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Zero carbon housing – what does it mean?

by mel starrs on June 3, 2008

in Zero Carbon

I’ve been following the recent developments on zero carbon housing closely. The current discussions are revolving around the UKGBC’s document defining zero carbon released a couple of weeks ago. I read the document and had a couple of observations to make which I didn’t blog immediately. Instead I sat back and watched the fireworks begin. (This post grew and grew, so see below the jump for the full text).

The first to take umbrage was Bill Dunster over at Building magazine:

It seems that some of the people partially responsible for causing the problems in the first place are now trying to reduce the effectiveness of the legislation, possibly in an attempt to maintain the value of their extensive landbanks. The real issue is cost, not the technical challenge of delivering zero carbon.

Building magazine’s forum ran a poll and all respondants (at the time of writing) voted for UK-GBC and tended to disagree with Bill Dunster. One commenter went as far as to say:

It would seem that people are more interested in personal legacy shopping then actually addressing the real issues of achieving significant greenhouse gas emissions, while still providing affordable, high quality buildings in well balanced, well connected, desirable communities. It’s a bit sad really.

It is important to remember that the UK-GBC report is not the last word – it has been produced in order to feed in to a government consultation on the definition of zero carbon due in the summer. The document is still very much a work in progress.

The start point of the document was the fact that zero-carbon as currently defined would be unrealistic. Over to Robert Kyriakides for more on this:

Trying to work backwards – have a definition first and try to figure out what it means – may work in politics, philosophy or even economics but in science it leads to some hilarious outcomes. This is what has happened with the modelling that has been done in an effort to discover what Ms Cooper meant by a Zero Carbon Home – we cannot of course ask her because she doesn’t know.

And from Roger Humber (of the House Builders Association – more from him in a minute):

Neither Yvette Cooper nor the industry’s leaders had the remotest idea what they meant when they first signed up to delivering zero carbon by 2016.

From Brian Berry of the federation of Master Builders:

It is almost like politicians plucked the objectives out of the air and said ‘this is what we will go for’. If they had spoken to the industry we would have more realistic targets.

What we have here is a problem of vocabulary. Zero carbon as a phrase has captured imaginations. It is a very black and white statement – ZERO CARBON – not “very low carbon” or “significantly less than we used to have carbon”.

There were three options available to the UK-GBC:

1. deliver fewer homes that meet the current definition of ‘zero carbon’

2. reduce the requirement for carbon savings from new buildings

3. find a suitable mechanism for allowing off-site solutions where on- and near-site installations are not practicable or are prohibitively expensive.

The final was the one the UK-GBC chose to promote. This keeps the intent of zero-carbon. The alternative would have been to ditch the phrase, which would have been egg on faces all round, given the penetration of the phrase into the public vocabulary.

Paul King (of UK-GBC) was fairly swift in responding to criticism of the report and in defending zero carbon as a goal:

We believe zero-carbon is the right policy so, for those who fear this is some sort of cop out, I’ll reiterate. We believe that in many cases it is possible and desirable to achieve net zero-carbon in homes using on and near-site renewable energy. In all cases, we believe the minimum requirement for on or near-site carbon mitigation should be high.

However, we need a definition that can be used for regulatory purposes, one that can be applied to 100% of homes, including those that face constraints against the use of on-site renewables. Hence a degree of flexibility is needed.

The approach we have recommended should encourage developers to opt for on or near-site solutions wherever possible. The price of paying into our proposed “community energy fund” will mean developers will only do so if there is no alternative. That price could create a benchmark to incentivise the micro-renewables industry to offer developers better, lower-cost solutions.

To those who think we should have opened the floodgates to allow unlimited use of off-site renewables, I say that it is essential that we optimise use of all the UK’s renewable energy resources. The future is undoubtedly one of increased demand and competition for large-scale on or off-shore technologies, with other sectors such as transport almost certainly prepared to pay a higher price for energy.

There is more work to be done, but I think we’re a step closer to removing a major obstacle en route to 2016.

So on one side we have the ‘dark’ greens, such as Bill, saying things are not going far enough. In the middle are the UK-GBC taking a ‘light’ green, more pragmatic approach. And at the opposite end of the spectrum are what are fondly referred to as ‘hairy arsed builders’ with a more ‘brown’ view. From Roger Humber (again) of the House Builders Association (the voice of the non-volume house builder):

“The government should use the credit crunch to say we have over-egged it all, timetables are not feasible and that there will be a moratorium on changes to the Code for Sustainable Homes.”

To be fair to Mr Humber, I can’t find his actual statement, just how it’s been reported in Contract Journal. It is clear, however, that there is a potential disconnect between theory and delivery which needs to be addressed immediately. The government and the UK-GBC need to use this opportunity to open up dialogue and avoid any future roadblocks, which might be caused by industry apathy and complicity (the “I told you it was going to fail” mentality).

