12 Dec 2013

Does embodied energy really matter?

We are hearing more and more about embodied energy and the role it plays in the carbon story. But what exactly is embodied energy and should we pay attention to it at all? Good questions both and the answers are not straightforward.

Firstly, what defines embodied energy? Essentially, it's the energy used to manufacture a product or construct a building. Thus building a new house involves assembling a long list of diverse materials and each of these materials had to be made from other materials and all this had to be transported from A to B to C to wherever your building site is. All this manufacturing and transportation involves expending energy and so, long before your house is ever lived in and the heating is turned on, the TV and computers get fired up and the lights switched on, you have used a great deal of energy — embodied energy.

My rule of thumb calculations show that a typical detached new house, built using brick and block and timber windows, uses around 40tonnes of CO2 in its construction. Now what does that represent? Let's have some comparators.
• The UK releases around 10 tonnes of CO2 per head of population per annum
• A car driving 12,000 miles a year uses around 4 tonnes of CO2
• A family of four flying to Spain and back uses around 2.5 tonnes
• A typical uninsulated 1970s house burns as much as 15 tonnes of CO2 per annum
• A building regs standard new house will burn around 4 tonnes of CO2 per annum
• Same house built to Passivhaus standard will burn around 1.5 - 2 tonnes of CO2 per annum

So given all that, how does the 40 tonnes of CO2 used to construct a new house stack up? One interesting observation is that if you replace a 15-tonne 1970s house with a 1.5-tonne Passivhaus, you will have achieve a net saving of CO2 within three years. In such an instance, you might feel you could afford to ignore the embodied energy total of 40 tonnes.

But of course, not many new homes are replacement dwellings, so they are in fact adding to the overall load of CO2 which Britain as a whole emits. And very, very few new homes are being built to Passivhaus standards or similar, so more typically they will be adding something like ten years of operational energy use in the construction phase alone.

This balance between embodied energy and operational energy is critical. And complex. You have to make some heroic assumptions, such as how long will a house last? And what will be the carbon intensity of energy in years to come? Does the embodied energy level go up significantly if you add energy saving features such as triple glazing to the design? What about features that may need replacing in the house — such as triple glazed windows — long before the design life of the house is through? There are no straightforward answers here. Everything rests on the assumptions made.

And what about reducing the embodied energy levels in a new house? Well, it can be done. The bulk of the embodied energy in new UK housing goes into the concrete and masonry elements because they are both energy intensive to manufacture and extremely heavy relative to volume. In the model house in the Housebuilders Bible 10, masonry and concrete materials make up 27 tonnes CO2 out of a total of 36 tonnes (that's 75%).

Interestingly, over half of this 27 tonnes of CO2 is made up of bricks and mortar, rather than concrete products. There are ample opportunities to switch to materials with lower embodied energy, such as timber and natural materials like stone and slate. Plastics and foam insulation have minimal impact overall (partly because they are so light) so that switching over to alternative materials such as natural insulation isn't really going to make any significant difference. Nor will switching to lime-based products.

And, of course, there is the question of cost. There are similar calculations to be made about construction costs versus running costs and maintenance costs and in some ways financial costs are a proxy for energy loadings. As people often point out, if carbon was correctly priced from an environmental point of view (i.e. if there was a carbon tax applied across the board), then there would be no need to carry out embodied energy calculations separate to cost calculations.

Which begs the question, should we be worried about embodied energy at all, or is it just an obscure branch of environmentalism, pursued by geeks and nerds, which is ultimately of no consequence. By the time we get to 2050, we will either have sorted out our power supplies so that they are all low carbon and thus talk of embodied energy will be irrelevant, or we will be all heading to hell in a handcart, in which case embodied energy will also be irrelevant.

I'm not sure there is a clearcut answer to any of this but energy wonks (I count myself as one) find it all rather fascinating. If you want to know more @CraigJonesUK is the man. Craig has created the invaluable (and freely available) ICE database which will tell you more about embodied energy than you are ever likely to want to know.

25 Nov 2013

Where have all our targets gone?

The Code for Sustainable Homes has come in for a lot of stick over the years. This blog hasn't spared the boot. But one thing the Code did achieve, when it was first introduced in 2007, was to make us aware of targets. The Code is split into six levels, each one being more demanding than the preceding one below. And, coupled with this, was a ratcheted timetable which suggested that we would all move up, level by level, until we reached Level 6 in 2016. Level 6 was the fabled state of Zero Carbon.

Now it was pretty clear from the start that Zero Carbon was never going to be much more than an aspirational target because it was so damned difficult to build. To get Level 6, a house had to supply all its own energy needs without recourse to fossil fuel. That meant it had to be loaded to the gunnels with PV on the roof and often this wasn't enough. There were many sites where it simply wouldn't have been possible to build a Level 6 house as it was originally envisaged. Only a politician could have dreamed this up.

So almost as soon as the Level 6 Zero Carbon target was conceived, moves started to water it down. First the definition changed to exclude certain forms of energy usage. Then allowable solutions were conceived to make it possible to offset some of the energy production. Then cunningly the actual definition of what zero carbon really meant was postponed indefinitely and eventually it became a mythical non-target, shunted into the long grass.

All along there has been this tension between energy saving and low-carbon energy production. They are quite different beasts and yet many of these eco-targets such as the Code conflated the two, so that you could save less energy if you produced more renewable power. Some saw this as a neat trade-off, others as a cop out.

And then along came Passivhaus which became fashionable in the UK after the Code was set up in 2007. Passivhaus is a target that concentrates solely on energy saving, and eschewed any additional green bling required to make a low energy house a zero carbon one. Most of the leading lights in this debate came to see the sense in separating energy consumption from energy production and the whole drive towards the Level 6, zero carbon target started to come off the rails.

It hasn't been helped by having a Tory party which has undergone a painful recasting of its green credentials and now seems to believe that energy targets and environmental regulations are not business-friendly or are, to turn a phrase, just expensive green crap.

So as we approach 2016, what has happened to our targets? If the Code is to be abandoned, and Passivhaus is still a long way from becoming mainstream, do we have any other environmental building targets to aim for? Well there are other candidates: Rory Bergin gives a good summary here of what he calls the rating tools. And there is good old Part L of the English building regulations which is neither a target nor a rating tool, but a standard which everyone has to adhere to. That's just been upgraded a little and is starting to look a bit more like a Passivhaus-verylite standard. But even Part L has become a political battleground now and it's not clear if it will ever be toughed-up again, or parked as another piece of green crap.

Scotland sings to a different hymnsheet. The Code has never been applied here and instead they have more measured reports, usually chaired by the esteemed Lynne Sullivan. She first did one in 2007 and it was a breath of fresh air compared to what was happening in England at the time. Recently, she has been called in to chair an update and it manages to cover all bases without committing to a target anytime soon.

But the issues don't go away. Should we be saddling new homes with renewable energy at all? Should we allow offsetting or allowable solutions? Shouldn't we be concentrating on building better homes instead? Should we be trying to close the performance gap between how a house is designed and how it is actually built? What about all the other environmental factors — water, drainage, ecology, materials? How much should these be targeted or legislated for? Should we have targets at all, or just basic ground rules also known as building regulations.

The short answer is that we don't know and the arguments go round and round the same circles with advocates of every avenue pushing home their own viewpoints. Against such a background, it becomes increasingly difficult to set targets as there is no longer any general agreement about what they should be.

In the meantime, Europe is coming up with a directive which requires each member state to have a  nearly zero-energy building standard in place by 2020. The working definition of this is that the nearly zero or very low amount of energy required should be covered "to a very significant extent" by energy from renewable resources. But it is up to member states to define what these terms mean.

In other words, it's not so very different from the Code for Sustainable Homes, only it's unlikely to set such a demanding target as zero carbon. The clue is in the title: nearly zero-energy. That can be as tough or as easy as you like.

