Building for the future

It wasn’t that long ago that the idea of zero-energy, sustainable housing on a multi-unit scale was as pie-in-the-sky as intergalactic shopping. Today, carbon-neutral communities have become a reality, at least for some of the nation.

Power-efficient dwellings set in green spaces, equipped with recycling facilities, water saving features and legally-binding green transport plans are taking root. As every industrial sector clamours to commandeer the term ‘sustainable’, the construction industry continues to balance the inherently complex challenge of a mammoth array of interacting variables that are, let’s face it, often contradictory.

In helping the housing industry on its sustainable path, proposals for new houses incorporating the latest technological innovations are being considered, along with redevelopment of our current housing stock, which brings it up to date by retrofitting energy-saving devices. A debate about which to prioritise is in full swing.

In July 2008, the government closed its consultation process on 15 potential eco-towns earmarked for sites across Britain comprising substantial country settlements of up to 20,000 homes each. As the first new towns to be built in Britain for more than 40 years, each targeted the highest standards of sustainability, with low and zero carbon technologies, state-of-the-art recycling, water systems, and good public transport – with 30-50 per cent of units allocated for social housing.

However, some critics, and not just local objectors, claim the ‘green card’ is merely a way for speculative housing projects to obtain government approval. If the initiatives are really all about saving the planet, they argue, why is Britain’s countryside being carved up for developer-led housing projects? Surely building lots of new houses in isolated rural enclaves will lead to an increased dependence on cars and private transport unless affordable and efficient public transport systems are in place? Tony Burton, Director of Policy and Strategy at the National Trust, said of ecotowns: “It doesn’t matter how much energy efficiency and water resource management it has, that can’t make a development that’s in the wrong place suddenly be in the right one.”

Such comments add fuel to the new-build ecotowns versus retrofit debate. Retrofit advocates claim that any city in the world can be adapted in line with ecotown principles – even complex urban sprawls such as London or New York. Yet, in the UK, only four out of every 1,000 homes have any ‘low-and-zero carbon technologies’, according to a 2007 report by Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute.

However, change is afoot. As part of a programme of initiatives designed to help London reach its goal of stabilising CO2 emissions to 60 per cent below the 1990 level by 2025, environmentally friendly buildings are being created, both in the public and private sector. Near Clapham, for instance, there’s the newly-built, purposed-designed Tree House – a single-family dwelling meant to resemble a tree in appearance and environmental impact, and in Camberwell, there’s Three Acorns, currently the only zero-carbon Victorian retrofit house in the capital, replete with solar panels, rain harvesting, and a wind turbine. Other notable eco triumphs include Clay Field in Elmswell (a Housing Award Winning scheme that minimises embodied energy and wastage to achieve a highly insulated, airtight, breathable construction while using a mechanical system to recover 80 per cent of heat from internal air) and One Brighton (a range of 172 eco apartments that follow the ten ‘guiding principles’ of the One Planet Living sustainability concept developed by BioRegional and WWF-International). 

Yet it is the Beddington Zero Energy Development (BedZED) that is undoubtedly the UK’s best-known eco community, having grabbed its fair share of headlines since its launch in 2002. As the UK’s largest carbon neutral eco village, the 100-unit environmentally-friendly mixed-use development combines living and workspace in South London, close to Hackbridge railway station. These low-emission buildings are energy efficient, utilising solar energy, and harvest rainwater for use within the build. BedZED has been hailed for its cutting-edge design by over a dozen accolades, with architects, ZedFactory – a leading exponent of Zero (fossil) Energy Development (ZED) buildings – moving on to a major retrofit project of a 1960s housing estate in Hackney and pioneering wind-powered new-build, Jubilee Wharf in Penryn, Cornwall.

So what about retrofitting? Around twenty-seven per cent of CO2 emissions come from people’s homes, prompting the government to announce plans in February to retrofit seven million households across the UK as part of an ambitious project to slash fuel bills and cut global warming. This follows on from a 2007 budget announcement by the then Chancellor Gordon Brown that zero-emission homes  would be exempt from Stamp Duty. Later that same year, the UK’s first zero emission home was unveiled: a two-bedroom house insulated to lose 60 per cent less heat than a normal home, as well as water harvesting and energy generation from solar panels and a biomass boiler. The energy-efficient design counts as zero-emission because the CO2 produced by the organic-fuel-burning biomass boiler is offset by the amount absorbed when the fuel crop was grown. The result is an annual energy bill of £31 compared to £500 for a standard new home of the same size.