I’m keen for the non-volume builders to have their voice heard and to feel inclusion. Barratt were one of the companies involved in the report. From 2006, some research I undertook for my MBA dissertation points to why this might be unsettling to the non-volume house builders:

Kotler’s rule of thumb is that a bigger market share can lead to a bigger profit for a company up to a ceiling of 40%. Companies with market shares of less than 10% have little influence on price changes, new services and promotional intensity. The top 4 (soon to be 3) companies account for almost 50% of the market in 2006 (48%), each being between 10% and 13.5%, meaning a true oligopoly. The 4 in question are Persimmon (already on the FTSE100 – PSN), Barratt (BDEV – FTSE 250) and the potential Taylor Wimpey (Taylor Woodrow – TWOD – FTSE 250) (Wimpey – WMPY – FTSE 250). However, even with Taylor Wimpey combined, total market share will be 25% – no individual company would be near the ‘danger’ mark of 40%.

The UK house building market is overshadowed by an effective oligopoly and if zero-carbon further compromises market choice by forcing out non-volume house builders, we must find a way to prevent this happening.

So what did I think of the report? Two main points stood out to me:

  • by extending the renewables beyond the new build site and into the community, there will be a benefit to the existing stock
  • those houses which do meet the original target will have the opportunity to differentiate themselves from the bulk of the market

But what really interests me has been the interaction in the press between all the stakeholders involved – the government, the UK-GBC, the volume house builders, the activist designers and the non-volume builders. But let’s not forget the public – they’re the ones who are going to drive sales eventually. As far as I can ascertain, the report itself was not picked up by the national press. Let’s get our house in order before the customers get wind of any dissent in the industry.

  • http://www.natural-building.co.uk Matt Robinson

    I am in complete agreement – ‘zero carbon’ is unattainable – on the grounds of cost and that we simply cannot manage it. Unfortunately the ‘carbon’ and energy focus at present is allowing many architects to rely on ‘gimmick’ and ‘eco-technology’ rather that good old fashioned and proven reductions in energy need and use. This focus also means that other issues of health, resource depletion, pollutants in buildings etc are being missed – what is the point in building ‘zero carbon’ homes from toxic materials with high embodied energy from a depleting resource?
    Experience says that the smaller house builders are more open to change and pragmatic, practical solutions to more sustainable housing – but as you point out, its the big players that hold the keys to industry wide change.
    I do feel that many of the ‘sustainable buildings’ we see touted and exalted at present may fail to deliver on the promises, and indeed may come back to ‘bite’ those involved in the project. We have a local school that was launched as ‘the most sustainable school in the uk’ – yet their energy use and bills are higher than my kids school – half of which is a single glazed, 100yr old building….

  • http://www.natural-building.co.uk Matt Robinson

    I am in complete agreement – ‘zero carbon’ is unattainable – on the grounds of cost and that we simply cannot manage it. Unfortunately the ‘carbon’ and energy focus at present is allowing many architects to rely on ‘gimmick’ and ‘eco-technology’ rather that good old fashioned and proven reductions in energy need and use. This focus also means that other issues of health, resource depletion, pollutants in buildings etc are being missed – what is the point in building ‘zero carbon’ homes from toxic materials with high embodied energy from a depleting resource?
    Experience says that the smaller house builders are more open to change and pragmatic, practical solutions to more sustainable housing – but as you point out, its the big players that hold the keys to industry wide change.
    I do feel that many of the ‘sustainable buildings’ we see touted and exalted at present may fail to deliver on the promises, and indeed may come back to ‘bite’ those involved in the project. We have a local school that was launched as ‘the most sustainable school in the uk’ – yet their energy use and bills are higher than my kids school – half of which is a single glazed, 100yr old building….

  • Peter Marc Burke

    Lower carbon homes may be better, and lower carbon may not necessarily mean only the carbon used in construction. It would be a good idea to build homes that used less fuel because of ultra insulation ecoblock please take a look by searching this on youtube where they have a channel would be good, ecoblock is an ICF (insulating concrete former)buildings can be constructed very fast the shell of a home is possible in one day, think about the transportation (CO2 emissions)to and from construction sites. I agree with you about the toxic materials used in ‘zero carbon’ homes maybe if the ICF were for instance made from Hemp or organic (surplus)waste material panels it may be more sustainably affordable than oil bi-products. Robert Kyriakides is an inspiration for people to think about the problems as we come near to the end of the energy age and for us to think of new solutions, I am sure he would be able to sharpen up my ideas, but as far as I can see the problem is that it is gonna get harder to get the energy into the bucket so you don’t want that energy to leak through holes in the bucket. If we need a new school for some children then building it with clay furnace fired bricks for two years is really a high cost solution when it is possible to build from ICF in two months. because the building is ultra insulated the heat from the children in the school will actually be contained in the building and will not require to be heated with fossil fuel. Yet the building will not be zero carbon because the children will release CO2 when they give of this heat obviously from the cereals in their breakfast.
    Could I ask if the children in the 1908 built school are still using slate writing tablets and candle light on the cloudy days?