Target culture is all very well as long as the target is far into the future or costs very little to achieve. But the demise of the Code — it's not yet decided but it now seems likely that it will disappear soon — shows that when the targets get too tough, it's our resolve that weakens. This mirrors the process which has gone on behind the scenes at the various climate summits that have tried to update Kyoto. Targets are fine as long as they only apply to others, or are far out into the future.

20 Nov 2013

Collective Custom Selfbuild. What is it?

Short answer is I'm not sure. But something is happening here and I want to find out more.

There is a three and a half minute cartoon you must watch. Link is here. I'm not quite sure I agree with every sentiment but it's nothing if not interesting. And whilst it might come on a bit preachy (reinforced by the music which makes it sound like a wartime information film), there's an awful lot packed into it. It ends with the prophetic words "an idea whose time has come." Cliche? Maybe, but I think it might just be so.

Many of the new policies of the coalition — Community Right to Build, Localism, NPPF granting status to selfbuild for the first time — seem to be combining with grass roots movements like Community Land Trusts, Custombuild sites coming on stream and cohousing developments. And it's all pointing us somewhere a bit different to what we have grown used to, the usual diet of spec built apartments and houses, a little social housing and a small amount of individual selfbuild.

Critics will say it's just the Guardian-reading, Waitrose-shopping middle classes looking for something more interesting than another pilates class or a new farmers' market. But volume housing as practiced in the UK is so damn miserable, and its outcome is so damned expensive that it's about time we found some half-decent alternatives. Not everyone can afford a Grand Design and, even if they could, not everyone wants to live in a five-bedroomed detached house in the countryside. Maybe the answer is lurking in the thought processes behind this video.

It was certainly enough to draw a crowd of 50 or so people to a soft-launch event on Monday night at the offices of AshSakula in London. Lots of movers and shakers in the selbuild world took the trouble to turn up and the enthusiasm was infectious. So much so that I found myself volunteering to organise a tour to Berlin, spiritual home of this sort of thing — baugruppen they call it. They not only do it but they provide guided tours.

Anyone interested in coming along, email me at markbrinkley@mac.com and I'll keep you informed as to dates.

17 Nov 2013

Pandora's Promise

On Friday evening, I went to see what I believe is the first screening of Pandora's Promise in the UK. It's a movie concerned with nuclear power and the only other movie I can think of that touched on this subject was the China Syndrome which, perhaps not surprisingly, featured a little bit in the commentary. The two films take diametrically opposed standpoints.

The China Syndrome was a big Hollywood production starring Jane Fonda, Jack Lemon and Michael Douglas and its central premise was that the nuclear power industry is very bad news. It introduced the world to the idea of a meltdown and the very name, China Syndrome, referred to the depth of the hole which would result — i.e. one so deep it would go right through the Earth and emerge on the other side. The film premiered on March 16 1979, just 12 days before the Three Mile Island reactor accident. What timing! Even more coincidentally, one of the actors actually suggests during the film that a China Syndrome-style meltdown would render "an area the size of Pennsylvania uninhabitable." Three Mile Island is in Pennsylvania. You couldn't make this up.

The fact is that the Three Mile Island accident didn't burn a hole deep into the ground and that Pennsylvania is still inhabited. Life around the stricken plant carries on pretty much as normal. Since then there have been two more iconic nuclear accidents, Chernobyl (1986) and Fukushima (2011), and just the mention of these names is usually enough elicit a shimmer of trepidation from most educated people.

Pandora's Promise takes this particular bull by the horns and starts out in Japan following Mark Lynas on a journey to the stricken Fukushima plant. What's it like? How frightening is it? How much radiation is there? Is it dangerous? I'm just watching and I feel nervous. He dons a protective overall, though it looks about as much use as a chocolate teaspoon to me. And we follow Lynas and director Robert Stone as they get closer and closer to the plant, armed only with a neat little geiger counter which gives them a reading of the background radiation. In fact, if there is a star in this film it is this device which demonstrates simply that there is background radiation everywhere in the world and that it varies significantly from place to place. The radiation levels do increase gradually as they approach the Fukushima plant, but nowhere do they go off the scale and by the end they are standing happily on the beach next to the reactor, apparently in no peril at all.

They take the geiger counter around the world and most tellingly onto Guarapari Beach in Brazil which is known for its radioactive sand in which people immerse themselves as a health cure. They may be nuts, but they are not falling down dead three days later. The natural radioactivity on Guarapari Beach appears to be an order of magnitude larger than that found in the exclusion zones around Fukushima and Chernobyl. Something funny is going on here: it's not what the makers of the China Syndrome wanted us to believe.

We follow the nuclear power story around the world. Much of it is shot in the USA, the cradle of the industry, and we get a potted history of the technology and the people who worked it out. There is footage from Chernobyl and there is lots of footage of various anti-nuclear protests around the world, including the veteran anti-nuclear campaigner Helen Caldicott strutting her stuff. In many ways, the film works a similar pathway to Gwyneth Cravens's book Power To Save The World. Cravens features in the film too. It is good to see women involved in this almost entirely male-dominated debate.

I found the film totally absorbing but then I'm a self-confessed energy wonk. It could have dug deeper. France was touched on but only to say how successful their nuclear programme has been. In the discussion which took place afterwards featuring Lynas, Stone and Brian Eno, it was pointed out that the French are under pressure to close down their fleet of 40 nukes to be more like Germany, which has turned its back on nuclear power altogether. The fact that the anti-nuclear meme is still so strong is therefore bound to make Pandora's Promise controversial. It's not light entertainment, for sure, but it's a very easy watch and whatever your views on nuclear power, you are bound to learn something new.

Go see.

16 Oct 2013

Eric Pickles and me

Speech by Secretary of State Eric Pickles to the Policy Exchange on 14/10/13. Commentary in italics by moi.

"We all recognise that the nation faces an acute housing shortage, with too many young people unable to flee the nest and too many families stuck in homes they’ve outgrown after the collapse in housebuilding [policital content removed]

Yes, you did read that correctly. Someone has gone through this speech and redacted anything that might be deemed party political, such as that Ralph Miliband was a pinko, or words to that effect.

which pushed prices far beyond the reach of too many hardworking families.

Not to mention all the lazy ones. What is it with politicians and hard working families?

But speak it softly – the situation has been turned around thanks to schemes like Help to Buy and a revived Right to Buy helping people realise their dreams of homeownership.

Speak it softly because it's not true. The situation is as bad as ever and is about to be made worse by Help to Buy etc.

The numbers of first time buyers are now back at their highest levels since the economic collapse.

That's not saying much.

And housebuilding rates have climbed back too, with over 150,000 affordable homes since the election, and many more to come. House building starts are up by a third since this time last year, and houses are being built at the quickest rate for a decade.

Yeah, yeah.

Instead of the targets which built nothing but resentment, we’re giving councils which build homes a financial boost, we’re investing in bringing back empty homes into use and we’ve reformed the planning system to accelerate rather than stifle development.

The result has been renewed confidence among developers and buyers alike and it’s breathing new life into the market. But something else has been happening too, something which has largely gone under the radar, and that’s the blossoming of interest from people wanting to build their own homes.

[Policital content removed]. What can he have said here? The DCLG redacters have been working overtime.

It’s well known that the desire for homeownership is hardwired into the British DNA,

Nonsense: people just act rationally and sometimes irrationally - it's nothing to do with British DNA, if there is such a thing

but so many people don’t just dream of homeownership, they dream of building their own home too.

Custom building has traditionally been seen as the preserve of those with deep pockets,

No it hasn't, quite the reverse in fact

I am speaking as someone who has just replastered their house, I can tell you any building project requires deep pockets.

But while for a few people, self-building means a Grand Designs style project, many other people have more modest ambitions. And let’s consider the other benefits too - the boost to local construction and jobs, especially among small businesses.

