chains that will anyway be necessary in years to come.

The cost need not be great and value will in fact be created. The Government can now borrow longterm at very low interest rates as a result of the wider global economic slow-down to create a fund to kick-start such a process. Investment today to stimulate innovation will yield great benefit to the economy as a whole.

Passive houses built today will retain value above any built to today’s standards with the result that investment today may be recouped with interest in the years to come. Not only will such an approach make new houses that are appropriate for a low-carbon economy, but it will also accelerate innovation and progress in the far greater task of refurbishing existing homes to be highly energy efficient.

The construction industry must do the heavy lifting to help combat climate change because buildings are responsible for almost half of carbon dioxide emissions. I have been hugely impressed by the speed with which housing associations and their construction industry partners have learned from innovation in Sweden, Germany and elsewhere so that design, costs and quality of new low-energy projects have been transformed in just a few months. This speed of change on the ground shows very clearly how housing associations could lead the transformation to very-low-energy, high-quality but affordable housing that today’s crisis should stimulate.


Bruce Tofield, Build with Care Project Manager, LCIC


Groaning your own!

24 01 2011

In recent years there has been an increasing emphasis upon where we get our food from and the carbon associated with its growth, its cultivation, transportation from the field to the market place and then to our plate. It all adds up.

From this there has become resounding call for us all to ‘grow our own’. To pick up spade, find a space and live a life of plenty from the toil of our very own hands. There have arisen a plethora of TV programmes explaining how to get the most from your marrows, the squish from your squash, the choicest cuts of curly kale,  but how many of us actually do it,  and do we have any idea what is required?  Basically what a thirty minute TV programme cannot show you is the labour that is requisite. As I can testify the reality is somewhat different from: plant seed, leave to grow, pick plant, eat.

A few years back I was granted an allotment from our local council. Having been on the waiting list for four years I was delighted to get stuck in and so one cold November day myself, missus and toddling daughter went to view our land. The first thing that astonished us was the scale.  A full allotment is a big area, bigger than any garden I have ever had in any house I have ever lived in. It was a truly daunting prospect. However we duly set to work trying to get it ready, not planting anything yet, just getting it ready. Three years later our allotment is still not fully ready.

Then the thing is what do you grow? There are plenty of books that can offer advice, but there is a big difference between reading a book and actually planting a seed. What is your soil type? What is the drainage? Are you on a slope? North or south facing? For something so inanimate, seeds can seem surprisingly picky of their preferred surroundings.

Then there is the time. The thing is, food, particularly some vegetables, can take an awfully long time to grow.  I mean ages. Take broad beans for example. You plant them in November and they do nothing, nitch, for the best part of four months. Around the end of February small stumpy plants start to appear and suddenly the race is on so that by mid of May pluming bushes hang with plump bean pods ready for the pot. By the end of May, you’ve eaten them all and you’re looking for your next emerging crop. Let me be clear, with the time required for weeding, vegetable rotation, planting , weeding, watering and weeding (again!) an allotment is hard work. If we had solely relied on our plot to feed us this winter we would have starved and hard though it is to admit it, the actuality is that, as long as you are careful with what you buy, supermarkets are quite good at providing your food (without you digging, hoeing etc).

So, do I wish to discourage anyone from growing their own? Absolutely not for the rewards should you persevere are glorious. Last year from our allotment courgettes, runner beans, butternut  squash, rhubarb, raspberries, potatoes, strawberries and herbs were quite happy to thrive in near abject neglect and were picked and biked home on hot summer evenings as swallows banked and dived around us.  Which certainly beats going to Tescos.

So if you haven’t done it before, find yourself a pot for your tomatoes or potatoes, or dig yourself a ditch for your pulses and pumpkins. Go out there and find your green fingers.

Matt Taylor, CRed System Co-ordinator

Transparency – a necessary by insufficient condition

7 01 2011

UEA is famous for its work on climate change; recently infamous in certain sceptic circles. It is also famous for its commitment to creative writing. At the annual creative writing festival this year there was an event devoted to climate change. Chaired by Sir David King the session involved contributions from Sir John Houghton, ex-head of the UK Met Office and Phil Jones, Director of the Climatic Research Unit (CRU). The discussion covered many areas including the IPCC process and the ‘climate-gate’ saga. Though the mood was partly on how had climate science come to find itself in the position it currently resides, there was also a more optimistic, forward looking discussion covering how to rectify the apparently low levels of public belief in climate science and trust in the scientists.  The unanimous verdict from the panel was that openness and transparency were vital. Phil Jones described in detail the challenges faced by CRU in making accessible all of the climate data made available to CRU and other key research organisations by the world’s various meteorological centres. It appears that good progress is being made to secure this. But will that alone provide the answer to the problem of low levels of trust? It may not. Opening up access to the data may well lead to even greater numbers of analyses but if these are not subject to the full peer review process then the media may well remain full of narrowly constructed poor quality science. The vested interests in protecting the status quo are powerful, economic ones. Unless handled very carefully then greater amounts of analysis might well be mobilised to promote confusion. Should this happen the net result is likely to be greater scepticism amongst the public and even more reason for inaction. Add to this the reduction in quality of the scientific press and it’s hard not to conclude that it’s a bleak prospect; particularly with today’s reports that global emissions are rising seemingly relentlessly. Data transparency is an important step, but only one step in a long journey ahead.