  • Peter Marc Burke

    Lower carbon homes may be better, and lower carbon may not necessarily mean only the carbon used in construction. It would be a good idea to build homes that used less fuel because of ultra insulation ecoblock please take a look by searching this on youtube where they have a channel would be good, ecoblock is an ICF (insulating concrete former)buildings can be constructed very fast the shell of a home is possible in one day, think about the transportation (CO2 emissions)to and from construction sites. I agree with you about the toxic materials used in ‘zero carbon’ homes maybe if the ICF were for instance made from Hemp or organic (surplus)waste material panels it may be more sustainably affordable than oil bi-products. Robert Kyriakides is an inspiration for people to think about the problems as we come near to the end of the energy age and for us to think of new solutions, I am sure he would be able to sharpen up my ideas, but as far as I can see the problem is that it is gonna get harder to get the energy into the bucket so you don’t want that energy to leak through holes in the bucket. If we need a new school for some children then building it with clay furnace fired bricks for two years is really a high cost solution when it is possible to build from ICF in two months. because the building is ultra insulated the heat from the children in the school will actually be contained in the building and will not require to be heated with fossil fuel. Yet the building will not be zero carbon because the children will release CO2 when they give of this heat obviously from the cereals in their breakfast.
    Could I ask if the children in the 1908 built school are still using slate writing tablets and candle light on the cloudy days?

  • Iain Fraser

    Great article Mel.

    I think people are getting far to hung up about the ‘zero carbon’ tag. If you have a poor site or a certain type of amenity then there’s no way you’ll be zero carbon.

    To create a mechanism whereby you can call a development which offsets their residual energy use, through a bung of cash, ‘zero carbon’ surely devalues the term and fails to differentiate between fortunate developments and those constrained.

    And yet if all homes were to be the best energy performing homes possible then we do need a mechanism whereby constrained developments contribute in another way.

    We need to grasp terminology here and resist the pressure of developers and government. Every home cannot be a zero carbon home and we shouldn’t pretend they can.

  • Iain Fraser

    Great article Mel.

    I think people are getting far to hung up about the ‘zero carbon’ tag. If you have a poor site or a certain type of amenity then there’s no way you’ll be zero carbon.

    To create a mechanism whereby you can call a development which offsets their residual energy use, through a bung of cash, ‘zero carbon’ surely devalues the term and fails to differentiate between fortunate developments and those constrained.

    And yet if all homes were to be the best energy performing homes possible then we do need a mechanism whereby constrained developments contribute in another way.

    We need to grasp terminology here and resist the pressure of developers and government. Every home cannot be a zero carbon home and we shouldn’t pretend they can.

  • Pingback: on zero carbon and routes to get there … « isite()

  • http://www.qualityhrv.ie Shane

    Hey Mel,
    Just inviting myself to join.. Excellent article I wonder about just getting the basics very right, if passiv haus standard were to become the building standard of choice then surely the zero carbon approach could easily follow suit?

  • http://www.qualityhrv.ie Shane

    Hey Mel,
    Just inviting myself to join.. Excellent article I wonder about just getting the basics very right, if passiv haus standard were to become the building standard of choice then surely the zero carbon approach could easily follow suit?

  • http://www.mikebriggs.org Mike Briggs

    While they are the most debated issues, I believe that the financial and technological aspects of zero-carbon are actually at the easier end of the scale.

    What will be much harder is changing the attitudes and culture of the industry to actually achieve the required quality of construction, and educating the other parties involved – for example the estate agents and the public. Even with the current relatively undemanding standards problems are being experienced in these areas. The following article on my Web site explains why, and outlines the need for an integrated change management approach to address the issues: http://www.mikebriggs.org/html/zero_carbon.html

  • http://www.mikebriggs.org Mike Briggs

    While they are the most debated issues, I believe that the financial and technological aspects of zero-carbon are actually at the easier end of the scale.

    What will be much harder is changing the attitudes and culture of the industry to actually achieve the required quality of construction, and educating the other parties involved – for example the estate agents and the public. Even with the current relatively undemanding standards problems are being experienced in these areas. The following article on my Web site explains why, and outlines the need for an integrated change management approach to address the issues: http://www.mikebriggs.org/html/zero_carbon.html