21 Oct 2010

Whither the Green Incentives?

So yesterday, George Osborne, the Chancellor, made his long awaited pronouncements on public spending. Of particular interest to this blog was the fate of the various green incentives, notably the Feed-in Tariff (FiT), the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) and the Green Deal. This is what he actually said:

The aim of all these investments is for Britain to be a leader of the new green economy. Creating jobs, saving energy costs, reducing carbon emissions. We will also introduce incentives to help families reduce their bills. We will introduce a funded Renewable Heat Incentive. Our Green Deal will encourage home energy efficiency at no upfront cost to homeowners and allow us to phase out the Warm Front programme.

The big news here is that the RHI survives. There has been feverish speculation that it was about to be ditched. There is more detail on the DECC website where we learn that:

£860 million funding for the Renewable Heat Incentive which will be introduced from 2011-12. This will drive a more-than-tenfold increase of renewable heat over the coming decade, shifting renewable heat from a fringe industry firmly into the mainstream. The Government will not be taking forward the previous administration’s plans of funding this scheme through an overly complex Renewable Heat levy.

It's all still rather delphic. Is the £860million a one-off? It sounds like a lot, but it's just 60,000 ground source heat pumps or biomass boilers, hardly enough to render them "mainstream." If commercial power plants get stuck in, the money will be gone in the blink of an eye. How will it be distributed? Who will qualify? What will the subsidies be worth? Until the details are published, we are not much the wiser. But it should at least be good news for all those heat pump suppliers whose order books have dried up this year because of the uncertainty over whether the RHI would survive in any fashion. Now they can say, "You will probably qualify for a subsidy but we can't say how much!" Great.

There is also more detail on FiTs

Feed-In Tariffs will be refocused on the most cost-effective technologies saving £40 million in 2014-15. The changes will be implemented at the first scheduled review of tariffs unless higher than expected deployment requires an early review.

It suggests that those who are currently signing up for the tariffs will be secure in the knowledge that the deal they are now getting will be good for many years. The statement that FiTs will be refocused on cost-effective technologies suggests, to me, that the very generous subsidies to solar PV will be greatly reduced, because it is by far the most expensive of the technologies covered.

As for the Green Deal? Nothing new here. We know it's coming, but what form it takes we have, as yet, no idea.

So the time for speculation is not past. I would be surprised if the RHI details will be available for many months yet. The FiT deal wasn't published until just before the FiT went live in April 2010, so I would expect those awaiting news of the critical levels of subsidy on the RHI to have wait a while longer yet. Not great news if you are still trying to decide how best to heat your home.

19 Oct 2010

PassivHaus refurb in Holland Park

Yesterday, I joined a small group viewing a PassivHaus refurb in Princedale Road, Holland Park, West London. It was another Retrofit for the Future job, this one with a budget of no less than £172k. We are in Kensington & Chelsea here, Britain's wealthiest borough, where even the social housing is worth millions. And you'll not be surprised to learn that this was social housing, owned in this case by the Octavia Housing Association. There are apparently 83 such projects going on up and down the land at this moment, keeping a fair number of sustainability-minded consultants in business through the dark days of 2010. They are all social housing projects, the idea being to work out just how far you can go with green refurbs without any budget constraints.

Which immediately begs the question, what's the point? The whole project has a certain fin-de-siecle feeling about it, especially as today is the day when the public spending cuts are to be detailed. Money like this will, in all probability, never be available again. I expect it will show that you can deliver truly low energy housing on a limitless budget, but as already discussed on this blog, that's not really a terribly useful conclusion at this point in time.

OK, at this point many people chip in with the Economies of Scale argument. It goes something like this. "If we started doing this sort of job by the tens of thousands, then the costs would fall dramatically. We would have teams of builders and consultants who really knew their stuff, and the component prices would tumble. It would be win, win."

Unfortunately, the Holland Park job does little to support such an argument. It is an immensely complicated conversion, painstakingly designed, argued at length with the planners, and slowly being pieced together by the most patient of contractors.