Dr Simon Gerrard, Chief Technical Officer

Buildings for the future

13 12 2010

A few weeks ago LCIC received two important visitors: Prof Xinjun (Joshua) Wang, Executive Director and Dr Qiao (Edward) Yuan, LED lighting expert and Assistant Professor arrived from the Urban Planning Architecture and Design Institute at Fudan University in Shanghai. The Institute, known by its acronym UPADI, is a relatively large organisation employing a couple of hundred people and conducting similar number of projects annually. The Profs brought with them a few example projects ranging from residential developments to smaller and very large scale offices. LCIC will be working with UPADI over the next year to help add low energy and low carbon expertise into these projects. In so doing LCIC will gain a huge amount of experience in Chinese approaches to design and construction. The intention is to use this experience to forge a longer-term strategic alliance in low carbon, low energy development.

In its eco-development work LCIC adopts a whole life approach to low energy and low carbon buildings. Taking a whole life approach involves considering energy and carbon emissions at each stage of the building’s life – design, construction, operation, refurbishment and, ultimately, demolition. In taking this approach some interesting trade-offs emerge between the carbon embodied in construction materials and the emissions arising from operation, in particular from heating. For example, buildings with greater thermal mass tend to have higher embodied carbon but, if operated properly, can save much more energy and carbon throughout the bulk of their operating life. However, if a building is powered by renewable energy, then the carbon equation shifts. The building may use more energy than a low energy one but it emits less carbon. The trade off between energy and carbon is illuminating and tied into other factors such as cost and risk. One area that deserves greater attention is post-occupancy analysis. In our experience it usually takes several months to drive down the energy and carbon emissions from low energy buildings. Not only do monitoring systems require careful tweaking but so too do the occupants. Tackling the human factors is rarely straightforward but without this many projects that are intended to be low energy and low carbon fail to deliver.

Given the scale of development in China if LCIC can help UPADI to reduce energy and carbon in the projects that they are undertaking then it will be worthwhile. There is palpable excitement on both sides about this partnership. Our initial activities have highlighted not only the scale of the challenge but also the commitment of our Chinese colleagues to develop quickly the understanding and practice of low energy and low carbon design, construction and operation. As work progresses we will add updates to the website.

Simon Gerrard

Chief Technical Officer and Acting Director

Xmas shopping dilemas

30 11 2010

I had a day’s holiday from work yesterday to do some Christmas shopping. I know a lot of people won’t even start thinking about that until at least the beginning of December but, given that that’s tomorrow (wherever does the time go??!), I wanted to make a head start.

I have to confess to loving shopping and there are some amazing things to buy for people. I’m a bit of a marketeers’ dream to be honest and would happily spend a King’s ransom on all my nearest and dearest if only means allowed! However, I can’t help thinking (as rightly I should) about how wasteful this, now, over-commercialised festival has become. Such thinking, in turn, will always lead me to think of unnecessary carbon emissions. Unwanted gifts now mean not only wasted hard earned cash but unnecessary carbon emission in production of said gifts and distribution etc. Not to mention the implications of landfill, should your gift be way off the mark! I’ve considered Oxfam gift of a goat type options in the past, I think they’re an ingenious and extremely worthwhile idea but I’m not sure how many of my friends and family would really prefer me to buy a goat for a village in Africa over something superfluous but attractive/intoxicating/delicious/fun etc. for them!  With these thoughts fresh in my mind I googled ‘low carbon xmas gifts’ this lunchtime and was pleased when a few choices popped up. For example, have excellent CO2 offsetting and reduction gifts ranging from buying 3 low energy light bulbs for installation in Africa at £15 up to £100 to go towards an African biogas digester – ideas with excellent ethical credentials on so many levels.

I’m not going to be disingenuous enough to here and now pledge to buy such gifts but I do think it’s reassuring to have the options available. The more widespread and mainstream these options become the more likely one of my friends and family would be happy with a goat for Africa as a gift. As I begin wrapping my present mountain, a carbon suspect practice in itself given the materials required etc., I’ll no doubt be ruing the day I decided against the more ethical options available! Please comment with your suggestions for my dilemma ….