In some European countries – Austria, Belgium, Sweden - as much as half of all new housing is custom build. Likewise in Germany, where there’s a strong tradition of co-operative building.

Actually I've no idea what he means by co-operative building here. I don't think the Germans are particularly into it anymore than anyone else.

I refuse to believe they are any more ambitious or creative than the British, but they have systems which support, encourage and reward self-builders. And we must do likewise.

The truth is that their national and local governments do not favour spec development like ours do: that's what Pickles can't admit.

In the past, self-builders found themselves tangled up in red tape before they ever got going. They had to bang their heads against the brick wall of a system which seemed designed to put them off.

Some truth in this, but the red tape issue is mostly red herring - it's not what stops selfbuild from happening.

This is a government which believes in supporting ambition - in fact, the more people who build their own home, the better. So we are addressing the problems which make people hesitate.

First: the lack of suitable land
Potential self-builders say this is the number one stumbling block - by selling off government owned land and encouraging councils to do the same. Not every housebuilding site has to be like Cranbrook near Exeter, which is going to deliver more than 6,000 homes.

There are some plots which are perfect for small projects and self-builders

Second: the red tape
We’ve changed the planning system so for the first time councils must take into account the needs of self-builders as part of their overall housing plans.

It's true. NPPF mentions custom build, the first time it's ever been in national planning policy. But an awful lot of local authorities have yet to pay any attention to it.

And finally, the money – or lack of it
We’re working with lenders to help would-be self-builders get access to the finance they need and because we believe that custom-building should not be the preserve of the wealthy elite we’re offering £47 million worth of loans to aspiring self-builders and community groups.

We’ve also set up a website dedicated to guide people through the practical process of DIY housebuilding and we have Kevin McCloud working with us as the industry champion to raise awareness of the opportunities are on offer and help them see that their dreams are within reach.

As a result the mortgage market for self builders is now more than a billion pounds. There are over 50 councils supporting self-builders

why aren't they all doing it? 50 out of 350 is a piss poor total

– by making land available or supporting individuals and community groups with their schemes and there were 11,000 custom-build projects last year

That's hardly success. It's always been around that figure. In Germany, the equivalent figure is 120,000.

That’s around 1 in 10 of all the new houses in the country - a £4 billion boost for the national economy.Hardly a boost as it's very close to the historical trend and has probably fallen during the recession.

But we believe we can go further - that with support and nurturing the custom-build industry can double in size over the next few years. We can make this a mainstream option not a minority interest.

Now that's what we want to hear.

That is why we will do even more to increase the land available with planning guidance that asks councils to actively assess the demand for self-build in their area. Councils will put together a register of interested people who can then benefit when suitable land becomes available. We will also carry out a review of the Homes and Communities Agency’s land to identify more land that is suitable for small scale projects and publicise that to would-be self builders.

And we will strengthen the Community Right to Reclaim Land so that more publicly owned land is sold off and brought back into use.

We will remove even more of the red tape. We rightly ask big developers to make a financial contribution to the roads, schools, parks and surgeries that are needed as part and parcel of large scale housing developments, but it’s ludicrous to ask self-builders to pay up in the same way

personally, I'm not convinced it is ludicrous, because in the long run it's the landowner who pays these impact fees, but if you want to give a subsidy to selfbuilders I'm not complaining

so we’re introducing a Council Tax discount for self-built family annexes.

Interesting, but what is a self-built family annex, and how would you define it?

And we also want to exempt self-builders from unreasonable section 106 charges and from the community infrastructure levy, potentially saving self-builders thousands of pounds - making projects that would otherwise be unaffordable a realistic choice.

Possibly? Possibly not - see above comments

And we will do even more to increase the finance available
…by working with lenders to extend the Help to Buy scheme to those who want to build their own home and we are putting £65 million of the Affordable Homes Guarantees programme potentially up for grabs for community groups.

[Political content removed] this government truly sees the potential in the market to help families realise their aspirations to create jobs and support small businesses and to make a real contribution to meeting our housing needs now and in the future.

We are taking the practical steps which will unlock that potential.

We are famously a nation of shopkeepers but we can be a nation of self-builders too."

Despite my carping, it's a fascinating speech and it's the first time Pickles has spoken on selfbuild, as far as I know. Being a consummate politician, he can't stop trying to score political points, which probably sounds better than it reads, but despite all this there are some very interesting titbits in here. Grant Shapps is now long gone from DCLG, but his initiatives live on.

8 Oct 2013

The Welsh Sprinkler Conundrum

In 2012, the Welsh Assembly passed an amendment to their building regulations requiring all new homes in Wales to be fitted with sprinklers, thereby becoming the first territory in the UK to have such a requirement. This has always been seen as a controversial move because sprinkler systems are expensive, costing anything up to £3,000 per pop, and those trying to build homes cheaply resent this sort of intrusion into their business.

A year on and there is evidence that housing starts in Wales are dramatically down (32%) whereas in England they are up (34%). Now as the sprinkler requirement has yet to take effect, it seems unlikely to be the cause of this downturn, but this hasn't stopped the pro-business lobby making a big fanfare out of it.

The more you dig down into this story, the more interesting it gets. In fact, it's a good example of the wider sustainability debate going on throughout the construction industry and the related energy supply business. Just where should the standard be set? How much is it worth spending to save lives? Or atmospheric stability? Or whatever goal you want to achieve? Put another way, how much should we be interfering with the market?

As if to address this question, DCLG in London commissioned a report from BRE Global, which concluded that the sprinkler policy in Wales would cost £6.7 million per life saved over the next decade. The report suggested the policy will save 36 lives and prevent around 800 injuries between 2013 and 2022. BRE Global concluded that this was not cost-effective.

It's the horrible sort of calculation we'd rather not think about but I guess they have a point. If you simply set out to save lives, you could probably find far better ways of spending the money. And in general new homes are far safer than existing ones, many of which have only a passing acquaintance with Part B of the building regs. So by what logic should this ruling only be applied to the safest sector of the housing market?

But there is also a significant counter argument. The cost of homebuilding clearly impacts on the cost of building land. QED, if sprinklers add £3,000 to the cost of a new house, and sprinklers are made mandatory, then the price of the plot on which the house will sit should, in theory, decline by £3,000 to reflect the difference. In effect, it's the land seller who bears the final cost of this, not the housebuilder, nor the house purchaser.

The same arguments apply to almost all building standards. Whenever you introduce a regulation or a standard which the market would not normally meet, then you add a cost burden. If you are of a free-market libertarian persuasion, you can and will jump up and down and shout "Foul" and "Anti-Competitive", or some such, adding that they don't do this in China or, in this case, Shropshire. But our housing market is unusual in this respect because it contains a highly elastic cost component, the land. Whilst the final price of a new home is largely out of the control of the builders — it is usually set by the second-hand market which is ten times the size in terms of turnover — and the cost they pay to build a house is partly out of their control (planners and building regs), the price they pay for the land is very much in their control. Therefore it is generally no hardship for the builders if the government chooses to set high building standards.

It follows that the landowners are the disadvantaged group in all this and it is they who should be leading the campaign against Welsh sprinklers, not the DCLG or the housebuilders. But let's not forget that it is the government who decides which parcels of land can be built on and which can't. So landowners tend to keep their traps shut over matters like this, grateful as they are for the gift of building permits from the government which they are able to sell on for a fat profit.

Follow this line of argument to its conclusion and there really shouldn't be any reason for the government not to introduce loads more regulatory hurdles onto our housebuilding industry. Squeeze it right down to the level where the building land is worth little more than undesignated farmland. Let's have space standards. Let's have Passivhaus. Let's have SUDS and water saving and bike racks and bin stores and whatever else we think would be good. And let the farmers pay.

3 Oct 2013

Is the Green Deal doomed?

