Mark Hillsdon reports on how cities like Glasgow and Manchester are leading the way on low-carbon homes amid a lack of leadership from central government
The Climate Change Committee (CCC) pulled no punches in June, when it published its latest progress report on the UK’s strategy to get to net-zero emissions. It talked of new climate strategies being “marred by uncertainty and delay”, while those that had emerged “have too often missed the mark”.
With the UK chairing COP26 in Glasgow later in the year, Lord Deben, chair of the CCC, warned: “The government must get real on delivery … Britain has to prove that it can lead a global change in how we treat our planet.”
Under the Paris Agreement, the UK has committed to an ambitious target of cutting emissions by 68% by 2030, and by 78% by 2035, with decarbonising the built environment set to play a crucial role. Yet policies around sustainable heating and cooling have been delayed, and there have been muddled false starts such as the Green Homes Grant, which was scrapped in March six months after it was launched.
The National Audit Office this month said the £1.5bn scheme, which had been expected to help 600,000 households install low-carbon heating and energy-efficiency improvement, had been “delivered to an overambitious timetable and was not executed to an acceptable standard”.
Sustainable design has to start with really bold leadership at government level… a top-down approach
Those working to reduce the carbon footprint of the built environment point to the UK’s well-documented housing shortage and the need to build on a massive scale. If targets around net zero are to be met, these new homes need to be future-proof, and form part of the solution, not the problem.
Jonathan Wilson is a director at Citu, a developer with projects in Leeds and Sheffield, and a vision to create zero-carbon cities. The company adopts a “fabric-first” approach, building with locally sourced timber and designing homes with high-performance walls, floors and roofs. By making the homes ultra-airtight, says Wilson, they need virtually no heating, even in the depths of a Yorkshire winter.
He is frustrated that sustainable design hasn’t become the norm. “The climate emergency and the Paris treaty tells us it has to happen a lot quicker than we have ever seen innovation in traditional construction and housebuilding before,” he says. “It has to start with really bold leadership at government level … a top-down approach.”
Rob Wheaton, a senior associate architect at Bristol-based Stride Treglown, shares Wilson’s frustration. “There needs to be a much stronger commitment and direction from central government. At the moment people are waiting to see what happens.”
He believes housing associations, not private developers, are leading the way on building low-carbon homes. “There are a lot of private developers that are playing with this,” Wheaton says, “they're testing ideas on smaller sites.” But you need to level the playing field, he continues, otherwise cost will always dominate, and that requires building regulations based on the blueprint of a low-carbon home.
This is especially true of sustainable heating and cooling, and one of the key recommendations from the CCC’s report was an ambitious heat and building strategy that works for consumers.
The Future Homes Standard, which was released at the start of the year but is still being fine tuned, will require emissions from new-build homes to be cut by 75-80%, largely with the introduction of low-carbon heating systems, such as heat pumps.
When you pair a heat pump with a highly efficient, airtight home, heating demands are incredibly low
But it will need to get consumer buy-in. Research by the UK Green Building Council (UKGBC) last year showed people still don’t see their homes as contributors to climate change and are choosing to stick with gas boilers rather than embrace new heating technologies.
While there had been suggestions that old boilers could be run on a mix of hydrogen and natural gas to help bring down emissions, Wheaton argues that the future is electrification, and heat pumps will bring down bills and emissions if installed in a highly efficient, airtight home. What may be a new idea in the UK has been around for over 30 years on the continent, he says, but has been overshadowed by our love of cheap gas.
In a new briefing this month, Greenpeace says that the UK, for its population size, has the worst heat pump sales record, and the second worst installation record, in Europe. It is calling for £12bn in new public investment to be set aside to provide grant support to homeowners for energy efficiency improvements and heat pumps in the upcoming autumn spending review.
Such assistance would certainly be welcome by cities such as Glasgow. The 300 homes on Glasgow’s Hill Park Drive estate receive energy from a district heat network that’s fuelled by an air-source heat pump, explains Gavin Slater, head of sustainability at Glasgow City Council.
The COP26 host city has set a target to become carbon neutral by 2030, which would make it the UK’s first carbon-neutral city.
“We are definitely seeing heat pumps as being a big part of the future,” Slater says, although Glasgow is also pushing on with district heat networks, most of which remain powered by gas. Slater’s view is that the difficult part is getting the pipes in the ground, after that it’s easy to switch to a different fuel when it becomes available.
The council is also in a partnership with the University of Strathclyde to recover heat from the river Clyde, which could be used to heat the city centre.
Ventilation, and efforts to stop over-heating, are other areas that the UKGBC believes should be included in new building regulations. Many new-builds are built with no passive shading from trees, or even the ability to cross-ventilate by opening a window at the front and the back of a house or apartment, says Joanne Wheeler, a sustainability consultant at UKGBC,
As homes become more airtight, the problem of over-heating increases, both in winter and summer. Wheaton favours mechanical ventilation heat-recovery systems, which can deliver a controlled flow of clean, fresh, filtered air, and which is 30% more energy-efficient than simply opening a window.