The Sustainable Development Commission (SDC) remains committed to urging the government to consider transforming existing UK communities into ecotowns. Turning ordinary housing estates into green and prosperous housing can be achieved, it claims, simply by adding well-planned public transport and some environmentally friendly facilities. The SDC has pushed the retrofitting agenda as priority, emphasising the need to cut emissions from older houses and warning that while it was ‘hugely encouraged’ by the way sustainability was being discussed at government level, new construction is not necessarily the answer. Although retrofitting entire cities requires a complex approach, even the smallest steps, such as swapping traffic light bulbs for low-energy alternatives, can deliver large benefits without the need for radical makeovers. A £10-million competition for innovative solutions to improve the energy efficiency and environmental performance of the UK’s housing stock was launched by the government in March 2009. Called Retrofit for the Future, the project aims to deliver a minimum of 50 demonstration prototypes to be managed by the Technology Strategy Board in collaboration with social landlords across the UK.

“We’re looking at whole dwelling solutions to improve the performance of the entire property, whether it’s a retrofit of a 1930’s semi or a high-rise flat,” explains Richard Miller, Low Impact Buildings Innovation Platform Leader with the Technology Strategy Board. “The winners will benefit from 100 per cent funding as well as space in which to develop the prototype.”

Bringing the UK’s 21 million homes up to 21st century standards of energy efficiency is an enormous task, admits the Sustainable Development Commission’s Andrew Lee, but not unachievable:

“Our homes account for over a quarter of our energy use, and a quarter of our carbon emissions. Getting it right with new builds is important, but it is the older housing stock that will still account for 86 per cent of country’s housing in 2050, so it’s crucial that we make them as energy-efficient as possible in the bid to tackle climate change.

“Retrofitting existing housing stock offers real potential to help every householder, including low-income families.”

Despite this movement towards sustainable housing, in whatever form, the fact remains that around 25 million tonnes of construction, demolition and excavation waste are still sent to landfill every year. The Waste & Resources Action Programme’s (WRAP) Halving Waste to Landfill voluntary agreement provides a framework through which the construction industry can publicly support and deliver against the industry target of halving waste to landfill by 2012. Since the agreement’s launch in October 2008, over 80 organisations have signed up across all parts of the construction supply chain from clients, design teams, contractors and their sub-contractors to suppliers, manufacturers and waste management contractors. “Organisations of every size are taking the issue of waste seriously and recognising that it is critical to reduce the millions tonnes of construction waste dumped in landfill each year,” comments Mike Watson, WRAP’s Head of Construction. “Signatories to WRAP’s agreement not only benefit from cost savings and greater resource efficiency, but also play their part in combating climate change.”

The UK uses a vast amount of building materials each year – estimated (conservatively) at around 400 million tonnes. Much of this material already contains a proportion of recycled content (such as recovered materials like crushed concrete, pulverised fuel ash and glass aggregate), but there are also huge amounts of wastage due to over-ordering of materials. While WRAP alone is tasked to deliver £50 million of construction-sector savings, the National Industrial Symbiosis Programme (NISP), a government-funded service available to all businesses, is helping the industry reduce waste and improve resource efficiency across the UK. NISP advocates moving from an open to a closed loop system so that all construction resources can be recovered, reprocessed and reused elsewhere.

“Since April 2005 NISP has prevented the use of just under eight million tonnes of virgin material – much of it through construction related projects,” explains Peter Laybourn, NISP Programme Director. “A reduction of collective carbon emissions since 2004 totals 5.2 million tonnes – an industry cost saving of more than £131 million with over £151 million of additional revenue created.”

NISP’s key contribution is its ability to identify mutually profitable transactions between companies – leading to innovative sourcing across every aspect of the construction industry including new-build development and retrofit projects (most of NISP’s 12,000 members work in the construction industry). The use of sustainable (reprocessed or previously used materials) cuts down on purchasing costs for the developers, as well as reducing the need for virgin materials. This, in turn, results in a reduction in carbon emissions created via projects as reprocessed and reused products have less of an impact on the environment. Similarly, developers can also use NISP and its approach to find new outlets for materials and resources historically sent to landfill, resulting in a lower bill for landfill tax to dispose of material, and in most cases, additional sales revenue from the transaction.

“As consumers, we’ve been indifferent about our energy bills and turned off by the hassle and upfront cost of energy efficiency improvements for way too long,” observes Paul King, Chief Executive of the UK Green Building Council. “Sustainable construction is a hugely important issue that everyone within the construction industry needs to wake up to – the headlines about spiralling fuel costs and climate change require a shake-up in attitude and approach – there’s no longer room for apathy.”