Seemingly, the answer is yes. The government is only lukewarm in its support, which doesn't help. But let's also admit that retrofit is difficult and expensive. And without knowing what is going to happen to fuel prices in the future, we have no way of knowing whether it's really worth doing. I am not surprised by the low uptake.

How's that for a short blog post! Barely longer than a tweet.

22 Aug 2013

On Grid Parity

Robert Wilson (@CountCarbon), in a comment on my last blog, raises the issue of grid parity, asking what it is in reality. It's a good question. In essence, the idea is very simple. It's when new forms of energy production cease to be expensive and cost the same as existing methods. The idea being when solar PV, or wind turbines, or whatever tickles your fancy, costs the same as gas or coal burning then, voila, everyone will switch to the renewables. They will have achieved grid parity - that means that the electricity they supply to the national grid costs the same.

But I don't think Robert was looking for the mundane answer. He's a bit of an expert in these matters — I think he will know full well what grid parity means in theory. What he is driving at is that the concept is a whole lot more complicated to understand than my simple explanation makes out. And it is. Take a look at my last blog post for starters — this post more or less carries on from there so it's not such a bad idea to read that one first in any event.

There I make the point that comparing fossil fuel burning with renewables (or nukes — I'm fond of nukes) is an apples and oranges scenario. Fossil fuel has to be paid for but the plant to burn it in is cheap to build. All the others are almost free to run but the capital costs of getting the kit up and running are high. So, given this, the concept of grid parity is immediately challenged because to get a true cost of the electricity produced you have to perform a series of calculations involving a number of assumptions.

For instance, how long will the low-carbon plant last? If it's 25 years, the cost of the power will be x; if it's 50 years, it will be half as much (or x/2). We don't really know how long this plant will last because we have only just started rolling it out in large quantities, so immediately we are in the world of guesswork.

Suppose we decide on a 25-year lifespan, so that we can then work out a cost per unit of energy. We then have to look at 25 years of fossil fuel burning to make a comparison. But what will the cost of fossil fuel be in 25 years, not to mention all points in between? We'll need to know that in order to make a grand total so that we can compare with our low-carbon plant costs. But who knows what will happen to fossil fuel prices over 25 years. More guesswork.

This is an exercise you can do and, indeed, it's been done already many times, notably using DECC's 2050 pathways calculator. This suggests that a low-carbon route is likely to be no more expensive than a fossil fuel, business-as-usual one. But it does all depend on the assumptions being made.

If this really is the case, and that DECC's calculator has got it right, then we have already achieved grid parity and we simply don't need any green subsidies to kick start the low-carbon energy drive. Apparently financial logic dictates that we should move towards low-carbon electricity right away because it's already as cheap and is likely to get cheaper over time (fracking notwithstanding).

But no one really believes this to be the case. Institutions are not falling over themselves to build offshore windfarms or new nuclear power stations, or anything else that vaguely fits the bill. They all want generous subsidies or guarantees to take away the risk that the assumptions made might be wrong.

In other words, there is an apparent lack of will here. It easy to carry on with the business-as-usual scenarios because they are perceived as being less risky, because there is less money at stake. The low-carbon plant would have to become a whole lot cheaper than it is now for the institutions to take the plunge and invest in expensive low-carbon plant without any subsidy involved.

Or to put it another way, grid parity is not enough. We need to get to something like half-the-grid price before new energy forms will start to take over off their own bat. Or maybe even less. Once again, we are speculating.

Even then it's not quite so simple, because we need to sort out the power storage issues before we get too far down this track. Before we can talk about one-for-one substitution, we have to have adequate methods in place to store energy from intermittent renewables, otherwise we will still be building new gas plants well past 2050. Power storage has to be built into the financial equation. Without it, each unit of renewable electricity is worth ever so slightly less than the one produced immediately before it. This isn't a problem with nukes but then again nukes have their own problems.

It's not as if the business-as-usual route is without risks. Even discounting the effects of climate change over the next 35 years, this route ties us into burning fossil fuels and who knows how easy these will be to obtain, especially if the emerging economies continue to expand on the back of fossil fuel derived energy. It may be that fracking and other technological breakthroughs will bring about an unexpected energy abundance. But equally it may not. There's really no more logic to the pro-frackers position than there is to the EnergieWende route, as espoused by the anti-nuclear, pro-renewable Germans. Except, of course, that the German route does at least address carbon emissions, something the frackers only pretend to do.

Which brings us back to the concept of grid parity. It's not really measurable, certainly not in terms of unit costs of electricity. Instead, think of it as a ravine that has to be jumped. As you travel along the side of it, the gap gets steadily narrower but at what point do you actually decide to jump? Wherever that is would be where grid parity is. We could hang out a signpost that says Welcome to Grid Parity. But we won't know where to place it until we get there. And there's no guarantee that we ever will.

15 Aug 2013

More Expensive Than What?

We keep hearing that low-carbon energy is more expensive. It's a pretty consistent meme pedalled by the right-wing media on both sides of the Atlantic. The further right the media, the more ruinous the expense. The left wing media tells a very different story, insisting that low-carbon energy is an investment with a long term payback.

But there is a little point here that's often overlooked by both sides. Fossil fuel burning is all about building cheap power stations and then buying in the fuel at whatever the market price may be, whereas the low-carbon alternatives are all about upfront capital costs, followed by almost-free running costs. (I'm excluding biomass here - it's much more like a fossil fuel in this respect).

So immediately you have a problem in that you are comparing apples and oranges. There's no easy way to tell which energy source is more expensive because you don't know what the future holds. To do that, you would need to know the price of fossil fuels many years ahead - like 25 or 50 years ahead. Only then would you be able to calculate which method had been more expensive. In effect, would the cost of fossil fuel burning be greater or less than the cost of financing the building of the low-carbon plant.

Now problems like this are not unusual. Businesses face them all the time. Consider a timber frame company thinking about investing £1 million in a fancy cutting machine which could automate the production line and reduce manpower costs by £250k a year. Even after factoring in a finance charge for the machine, it seems to make financial sense to spend the money. The business will reduce its costs and thus be more competitive, which should bring in more work and the production people who would lose their jobs in the joinery shop may be found new roles in the expanded business.

But the decision is not without risks. For instance, the amount of business being done might collapse and the projected savings of £250k per annum might not materialise. On the other hand, without the cutting machine, the prices charged by the business might become uncompetitive and the business could go into decline. Only with hindsight can you tell whether the decision to invest in a cutting machine is a good one. The question facing the directors is "Is it worth spending the extra money on this machine?" not "Which option is the most expensive?"

It's not so very different with our energy choices. We are not in a position to answer the more expensive question - there is simply no way of knowing until the capital investments we make now have run their course. As it stands, the capital markets are too timid to take the plunge and invest without some guarantee that they will see a return. Their fear is that the future price of energy will still be set by the availability of fossil fuels (and not mitigated by a carbon tax) and that if the price of fossil fuels falls below their financing costs, then they will have to bear a loss on every unit of energy they sell. Whereas the price of fossil fuels can rise and fall in response to supply and demand, the cost of finance is fixed at the outset, and fixed for a very long time.

Hence all the subsidies which governments are using to kickstart low-carbon energy production. The subsidies are not there because low-carbon energy "is more expensive", but because investors don't want to take a punt on fossil fuel costs many years ahead. Hence the need to socialise the decision, or for governments to shoulder the risk.

The trap which the government has fallen into is taking the green subsidy money from utility providers. If low-carbon energy is seen as a social good — which it is — then the money to get it off the ground should come from general taxation, where it would be lost in the mire, along with spending on healthcare, education and my bete noir HS2. Instead we have it pegged to our utility bills and there it's bound to become more and more unpopular as the Mail and the Telegraph continue to highlight just how much of our bills is going on subsidies.