Angela Larke, Office Manager

And the winner is …..

8 11 2010

For the past year or so LCIC has been working with the film, TV and computer games industries to help reduce carbon emissions from production, distribution and exhibition. So it was particularly pleasing to be asked to present at the recent Bafta ‘Greening the Screen’ event in London.

The potential for the industry to act as a catalyst for change is enormous, but to be credible it’s particularly important that the industry practises what it preaches and reports its progress faithfully. The event involved a series of presentations, a panel debate and a trade fair so participants were able to get a sense of the current thinking from experts as well as practical hands-on advice about how to get started.

Carbon emissions are driven by many factors throughout the life of the product. At the very start of a concept, though many screen writers may operate from their own homes and thus contribute relatively modest emissions, their choice of locations can have a huge impact on subsequent travel emissions during filming. The travelling circus associated with being on-location is well known for the scale of its impacts so it was good to see many initiatives at the trade fair dedicated to helping to reduce these (e.g. Likewise there are efforts to reduce emissions within the cinema industry and in games consoles. The comparative carbon performance of film vs. digital production methods is something that LCIC is currently investigating.

Though the film and TV industry has many issues similar to other UK industries, from a carbon management perspective it presents a particularly interesting challenge. Typically the production system brings together a wide range of companies into a special purpose vehicle (SPV) company. That company exists for the lifetime of the production and is then disbanded. Consequently, whereas many UK public and private organisations develop a carbon management system over many years, the SPV is relatively ephemeral.

The British Standards Institute has developed a modification of its voluntary sustainability standard designed for the events industry. It is based around the same methodologies as typical environmental and quality management standards. Focussing on sustainability, BS 8909 covers more than just carbon. Current thinking is that a film, TV production or game would be given a sustainability label if sufficient numbers of the companies comprising the SPV had achieved the BS8909 standard.

It is hoped that the standard will be finalised early in 2011. If you would like to find out more and/or add your own comments you can find the draft at

Dr Simon Gerrard, Chief Technical Officer and Acting Director, LCIC

Retrofitting Houses: Mitigation or Adaptation?

25 10 2010

Two-thirds of the homes we will be living in by 2050 have already been built. Housing is a significant contributor to the UK’s carbon emissions. Over three quarters of the emissions from housing comes from space and water heating contributing 13% of total UK emissions. So it isn’t surprising that refurbishing existing housing is a significant element of the UK’s carbon reduction activity.

UEA recently hosted a European conference on passive housing [ ]. Some of the discussion was about driving CO2 emissions down within new housing developments, but much of the focus was fixed firmly on refurbishment.

Encouragingly, levels of optimism about meeting technical challenges were high; many of the technologies we need are available and well-understood. There was less optimism about meeting the financial demands of retrofitting, but some evidence from Sweden and Germany that as the retrofitting industry scales-up so costs will fall. However, this was all over-shadowed by the cheek-sucking and head scratching whenever the scale of the task was mentioned. Some estimates arrived at the conclusion that the UK needs to be retrofitting at a rate of several houses per minute for the next decade or more. Can this be done? – most people I spoke to couldn’t see how.

There is talk of how the proposed Green Deal – to be launched as part of the forthcoming Energy Bill – will help catalyse the UK’s retrofitting programme. It seems that the Green Deal will link carbon reduction measures to the house rather than the owner. It will be based on long-term loans. However, preliminary analysis presented at the conference indicated that it is unlikely that a loan-based approach would reduce sufficient carbon to meet the targets of the retrofitting programme. Under this scheme some form of subsidy will be required, particularly for improving solid walls where the economic pay-back is measured in decades.

This challenge is a prime candidate for some disruptive innovation. For example, thinking the unthinkable about the inalienable rights of the home owner or finding radical ways to increase the demolition rate. Though the focus has tended to be on the individual home owner or landlord, whole community approaches may be the only way to achieve the scale of the retrofitting in the time available. Can communities be mobilised effectively on the scale required?

What if we can’t achieve retrofitting in the time available? We would be in a higher risk position, relying on forms of adaptation and hoping that the effects of climate change are not as severe as some of the predictions. Ironically, adapting our buildings is also likely to require lots of insulation or buildings may become uninhabitable in the hotter summer months. Screening sunshine out is possible, but unless the UK’s grid electricity was seriously decarbonised then adding air conditioning would simply be fanning the flames.

It’s hard not to conclude that our present efforts will lead to increased numbers of uninhabitable buildings. However, as it was pointed out at the conference, energy price rises may do this job before climate change anyway!

Dr Simon Gerrard, Chief Technical Officer, LCIC