Just take the windows as an example. Princedale Road is fairly typical of affluent West London. It's a conservation area. Nothing unusual there. The house is a Victorian terrace with sliding sash windows. The planners want to keep the look of the front elevation - not an unreasonable request, as the whole street consists of similar houses with sliding sash windows. But PassivHaus and sliding sash windows are not exactly a marriage made in heaven. It's not that sliding sash windows can't be used in a PassivHaus, it's more that no one has ever tried, and the architect on this job (Marion Baeli, pictured here) reckoned that it would be impossible to meet the stringent airtightness levels with sliding sashes. Marion decided it would be preferable to build triple glazed windows that simply looked like sliding sashes. It's not that unusual - the big joinery manufacturers have been turning out kit like this for years.

But the planners had other ideas. Conservation area — must be genuine timber sliding sashes. So an almighty ding-dong ensues, familiar to many people who live in nice old houses and want to undertake renovations with a sustainable theme. Heritage lobby v environmentalist. You'd think they would be singing from the same hymn sheet, but they aren't, they are poles apart on issues like this.

Eventually, Marion sort of held sway. What she has come up with is a set of triple glazed windows that the builders have made themselves, and which look for all the world like Victorian sashes, complete with brass handles, but which perform like German tilt and turn windows. Well, the bottom half does: the top half is a fixed light. If ever there was a clash of cultures, this was it.

Other aspects of the job were similarly complex. Threading the ducting for the MVHR unit proved to be thoroughly fiddly, and almost every room in the house has some odd-shaped ply boxing in it to conceal the ducts. The massive insulation has been applied internally, and this has included the party walls on either side, which has significantly reduced the room sizes. There was a lengthy discussion amongst our group about whether it was easier to insulate internally or externally: the truth is that neither is remotely easy. Oh, and the water storage: there's two tanks, totalling 500lts of stored hot water. Sort of thing you see routinely in Switzerland or Germany in a large basement, but in 3-bed terrace in Holland Park? That's really stretching it, methinks.

So I came away full of admiration for the work undertaken here by the team, but also acutely aware that this sort of job just can't be rolled out across the nation's housing stock. Not only is it absurdly expensive, it's also incredibly taxing, way over the competency levels of the average small builder. We have to be realistic about this. What the future holds, none of us can know, but I'd put a bloody big bet on this sort of project never getting beyond the demonstration stage.

14 Oct 2010

The Kitchen Queen

When I started writing the Housebuilder's Bible in 1993, I had in mind to produce a long, rambly tract, the sort of thing that you might hear from someone who just happened to be propping up the bar at the Pig and Whistle. I figured that there were loads of little things that builders knew and ordinary members of the public didn't, and I set out to lift the lid on the builder's secrets.

But over the years, the tract got ever-longer and more rambly, and I found out that there were masses of stuff that builders didn't know and neither, for that matter, did I. My book seemed to enter a new phase of explaining how all these new technologies worked, and how Part X and Part Y had suddenly changed everything anyway. What started out as a piece of timeless folklore turned into a grumpy discussion paper, as I tried to figure out where exactly you stuck a heat pump or a pellet boiler when you were at home.

The internet should have taken over where my book left off but, by and large, it hasn't. Instead it appears to be mostly populated by salesmen and apparatchiks, intent on pumping out a line, and not really concerned with both the pros and the cons. Independent advice is very thin on the ground.

In the homebuilding arena, there is very little that makes me think "Wow, that's useful." There's Tony McCormick's excellent Paving Expert site which goes from strength to strength. There's an interesting site run by Mike The Boilerman which will covers many modern plumbing and heating issues, and tells a few tales. And there's a new one I have recently come across, run by Marion of Advanced Kitchen Design in Nottingham, called Majjie's Blog.

Majjie takes on a writing form that I instantly identify with. It's that bloke (or, in this case, blokette) down at the bar of the Pig and Whistle again, mixing up facts with opinions, and generally being extremely entertaining whilst also being a fund of good, hard information. Priceless.

Here's a flavour of what she writes, explaining to kitchen muppets what the difference is between solid surface and quartz composite worktops. Bloody useful if you are thinking about getting a new kitchen.

There's a lot of confusion about the man-made worktops and - to be fair - the distinctions between the different types is getting blurred now - but basically:


• the surface material, of solid surface worktops, varies from 2mm to 13mm thick and is fabricated onto timber or chipboard boards - or cores - to form a worktop of the desired thickness (often with, for the very thin materials, a thicker surface on the front edge)

• the surface material is softer than other types of worktop - easy to scratch - and not very heat resistant (even to the point that some of them tell you not to pour boiling water straight into the integral sinks!)

