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The Role of Housing in Delivering Climate Change Targets

December 11, 2020 11:07 AM
By Councillor Dave Busby

an6x (Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash)Introduction

The decarbonisation of housing is one of the most important strands of action to deliver climate targets, whilst also addressing the wrongs of fuel poverty and poor health due to sub-standard housing. Low-carbon housing tends to focus on new-builds, however, 80% of the homes we will be inhabiting in 2045 are already built so improving the performance of the existing housing stock is vital.

The diversity of these homes is huge - as is the diversity of the people who live in them and the places where they are built. By definition, diverse systems aren't simple, and making an impact will demand agility, active learning and collaboration across professional and organisational silos. New-technologies and engineering solutions appear but their adoption beyond the pilot-stage is rare.

The challenge

The magnitude of the challenge - one home every 5 seconds for 25 years will need to be upgraded at an average retrofit cost of around £25k per home, with considerable household disruption and a degree of risk. A challenge of this scale is daunting, but there are additional benefits should climate stabilisation not be enough of an attraction - dry and properly ventilated homes.

Carbon emissions are traditionally measured as arising from two areas: embodied carbon and operational carbon.

Engineering innovation

Over the last ten years, the range of innovation in building techniques has been huge - especially diversification away from traditional 'brick and block' approaches and the incorporation of more technology in the fabric of the building. There are now many proven, quality-assured new or improved techniques and technologies.

New modular methods of construction are becoming increasingly popular - particularly for new builds. These processes involve doing much of the construction activity off-site in controlled environments, and then transporting components to site for rapid assembly. The approach increases efficiency and substantially reduces transportation and on-site waste and disruption and allows for the greater use of materials with lower embodied carbon.

Improvements in domestic energy generation such as Solar PV, where costs have reduced significantly over the last 10 years and efficiency has improved, can work well for those with roof-space and who can maximise their use of electricity during the day.

For heating, domestic heat-pumps form a significant part of the solution. Heat pump technology operates like a fridge in reverse, using renewable electricity to expand and contract refrigerant liquid to extract heat from the air and then using it to heat radiators and water. Installation of heat-pumps can be disruptive, and they require outside space, making them less suited to flats - unless incorporated into a community heating scheme.

Insulation is the most important technology for improving efficiency, and there is a wide range of insulation techniques and materials. Double glazing, and cavity wall insulation are relatively straightforward, have a good ecosystem of contractors and are underpinned by robust quality standards. There are also technical advances such as the use of hemp in insulating panels, replacing petro-chemical based materials, but the availability of skilled contractors is a limiting factor.

Other technical innovations addressing embodied carbon include the development of bio-materials and bio-composites such as re-constituted wood and bio-plastics, so that the fabric of the home and its surrounds becomes a carbon sink itself.

Levers of change

The innovation ecosystem for reducing emissions from our homes is rich, complex and very active. The barriers to action at an appropriate pace and scale do not appear to be primarily technical or specifically financial but are more focussed around capacity (particularly vocational skills), risk-aversion and inertia amongst homeowners and the trades.

Overcoming these barriers requires a similarly innovative approach to that seen in technical developments. Building confidence in householders to 'take the plunge' with a deep retrofit, and growing confidence and competence in the building trades to provide profitable, effective services are two key levers to escalate action to the levels required. Both are inhibited by current failures to establish viable business models that work at the scale of the householder, the contractor, the investor and the taxpayer.

Conclusion

The UK Committee on Climate Change is clear that "we will not meet our targets for emissions reductions without near complete decarbonisation of the housing stock". Increasing attention to the climate impacts of housing has stimulated widespread innovation across the system. Many implementable technical solutions have been developed and are being rolled out locally, however it is clear that the current pace and scale of activity will not provide the reductions in emissions needed to meet climate ambitions.

Councils are taking a more place-based approach to both new-build and retrofit, which is showing real promise, however capacity constraints and householder reticence are likely to significantly impede the required pace. Local government is fundamental to delivering the changes in housing that will improve people's lives, protect communities from the impacts of climate change and mitigate the risk of even more extreme climate in the future. It will need to work with a wide range of partners in the private, academic and third sectors.