16 Jul 2013

Nuclear 2.0 Review

The nuclear renaissance is a topic which continues to fascinate and one of the key figures in bigging it up is Mark Lynas, who is now better known for his pro-GMO conversion speech which received a lot of publicity earlier this year.

Mark has just produced an ebook called Nuclear 2.0 which is a distillation of his current thinking and seems to have come about as a result of his involvement with the film Pandora's Promise, the making of which involved filming in such well known holiday locations at Chernobyl and Fukushima. He knows his stuff — it's not an armchair treatise — and he marshalls his facts to present a cogent argument that we should be investing heavily in nuclear power and not just relying on renewables, energy efficiency and carbon capture and storage to build a low carbon energy network fit for purpose. I won't argue with this - in fact, I find myself in total agreement.

My only quibble is to wonder about who this ebook is written for? The vast majority of people I know are either totally disinterested in the whole energy debate, or are already in favour of nuclear power - certainly, they are not afraid of it. But then I don't know many Germans and they seem to have a more universal distaste for all thing nuclear (except of course down at their local radiotherapy treatment centres where cancer victims seem quite relaxed about being bombarded with radiation).

In this country, there remains a solid core of energy activists who have dug their heels in and continue to think that nuclear power is the work of the devil, and that the not-insignificant issues with its roll out (cost, proliferation, decommissioning, waste, terrorism, risk of accidents, to name but seven) are simply insuperable. The news is that they're not.

Actually, this solid core is not that small. There is Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth (although, as Mark points out, neither of these campaigns very strongly against nuclear power these days), there are a handful of leftish/greenish MPs and there are shadowy bodies like the Nuclear Consulting Group which is not really a consulting group at all but a bunch of anti-nuclear academics. Together this consists of a considerable anti-nuclear lobby with some well known names. My guess is that Nuclear 2.0 is written with them in mind, but I also think it's more than likely that none of them will be bothered to read it and, even if they do, they won't be convinced by its arguments.

Which is a shame. Nuclear power may well be expensive to build and difficult to maintain, but it still wins out as one of the less destructive ways of making electricity. The risks are overstated.

27 Jun 2013

Obama's climate speech for beginners

The amazing thing about this speech was that it was made at all. It lasted for nearly 40 minutes, consisting of 6,000 words. The transcript is here. Arguably, it's four years too late, but maybe it's a sign of the times that the excruciating climate wars are coming to and end. Or am I being naive (again)?

• So what does he talk about for 40 minutes?

The speech is strong on the background, strong on the science and strong on pointing out that previous bits of environmental legislation were passed into law with bi-partisan support. 1970's Clean Air Act went through the senate unopposed and then went through the House of Representatives with just one vote against. It was signed into law by a Republican president and strengthened later by another. But then it didn't threaten Big Oil, or at least not directly.

• You are suggesting that the strength doesn't last?

About halfway through, he starts on what an opportunity climate change mitigation can be. Here he begins to sound a bit desperate. Try this. A low-carbon, clean energy economy can be an engine of growth for decades to come. And I want America to build that engine. I want America to build that future -- right here in the United States of America. That’s our task. Stirring stuff, but the moment American politicians start going on about how great America is, I begin to have my doubts.

• And the meat? Where's the meat?

Not good.

1) He fudges on the Keystone pipeline decision. Passes the buck to the State Department which is currently evaluating whether it is in the national interest. I bet it is.

2) He backs fracking. His only caveat is that he calls it a transition fuel.

3) He backs more renewables but says nothing about funding mechanisms.

4) He commits government to buy 20% renewable electricity by 2020 - but doesn't define renewable - so it will probably be biomass, me thinks.

5) Makes vague commitments to encourage energy efficiency, but nothing like a Green Deal, as far as I can see. Maybe that's a good thing in itself!

6) Makes some federal funding for flood defences and water development projects - claiming this is mitigation work.

7) Nuclear power gets just one mention in the whole speech We're building the first nuclear power plants in more than three decades -- in Georgia and South Carolina but doesn't say whether he approves, nor does he show any interest or backing for new nuclear technologies.

8) Stresses that he's involved with international co-operation with China, India and Brazil. Comes up with the unintentionally funny line: my administration will redouble our efforts to engage our international partners in reaching a new global agreement to reduce carbon pollution through concrete action. So good news here for Portland Cement manufacturers!

9) Promotes Gina she’s terrific McCarthy at the EPA, and bewails the fact that she is being blocked at every turn by the Republicans. I like this line: We don’t have time for a meeting of the Flat Earth Society. Sticking your head in the sand might make you feel safer, but it’s not going to protect you from the coming storm.

In truth, these are very weak measures indeed and make our own (hopelessly split) UK government look like the Green Party in comparison. But the significance of all this is that he made this speech at all, that he has put climate change back on the agenda in the USA for the first time since the credit crunch.

It's amazing to reflect that the anti-climate change campaign has been so successful over the past few years that the US President gets saluted as a hero for merely delivering a speech which mentions there might be just a small problem with carbon dioxide, whilst also giving the OK to a pipeline for exporting Canada's tar sands and also bigging-up fracking. No doubt, the Tea Party Republicans will be up in arms at the outrageous interventionist policies Obama is promoting, but secretly they must be delighted that the agenda has moved so far their way that a speech such as this is seen as a milestone.

24 Jun 2013

Every chart tells a story...

Ben Adam-Smith (@BenAdamSmith) alerted me to this chart which he stumbled upon whilst researching the vexed issue of density. Every good chart is designed to tell a story (and back it up with facts and statistics) but that doesn't mean they aren't capable of leading you down the garden path. And this is a good example of one that does.

The chart sets out to show how greedy Americans are when it comes to energy and how the very design of their cities further exaggerates this largesse. 18 cities are compared on the basis of their energy usage per head and this is mapped against their population density. The result? The seven American cities are the seven largest energy hogs and also the largest land hogs. At the other end of the spectrum, the three Asian cities, Tokyo, Hong Kong and Singapore, are not only the three most energy efficient per capita, but also the three most densely populated.

QED? The more densely populated a city, the more energy efficient it is. That, at least is the conclusion we are being drawn to here.

But is it true? Let's dig a little.

First thing that stands out is that the x axis and the y axis are comparing apples with pears. The key metric we are being asked to look at is the energy consumption per head. If we did this and this alone, we would have just a single line populated with 18 different cities, with Houston at No 1 spot with score of 75 and Hong Kong at No 18, with a score well below 10. Now that is already a remarkable observation. People living in Houston consume around ten times more energy per head than people in Hong Kong. This tallies with available national statistics on energy and CO2 emissions, though China no longer has such a low score. I suspect this chart is a few years old now and that Hong Kong's score would now be noticeably higher. But that's not the point.

The chart then adds another axis showing the population densities of each of the 18 cities. Now this too is interesting as it draws us to the conclusion that the American cities are groundhogs and the Asian cities are space efficient, though note that two of the Asian examples chosen, Hong Kong and Singapore, are island city states and neither has that much space to expand so they are almost bound to be space efficient.

My main nitpick is that these two observations which, in themselves, are demonstrably true are not necessarily connected, let alone causally related. They may be, they may not be. But the very fact of graphing them against each other draws us to the conclusion that a connection is there and it's a strong one. Indeed, it draws us to the conclusion that population density is the major factor in determining energy usage. And that dense development patterns are therefore a good thing — inherently sustainable even — and that in future development should take place on this sort of basis. Hong Kong good: Houston bad.

It's an oft held criticism of American cities are that they are so large that they encourage car use — "LA is a great big freeway." In contrast, compact cities are walking cities, and they also make public transport more cost effective because there are more potential passengers within walking distance of each bus or metro stop. All true and good. And therefore transport energy costs are likely to be high in megacities which were developed after the advent of car use and cheap oil. Which is the point the graph is making. But transport costs are not the only energy costs. What about heating? And air conditioning? And manufacturing? And public buildings? Maybe, just maybe, American cities have more of these as well. Not to mention bigger houses. In fact, I'm sure they have all of these features, all much bigger than Asian homelets. I'm pretty sure you could chart energy consumption against average house size, or average incomes, or number of doctors per head of population, and get almost exactly the same looking chart.