• glossy solid surfaces (presumably developed to compete with polished granite) are a nightmare to keep looking good - very easy to scratch - I wouldn't recommend them at all

• matt finish solid surfaces are warm to the touch, can have virtually invisible joins (better on some colours than others), scratches are relatively easy to remove (see latest blog!) and more serious damage can be repaired (but pure white and black colours will mark more easily than the browny, beigy mottled colours)

• for the thicker surfaces, integral sinks can be made in the same material (although not necessarily the same colour)

• solid surfaces are very hygienic (including where joined) and non-absorbent so, although they will mark and scratch, they shouldn't stain (they're often used in toilets and laboratories ... uhmm, perhaps that's not a great point to mention in their favour!). The integral sinks can also be seamlessly joined to the worktop.

• the thinner, cheaper, solid surface worktops need to be fitted to strict guidelines - otherwise they're prone to cracking - and they can't be used for unsupported breakfast bars ... but they're available as blanks, don't need templating and can be fitted on-site - so they're much cheaper (Maia, Minerelle, GetaCore, Encore etc.)

• solid surface materials - at least the more expensive, thicker, acrylic based ones, like Corian, Avonite, Hanex and LG Hi-Macs - are thermoformable and can be made into great curves in almost any dimension - you can have curvy worktops, with bull-nosed front edges, swooping down to the ground and rolling up again ... if you want to!

• the more expensive solid surfaces come in a HUGE range of colours

• solid surface material is translucent - so lends itself to creative lighting effects (especially for splashbacks)

• they're all made from mineral powders and bits, mixed with acrylic or occassionally polyester resin (the latter is nastier to work with, even less heat resistant, less thermoformable and small radius curves can be a problem - but it produces much brighter colours, is actually easier to work with and more fire resistant - the two can be mixed) ... I think! It's difficult to get definitive info. (I believe Minerelle has polyester in the mix.)


• quartz composite worktops are basically artificial stone - made in big 30mm thick slabs - and treated in exactly the same way as granite worktops

• they're made from 93 - 95% quartz/stone particles - just stuck together (so to speak) with acrylic resin (and pigments, pieces of mirror etc. are also added)

• they're much harder than solid surface worktops and stronger (because they're slightly more flexible) than granite ... so less likely to crack and can be cut into more complicated shapes than granite

• the big advantage of quartz composites is that they (like solid surfaces) are completely non-absorbent and hygienic (they don't need sealing like granite, to protect from curry sauce, coffee, red wine and the like) but they're VERY much more scratch and heat resistant than solid surfaces

• the disadvantage - compared to solid surfaces - is that joins are just like granite; the two ends are just butted up and any gap filled with resin/silicon. The neatness depends on the fitter.

• sinks can't be seamlessly joined (apart from a newly introduced integral sink in Silestone) - but are usually undermounted (or you can just use standard inset sinks)

• all good quality, 30mm thick, quartz composite materials are made on one type of huge (Italian-made) Breton machine, reportedly costing 12 million Euro - so there aren't that many about - and the manufacturer also provides the resin material. There isn't usually room for more than one manufacturer per country and all are keen to export, As far as I know there isn't one in the UK. Quality is governed by the quartz/stone mix, small variations in additives and the rigour of the quality control in the factory. The market leader is Silestone (made by Cosentino, Spain) - which is the only one that includes anti-bacterial Microban in the mixture - and they're very innovative with colours and using re-cycled material in their stone mixture. It's also the most expensive. The other main players are: Quarella/Pianoforte - Italy; Caesarstone - Israel; DuPont Zodiaq - USA; Compac - Portugal (but Spanish company); Cimstone - Turkey; Technistone - Czech Republic. The waters are muddied slightly, though, by own-brand names (most of which will be from one of the manufacturers already listed). Rumour has it that there are cheaper and inferior materials on the market, from China and India - not made on a Breton machine - which are not as strong and stain easily. I don't know how true that is. There is certainly a Breton machine in China and one bought in India (although I don't know if the latter is in production).