The market will know that to get planning permission in Manchester… they are going to have to meet these standards
While standards and regulations are governed nationally, local authorities can make their own recommendations, and this is what is happening in Manchester.
Stephen O’Malley is chair of the Manchester Climate Change Partnership, which has recently submitted a paper to the city council on new planning regulations designed to stop developments in the city that don’t meet net-zero commitments.
“The market will know that to get planning permission in Manchester… they are going to have to meet these standards,” says O’Malley.
Specific details have yet to be released, but the standard will cover the carbon footprint of a building, the materials used to build, and its operational efficiency.
Whether commercial or residential, all this data will be made openly available, so that people can see exactly what they are investing in, says O’Malley, who believes the report could provide a blueprint for other local authorities.
New-build is just part of the equation: the UK has around 29m homes, which collectively account for 14% of CO2 emissions, and retrofitting them is crucial.
“The scale of the challenge is huge,” says UKGBC’s Wheeler, “and it needs to be treated as a massive infrastructure priority by the government.
“We need a long-term retrofit strategy and funding stream, because one of the whole problems with meeting the retrofit challenge over recent years ... is the stop-start nature of government policy.”
She also believes that “local authorities need to be involved in the facilitation and delivery of retrofit projects because they are a really trusted partner. If it’s rubber stamped by the council, people will do it.”
The GFI has built a picture of where the investment barriers are to retrofitting. One is long pay-back periods.
Emma Harvey, director of the Green Finance Institute’s Coalition for the Energy Efficiency of Buildings, stresses that homeowners need access to funding for retrofitting. Ahead of COP26, the Green Finance Institute (GFI) is set to release a raft of policy ideas that will give lenders the confidence to offer retrofit funding, and homeowners the knowledge they need to take it up, she says.
The GFI has built a picture of where the investment barriers are to retrofitting. One, like a lot of low-carbon technology, is long pay-back periods.
Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) loans can address this. Popular in the USA, where they have mobilised over $9bn for energy-efficient home improvements, the loans can fund 100% of a retrofit, with repayments linked to the property not the owner. This spreads the payments so that future owners also contribute to the improvements.
GFI is also backing building renovation passports, a digital tool that creates a granular picture of how a property is performing, including details of past renovations. It also includes a forward-looking retrofit plan, so homeowners can take a staged approach to making their property more energy-efficient. Importantly, it also links to local suppliers and funding options.
The data will help identify areas of low activity, and regions where supply chain needs to be scaled up, or more funding directed towards training and skills, she continues. This can then be used to coordinate a national retrofit programme.
A third focus are green rental agreements, which encourage landlords to offer so-called “warm rents”, which includes energy bills, and can cover both residential and commercial properties.
“What this does … is embed the incentive for the landlord to retrofit a property because then they can minimise the energy bills that they have to pay and improve their return,” explains Harvey. “It's trying to build a stronger dialogue between landlord and tenants so that both are treating the property in a sustainable manner.”
Finance is needed for major infrastructure, too. Ahead of COP, Glasgow is producing a prospectus for global investors looking to invest in long-term, multi-million projects such as its Climate Neutral Innovation District.
From district heat networks to renewables, the city has been a testing ground for many new technologies, says Slater. But now, as its moment in the sun approaches, he believes the city is ready to attract the type of finance needed if Glasgow really is to become the UK’s first zero-carbon city.
Turning homes into carbon sinks in Wales
Could the future of housing in the UK be found in a development of homes on the outskirts of Swansea?
Gwynfaen Farm is made up of 144 ultra-low carbon homes designed by architects Stride Treglown, on behalf of two local housing associations, Pobl and Coastal. When they bought the 6.2 hectare plot from the Welsh government, it came with the stipulation that every home had to achieve an energy performance certificate score of A and a SAP rating of 96%.
Some £10m of the £27m needed to develop the site has come from the Welsh government’s Innovative Housing Programme (IHP), and it was used to dramatically boost the energy efficiency of all the homes.
The site is gas-free, with every home fitted with an electric air source heat pump, EV charger, solar panels and Tesla Powerwall battery, which allows homeowners to sell energy back to the grid.
Extra effort has also been made to “seal the envelope”, and limit any air leaks, and each home also has mechanical ventilation with heat recovery to improve climate control in the building.
The embodied carbon, which represents the carbon locked up in the materials used to build the homes, has also been taken into account. The super-structure and cladding are made from locally sourced Welsh timber, the windows from a timber composite and the roof from recycled slate. And rather than use oil-based insulation in the walls, wood fibre was specified instead.
Research now shows that compared to traditional masonry construction, the new homes can sequester 200% more carbon within their fabric, saving up to 30 tonnes of carbon per dwelling.
“Essentially the homes become carbon sinks,” explains Rob Wheaton, from Stride Treglown.
Mark Hillsdon is a Manchester-based freelance writer who writes on business and sustainability for The Ethical Corporation, The Guardian, and a range of nature-based titles including CountryFile and BBC Wildlife.
Climate Change Committee COP26 heatpumps sustainable homes Future Homes Standard low-carbon heating UKGBC retrofitting Coalition for the Energy Efficiency of Buildings Innovative Housing Programme