This is because Americans are, by and large, rich, certainly when compared to Asians and it's this factor which tends to give rise to space-hungry grid-iron street patterns, high levels of car ownership and heavy energy use per head. Their wealth also developed in a world of cheap energy in which no one gave more than a passing thought to how much energy they used, and a world of cheap land too, so it's hardly surprising that their cities developed as they did.

In conclusion, it's not that this chart isn't accurate or even that it draws false comparisons, but that it's making an observation that tells us about the historical development of cities and dressing it up as lesson for us to learn about tomorrow's cities and developments.

What I'm getting at is that a chart like this gets used as a manifesto to justify high density development when in reality it is just a bit of social history. You could, if you wanted to, create a low density, low energy neighbourhood: think green ribbons stretching across the countryside with everybody having a passivhaus on a one-acre plot and a bus up and down the lane every ten minutes. Or you could create the densest, most energy hungry development imaginable: think of the Candy Brothers' One Hyde Park, 86 apartments in central London in which, apparently, hardly anyone actually lives.

So the moral from all this? Just because cheap energy leads to low density development, it doesn't follow that high density development will result in low energy use.

13 Jun 2013

The strange case of the missing Building Reg

I can distinctly remember sitting in the audience at Ecobuild this year (March 5 - 7) listening to Don Foster, whose is a DCLG minister (official title Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Department for Communities and Local Government) saying "It'll be May at the latest."

What was he talking about? And why didn't it happen?

He was talking about publishing the final version of the energy efficiency regulations for buildings in England, known to all as Part L. Part L has been in existence since 1976. Every few years, it gets uprated to reflect changes in the energy landscape and, to a lesser extent, changes in technology. In 2006, Yvette Cooper, who was then the minister in charge of building regs, announced the Code for Sustainable Homes and, with it, a timetable for future Part L upgrades. These being 2010, 2013 and finally 2016.

2016 was seen as the holy grail of energy efficiency, the zero carbon house. It was assumed at the time that the Code for Sustainable Homes and the building regs would come into alignment at this point. 2010 and 2013 were to be stepping stones along the way. Part L, in particular, was in the hot seat here. Unlike the Code for Sustainable Homes which was mostly voluntary, Part L is mandatory.

Now Part L revisions have always been subject to a fair amount of lobbying. The product manufacturers love the revisions because they get to sell more kit (think insulation) and more expensive kit (think boilers and heat pumps). The housebuilders hate them because they have to pay for all this gear. Part L revisions start life in draft form which is subject to consultation. The final version of Part L is habitually late and this in itself causes lots of niggly problems because no one is up to speed by the time the new regs come into effect.

In order to address these issues, the government has published a timetable showing when the building regs will change. All well and good, and very responsible and grown up. The 2013 Part L is due to come into force on October 1st this year and, by convention, the regulation should be published some months ahead of the enforcement date, for obvious reasons. Hence the question to Don Foster back in March which prompted his response about a May publication date.

So why have we got to June 13th without the new Part L? Final versions of Part L have been late before but never this late. This late is ridiculously late. It's all very well lobbying and carrying out base political manoeuverings, but there must be some one in a position to say "Time gentlemen please." After all, it's only a building regulation. You can argue till the cows come home about whether a wall U value should be 0.18 or 0.17 or 0.16, but the world isn't going to come to an end whatever the outcome.

The strange thing is that the most contentious aspect of this revision (it was in the draft version), the requirement for consequential improvements, was dealt a death blow last year by the Daily Mail's Conservatory Tax campaign. All those in favour of toughening Part L have conceded that this proposal is dead in the water and will not be part of Part L 2013. So it seems unlikely that there is much behind-the-scenes lobbying going on here.

What else could they be arguing about? Well we still don't have a definition of what a zero carbon house should actually consist of. But that is an argument that can wait till the 2016 version of Part L. 2013 was only ever to be a stepping stone.

There has been a debate about adopting Fabric Energy Efficiency Standards or FEES. The draft version made a good case for so doing, if only because they are much easier to understand than the existing metrics for overall energy performance of new builds. But I can't really see this as a reason for holding up publication.

So could it be the Treasury, up to their usual tricks in trying to subvert the green machine? Possibly. Part L is certainly a green leaning regulation, and a tougher Part L would be more expensive to implement, which the Treasury doesn't like. But the added cost is hardly a game changer: it will add, at most, a few hundred pounds to the cost of a new house. Delaying Part L publication will arguably add rather more, because the manufacturers won't be able to tool up in time to produce Part L 2013 compliant kit. On balance, it seems unlikely that the Treasury is that bothered about Part L.

So just what is going on behind the scenes? I have no idea. I can only surmise that Part L's non-appearance is symptomatic of a non-functioning department in the midst of a non-functioning government. The novelty of a coalition government, and the optimism that accompanied it, is now long dead.

30 May 2013

Myles Allen and the Mail on Sunday

Good piece here by Joe Romm in response to the Mail on Sunday's latest tirade against climate change policy. It raises some interesting points.

Myles Allen who wrote this piece in the MoS is a respected climate scientist. He is now a professor at Oxford and not just any professor but head of the Climate Dynamics group at the university's Atmospheric, Oceanic and Planetary Physics Department. That's about as respectable as a climate scientist can get. So why is he choosing to appear in the Mail on Sunday, which has been pursuing a relentless and highly effective campaign against the state of climate science?

In order to get Allen on board, the Mail had to make a concession, because no way was Allen going to say that climate change isn't happening at all, or that it won't be harmful. So here, for the first time in yonks, you have what amounts to a retraction by the Mail. They allow Allen to write:

Do I think we’re doomed to disastrous warming? Absolutely not. But do I think we are doomed if we persist in our current approach to climate policy?

I’m afraid the answer is yes. Subsidising wind turbines and cutting down on your own carbon footprint might mean we burn through the vast quantity of carbon contained in the planet’s fossil fuels a little slower. But it won’t make any difference if we burn it in the end.

Now quite what all those loyal Mail readers think of this statement, having been weaned on a diet of Rose, Delingpole and Booker, one can only guess at. But having momentarily spat out their cornflakes, normal service is quickly resumed because Allen then proceeds into a lengthy and mostly non-sensical diatribe about the wonders of carbon capture and storage (CCS), and the demerits of every other mitigation or low carbon generation policy you can think of.

What's bizarre is that Allen denounces the current crop of policies as ruinously expensive and hopelessly ineffective, whilst not presenting any evidence that CCS is any better. My two favourite sentences are:

Frankly, I’d rather pay an engineer in Poland to actually dispose of carbon dioxide than some Brussels eco-yuppie to trade it around.

Why Poland? Aren't we capable of burying our own CO2? Or is Poland being annexed (again) so that we can turn it into a waste dump?


If you’re using fossil carbon to drive a car or fly a plane, you just have to pay someone else to bury CO2 for you.

Like who? And where exactly are they going to bury the CO2 coming out of the exhaust of the plane I am flying in? Or is this just code for offsetting, the sort of scam run by your typical Brussells eco-yuppie?

Allen's CCS solution to the climate change problem is worthy of debate, but just because he's a noted climate scientist doesn't make his views on what we should or should not do about CO2 dumping any more important or relevant than any other reasonably informed individual. But if you are going to argue a case for CCS on a major public platform, you would do well to marshall some coherent facts and statistics, not to mention some indication of comparative costs. Now it may be that he has been heavily edited and that what he has to say makes more sense that it appears to in this article, but then again he didn't have to write this piece.