You can see now, why I write blogs - naturally garrulous when it comes to writing! (I shall now turn this into a blog, of course). The distinction between the two types of worktop is being blurred because manufacturers are bringing out thin layer quartz composites fitted to boards - in the same way as the thin, solid surface materials are - and there are also some 30mm thick, solid, solid surfaces, such as Apollo Slab Tech and Velstone . I don't know whether or not the thin quartz surfaces are still made on Breton machines ... I suspect some aren't ... and they don't have a track record yet, to see if they have problems - with cracking - or with the join between the top surface and the 30-40mm upstand at the front.

You wish you hadn't asked now, don't you!

Great stuff, Majjii. If anyone knows of anymore sites or blogs like hers, let me know and I'll pin them up in my blog roll.

12 Oct 2010

£6k v £60k

Spent yesterday at the UK's first PassivHaus Conference, ably hosted by Alexis Rowell of Cutting the Carbon, who had hired Islington Town Hall Assembly Rooms, and also arranged a number of site visits in the afternoon session. Well organised, too, with around 250 people in attendance. Lots of familiar faces there, and buckets of enthusiasm for PassivHaus as a concept.

We also had a visit from Chris Huhne, the Coalition's minister for Energy and Climate Change, who made a 15 minute speech and answered a few questions from the floor. I thought he spoke quite well, but I heard one or two rather more negative comments from fellow participants. He bigged up the Green Deal, saying that it would be coming into effect with the forthcoming Energy Bill, which he expected to pass into law by next summer, and that he wanted every home in the UK to benefit from it between now and 2050 in "just one visit."

No figures were put on the Green Deal, but the indications are that it will be a soft loan of around £6,000, which can be paid off via the anticipated savings from lower fuel bills. The question is, will it work?

Now you can do a certain amount for £6,000, but it doesn't deliver a low-energy retrofit. Earlier in the day, I had visited 89 Culford Road, a Victorian terrace house nearby which has been given the PassivHaus treatment. This involved gutting the place, putting in a steel cage and rehanging all the floors, adding copious amounts of internal insulation, replacing all the windows, and threading in an MVHR system. The clients ended up with a stunning conversion (really lovely house, guys), but it had cost them an arm and a leg. Robert Cohen (the owner) told us that he thought the costs were around £60,000 just for the energy efficiency measures: seeing the house is just 120m2 in floor area, that's a gob smacking amount of money.

I don't know whether Chris Huhne was aware of this project, but he did refer to a similar scheme he had recently visited in Liverpool which had cost, in total, over £100,000. I expect this was one of the Retrofit for the Future projects which are being carried out all over the country at the moment, average spend about £120,000 per unit. No way, said Huhne, is that a realistic amount to spend on a retrofit. For once, my sympathies were with the politician.

But, on the other hand, £6k doesn't buy very much in terms of energy saving. Indeed, it may cause more problems than it solves for, without a coherent ventilation strategy, many amateur attempts at dry lining and draft proofing simply end up with pools of condensation and black mould. £6k puts us into that territory.

Now it may be that when the Green Deal is finally revealed, it will have one or two added elements that address these problems. Chris Huhne kept referring to a series of disasters which had happened to the Australian version of the Green Deal, where cowboy builders had been caught nailing through electricity cables and, as a result, the scheme has been derided in the Australian press. "We don't want that happening here," he said. At this point, he sounded like a true politician: afraid, very afraid.

But if £6k is too little, and £60k is too much, then the challenge must be to work out how to make robust alterations that cost somewhere in between. For a start, it might help us to define exactly what the hoped-for outcome should be. PassivHaus is great at using minimal energy to deliver even temperatures and really comfortable surroundings — shirtsleeves all winter — but in reality very few UK homes can achieve this level of comfort, even with a heat load ten times the PassivHaus standard. So it may be that we have to aim lower: say, looking for retrofits that manage to avoid condensation and mould problems and can guarantee residents a basic temperature, like 16°C, through most of the building, on a minimal heat load. Hair shirt heating. Anything above that would be classed as a luxury.

PassivHaus is already addressing these problems — to an extent — by introducing a lower standard for retrofits, known as EnerPHit, which is based on a much easier to achieve heating metric of 25kWh/m2/a. Whether this hits the sweet spot for the UK retrofit market remains to be seen, but EnerPHit still requires dramatic airtightness improvement and MVHR, so the likes of Chris Huhne will probably not be banging on the door just yet. MVHR can be difficult to incorporate into a new build, but in a retrofit it can be next to impossible to find the space to run all the ducting, without going through a total gutting process at costs which make demolition and rebuilding begin to look like the cheaper option.

This is all good stuff, close to the nitty gritty of what this blog is all about. My feeling is that this government (just like the last one) is all at sea on the retrofit debate, and is about to throw a large amount of money at it without really understanding the issues. As yet, I am not convinced that the PassivHaus standard is the solution for the UK retrofit market, but I am bowled over by the enthusiasm of the UK standard bearers. If anyone is going to sort out this conundrum, it's this lot. Count me in.

4 Oct 2010

Good Gracious, George, don't give up

Just back from a wet weekend in Wales, attending the AECB Annual Conference at the Centre for Alternative Technology. Star turn there was local resident George Monbiot who made great use of the fabulous clay amphitheatre (OK — lecture hall) that forms the heart of the new WISE building. George talked without notes or slides for 75 minutes in the gathering dusk, and as the evening light faded, his mood grew ever darker. I was spellbound.

Much of the content of his thoughts will be familiar to those who read his columns in the Guardian. (Or you can RSS his articles here). Copenhagen - a disaster. Cancun - don't expect anything at all. Obama can't deliver and without the USA on board there is no hope of replacing Kyoto with anything much at all. The problem is that the nation states are each arguing their particular corner and that no one is prepared to deliver anything really substantial in the way of carbon emission cuts. And for the first time the whole political process is going into reverse, as more and more people are becoming sceptical about climate change, further weakening any political resolve that once existed.

So far, so bad. That much I anticipated. But he finished with an examination of why the climate change campaign had been so spectacularly unsuccessful, concluding that at least part of the problem was that it had been conceived as a liberation movement similar to other great campaigns of the late 20th century, like feminism, gay rights, civil rights and anti-roads protests. But in reality, combating climate change isn't really like any of these other issues: it's fundamentally a rather boring economic, rational matter that the world either acknowledges and acts upon, or doesn't. There is no liberation involved anywhere. Quite the reverse.

I would go one stage further and suggest that climate change negotiations have also become bogged down with issues regarding equity of resources in general, and human wealth in particular. This is because the amount of carbon we burn is closely related to how much money we have, both as individuals and as nations. And you can't equalise the amount of carbon we all consume without equalising the wealth of nations.

That might be on the agenda for some people, but most people in the West want to stay rich, and don't want to see their wealth level down to something like they enjoy in, say, Turkey, or Brazil, or wherever we need to be in wealth terms to get our carbon habit down to an acceptable level. Now the way the climate talks are presented, this part of the agenda is pretty well hidden from us, but my guess is that people are wise to what is really going on, which is why the right is so quick to spot "communist conspiracies" and the like every time they hear the phrase "global warming."

In that sense, they are right. The debate has been shaped by the Monbiot's of this world. They have hijacked a technical issue and turned it into a moral crusade, using climate change as a vehicle to bring about a worldwide redistributon of wealth. That's not to say they aren't justified in pointing out the anomalies of carbon use across the world, but it's hardly surprising that the presentation of the issues has brought about a huge and powerful counter-reaction by the lobby groups that want to keep wealth where it is, thankyou very much.

It's not as if capitalism itself is the enemy (as someone in the audience suggested). Capitalism as a way of organisng human endeavour is full of examples of self-restraining ordinances where laws are put in place to stop free-market practices running riot. The pharmaceutical industries only exist thanks to the laws of patent; design, software and entertainment are each underpinned by copyright law, and even the arms industries concur with various conventions on what you can and can't make. And we have a working example— in the Montreal Protocol — of chemical industries stopping the use of various gases implicated in climate change. Capitalism is easily reformable, if it's seen to be in the common good.

So why is carbon reduction so intractable? Just why is it proving so difficult to get a meaningful political framework we can all sign up to? Are we all so hooked on cheap energy that we can't imagine a world without it? Does carbon underpin the very basis of Western society? Does its removal from our lives threaten our civilised values? All good stuff for another day.....

Meanwhile, you could do worse than dip into Zero Carbon Britain 2030, a CAT publication that was also given an airing at the conference.