Allen may now struggle to hang onto the respect he has gleaned as a climate scientist. The article shows the dangers inherent when scientists leave their labs and cross over into areas of policy where evidence is sketchy at best. He's managed to get the Mail on Sunday to make an admission that climate change is real and potentially devastating, but in doing so he has made himself look like an idiot.

14 May 2013

Should we engineer the climate?

Just been to a fascinating talk given by @hughhunt, an Australian academic based in Cambridge, about geo-engineering. Or climate engineering as he prefers to call it, because everyone thinks that geo-engineering is just groundworks by a fancy name. We are not talking groundworks here, but climate control. Specifically the idea that we may be able to mitigate the effects of climate change by tinkering with the atmosphere.

Hugh Hunt's research project involves the feasibility of floating a series of giant, Wembley Stadium, sized balloons 20km up into the stratosphere, each connected to the Earth's surface by a huge hosepipe, through which we would squirt titanium oxide. Why titanium oxide? It's relatively inert and believed to be fairly harmless, it being a key ingredient in white paint and sunscreen.

In fact sunscreen is an apposite metaphor because it would be the equivalent of coating the entire planet with Factor 30. In theory, it would be possible to reduce global surface temperatures by as much as 2°C using this technique. A similar effect is observed when volcanos emit sulphur dioxide as high levels and the sun gets screened out for a while afterwards. We could do it with SO2, but TiO2 is probably preferable.

That's not to say there wouldn't be issues. Hunt identified a few. The release would have to take place around the Equator because the air in the stratosphere spreads out towards the poles from there. There is no telling it would be as effective at the poles as it might be at the Equator. There might be interaction with the oceans, or with the ozone layer. And there might well be many insuperable technical issues to resolve - like how to handle storms, and what happens if the 20km long hosepipe comes loose.

And there is of course the moral hazard of dealing with the symptoms of CO2 build-up, not the root cause. It's nicely dealt with on Wikipedia.

But the really interesting thing about all this is that the preliminary costings suggest that the total cost for a project like this would be in the low billions, much less than building a single nuke, in fact much less than almost any other carbon reducing projects you might care to think of. In fact a similar amount to how much Sheik Mansour is currently investing in Manchester City. Rather than breaking the back of the cash-strapped governments around the world, it's a project which could conceivably be paid for by a few wealthy individuals or even private equity - insurance companies anyone?

23 Apr 2013

Old House Eco Handbook: a review

Marianne Suhr and Roger Hunt have written an important book at an important moment in the history of our treatment of our housing stock in the UK. They are attempting to meld two very distinct movements into one, and it’s not an easy marriage. It’s professional production values — it is a beautiful book — and it’s almost coffee-table aesthetic pull the reader into believing that this is a book of elegant answers, whereas the truth is that it’s actually full of uncomfortable questions.

The Old House bit is where both Marianne and Roger come from. In this instance, we are talking about the legacy of William Morris and in particular SPAB, the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, who sponsored the book. Now SPAB was formed in 1877 and in its day it was undoubtedly radical: it was (I think) the first organisation to draw our attention to the value of the past and called on homeowners to stop knocking their homes about and start respecting what they already had. SPAB was a forerunner of the heritage movement, long before the National Trust existed and long before we started listing old buildings.

As heritage has become mainstream, SPAB has changed with the times. SPAB now spends much of its resources on education, dispensing invaluable advice on ancient building materials and techniques and gradually building up a pool of craftspeople who can work in ways sympathetic to old buildings. They have an affinity with natural building materials like lime, horsehair, hemp and wood wool, some of which were used by our forefathers and some of which weren’t.

Roll forward to today and we have a new challenge facing us, the need to retrofit our existing housing stock, the very stuff of the Green Deal. As the preface says: “How times have changed. Now eco-retrofitting buildings to make them more energy efficient and sustainable is seen as an integral part of repair and maintenance.”

One can only surmise what Morris would have made of “eco-retrofitting.” He railed against the “destructive restoration” practiced by contemporary homeowners and architects. Would he have been a climate change skeptic who would have protested against wind turbines and solar panels, not to mention double-glazing? Or would he have rallied to the greater cause and seen that the preservation of our climate was critical to the preservation of our built environment, and thus become an ardent eco-retrofitter? This uncomfortable dichotomy is still very much alive and sits at the heart of this book.

Essentially, to undertake an eco-retrofit we have to rank our actions in terms of overall importance. We have to face some very difficult questions:

• Is the aim of a retrofit simply to reduce carbon emissions? Or to save energy? They are not the same thing. A renewable heating system might tick the first box without altering the house fabric at all. But to save energy, you have to attack the fabric.

• How much can you attack the fabric an old building without altering its character? There is a danger that you will ruin the very soul of the house if you tamper with it too much. There is also a danger that, if you use the wrong materials, you might end up ruining the structure itself.

Marianne and Roger argue that using natural materials is the way forward, in that they are less likely to ruin an old house, less likely to cause interstitial condensation and will go much of the way towards saving energy.

But how much of this is based on sound building science, and how much is fashion? That’s another very difficult question which we don’t have an answer to yet. There are a number of references in the book to the importance of having breathing structures, but breathing in building terms is a frustratingly hard concept to pin down. They give (in Ch 3) a very good analysis of the way moisture interacts with building materials, both ancient and modern, and when you’ve finished it, you can’t help feeling that you are none the wiser. That’s not because their analysis is lacking, but because the whole subject is so damned slippery. We know all the many different ways that water interacts with buildings, but that’s not the same thing as knowing what will happen when, and in what order, or what damage, if any, will occur. Every building is unique and the way it behaves is unpredictable. The older the building, the more unpredictable it is likely to be.

Consequently, the advice given often falls a little short of what’s really needed in a handbook. It often falls into the trap of listing all the questions you should be asking, rather than providing answers. This criticism sounds mean and churlish and, if so, I should apologise, because it’s a trap I fall right into with my own book. I know many people look up to me as an expert on modern housebuilding, but just like Marianne and Roger, what I’m best at doing is pointing out how difficult it is to get it right.

I just think that renovating old houses is a far harder task than building new ones, so the lack of clarity is hardly surprising. I also know that SPAB is currently sponsoring a load of research into what actually happens when you undertake an eco retrofit, so that in time we should be able to be far more definitive about the subject. In the meantime, this handbook gives a very good summary of what we currently know and don’t know. Frankly, you’d be daft not to own it if you were about to undertake an Eco Renovation whatever age your house might be.

To order Old House Eco Handbook at the special offer price of £24.00 inc. UK p&p (RRP: £30.00) please call Bookpoint on 01235 400400 and quote the code 46OHEH.

20 Apr 2013

Eric gets in a Pickle

I've written extensively on the uniquely Conservative dilemma between growth and conservation. It keeps rearing its ugly head. And the latest to fall foul of this ugly head syndrome is none other than Eric Pickles, who is the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. His humble pie moment is here.

Eric is a gruff, no-nonsense Yorkshireman, immersed in the Thatcherite traditions of hard work, getting ahead and despising slackers. He's set his heart on cutting red tape and last year he came up with a wheeze to make building big extensions easier by tinkering with Permitted Development Rights (PD Rights). Now PD Rights have been around as long as Planning Permission (1948 if you must) and they are used to define the lower limits of the planners remit. If your proposed works are deemed to be insignificant enough, you can just plough ahead with them using your PD Rights and neither the planners nor your neighbours can have any say in the matter.

That's all very well but, as with most schemes which set out to make matters simple and uncontroversial, you immediately run into problems of definition. What exactly are our PD Rights? Do they ever change? Can we lose them? Where can we find out? All good questions. And the answers are none too simple. Over the years, the planners have worked out various routines to determine whether or not your proposed works require planning permission and the best available resource around at the moment for those of us in England is the Planning Portal website. Look at the Do You Need Permission page. I must admit, it's pretty good.

As it stands, you can build an extension up to 3m long on an attached house and 4m on a detached house. That's at it's simplest. In fact there are currently 17 sub conditions you have to meet if you are to not infringe your PD Rights, but in essence you can build a single storey extension this sort of size without planning permission. Unless of course you've already used up your PD Rights - but that's another story: to quote Coldplay no less, nobody said it was easy.

Now our Eric's big wheeze was in essence to redraw this length of extension limit at 8m, but just for a period of three years, his thinking being that this would unleash a wave of extension putting-upping across the country as lots of frustrated mini-Pickles let lose their inner-Thatcher and built over their tiny garden-sized green belts.

Why 8m? I have no idea. Why not 10? Or 16? To quote from the same Coldplay tune: I was just guessing at numbers and figures, pulling the puzzles apart.

Whether this really would burst a dam of pent-up large extension demand is questionable. It wasn't that no one was previously free to build an 8m extension: it was just that it required planning permission. And 90% of domestic planning permissions get consent. Ok, there is the extra cost involved, and the lengthy delay, but an 8m extension is not something to be undertaken in a hurry, so in the great scheme of things, these costs and delays are minor.

Anyway, Eric's 8m extension idea ran into flak from that other kind of Tory, the old-moneyed landlord type, that quite likes the world as it is. It's person, in this instance, was none other than Zac Goldsmith. He went ballistic. He foresaw not a building boom, but an explosion in neighbour-to neighbour disputes as homeowners threw up horrid flat-roofed sheds, blocking the light and spoiling the view. Yuck!

A fine old barney ensues. Nobody said it was easy, but no one ever said it would be this hard.

In the end, Eric has to climb down. Hence the letter.

Only it's not a simple climbdown, it's a compromise. Rather than having to apply for planning permission if you want to build up to 8m, you can simply ask your neighbours if its OK. Here are the six stages:

  • Homeowners wishing to build extensions under the new powers would notify their local council with the details.
  • The council would then inform the adjoining neighbours – this already happens for planning applications.
  • If no objections are made to the council by the neighbours within a set period, the development can proceed.
  • If objections are raised by neighbours, the council will consider whether the development would have an unacceptable impact on neighbours’ amenity.
  • This is a form of ‘prior approval’ process which allows for consideration by ward councillors, and (if the council wishes) by a Planning Committee.
  • There will be no fee for householders to go through this process. 

It's actually ended up being a tiny change on what we already have. Only if the neighbours are all perfectly happy with your proposals can you proceed without intervention. If the neighbours' object — and 8m is a big extension so the chances are they will object — then it goes through something very like planning permission but without any fees attached. So that will immediately make it incredibly popular with the town hall planning departments — doing the job they do already but without any fee.

And what Eric has done now is create a middle tier of confusion somewhere between conventional PD Rights and conventional planning permission. Sort of PD Rights Plus or planning-lite.

In other words, where there was once a little clarity, he now sews the seeds of confusion. This is what passes for cutting red tape these days. One wonders why they bother?

PS The Coldplay song is The Scientist, one of their best. 

15 Apr 2013

Selfbuild to be exempt from CIL?

News today that the government is considering exempting selfbuilders from the dreaded Community Infrastructure Levy (CIL). This is A GOOD THING. At least it is for all of us involved in selfbuild, as the CIL was threatening to derail may selfbuilds because it was so damned expensive. However, we must beware unintended consequences.

My first thoughts on the consultation have been posted back to DCLG. Here they are:

I am Mark Brinkley, selfbuild author and consultant and chair of one of the 2011 Self-build Industry Working Group Committees, hosted by DCLG. I would like to comment on the selfbuld sections of the consultation. I will answer Q21 and 22 only.

Q21 Should we introduce a relief from the payment of the levy for self-build homes for individuals as set out above?

Yes. An excellent idea.

Q22 Do you agree that this approach provides a suitable framework to provide relief for genuine self-builders?

I think the proposals could be improved.

I think it's quite right to attempt to distinguish between self-builders and speculative builders, but it's not always easy. Sometimes some projects can be a mixture of both.

1. The seven year occupation rule. This seems an inordinately long time to establish a selfbuild. Job changes, divorce, bankruptcy or even death may well intervene before seven years is up. I would have though that two years is long enough to establish whether it's a selfbuild.

If it must be seven years, why not place a charge against the property which would require the payment of the CIL if sold before that time? Maybe the charge could reduce - i.e. 100% in first two years, trailing down to zero in Year 7.

2. Documentary evidence on completion. I would have thought that the original person applying for relief would have to prove that they are in occupation as the principle householder (via a rates bill) and that this was their principle private residence. All the other matters you call on as evidence may well not be in place on many selfbuilds. For instance, warranties are not mandatory (many selfbuilders don't buy them but use architects certificates instead). VAT refunds don't take place if the entire contract is let to a VAT registered builder. Self-build mortgages are similarly often not used — standard offset mortgages are almost as common.

In any event, many of these features of selfbuild are not concerned with what happens to a selfbuild after occupation. The house could be let out or become a holiday home and we would be none the wiser.

There might also be issues with loft-style apartments which are sub divided by developers and are sold as shells, to be fitted out by purchasers. The fitting out stage is often classed as selfbuild for VAT purposes. Would you want to offer CIL exemptions on these?

There might also be issues with group schemes where a company is used to purchase the land and deal with planning permission, but the intention is to split the scheme into selfbuilds. Would these fall foul of the qualification rules?

In summary, I think it's complicated and that it will not be straightforward to distinguish between genuine and sham selfbuilds. However, that doesn't mean it's not worth doing. It's just that I don't think the qualifying matters you present in §82 and §83 are tight enough.

3. The proposal as it stands doesn't attempt to distinguish between genuine local need and trophy homes. Why should someone building a ten-bedroom mansion be exempt from CIL, whilst a small local developer building starter homes for resale have to pay? This seems unfair. I feel there should be some size limit placed on qualification for selfbuild relief. I would suggest 200m2 internal floor area, which is large enough for a five bedroomed family home. Or perhaps the size threshold could be left up to the local authority, which would be more in tune with local needs?

Another option (the modest house proposal) would be to exempt selfbuilders from the CIL for a threshold of, say, the first 100m2 internal floor area. If they want to build bigger, they can, but they would start contributing to CIL at the standard m2 rate for floor areas above the threshold. Example: a 250m2 house would be due to pay CIL on 150m2 only, being the 250m2 less the 100m2 threshold. However, this proposal risks being abused by selfbuilders adding extensions soon after occupation - it may be too difficult to police and/or would lead to unforeseen and unwelcome consequences. There might also be issues with measuring internal floor area, for which there is no British standard method.

4. The proposal risks creating a two-tier land market where selfbuilders would obtain a substantial advantage over speculative developers for market land. The higher the local CIL levels, the bigger the selfbuild advantage would be. I would expect lobbying from small builders against this proposal for precisely this reason. However, if you wish to promote selfbuild in the way it occurs in many other countries, then CIL exemption will be a powerful tool.

18 Mar 2013

Selfbuild as a Political Football

Last week the Policy Exchange, a right-leaning think tank, published a report called A Right to Build. The subtitle, Local Homes for Local People, seems to have been lifted straight from the League of Gentlemen, and if the comic reference was unintentional, it is matched by a script that looks like it was written by David Brent after a session down the pub.

The problem is that when you put Tories in front of this notorious bar chart, (NB it that shows that we in the UK don’t really get selfbuild), they immediately jump to the wrong conclusions. Now Alex Morton, author of this report, jumps to a very different conclusion to the ones I have heard voiced so far, but it’s still way off the mark.

Morton’s big idea is that local authorities that fail to hit their own housing targets should be required to release land for self-build housing to local people. This would encourage speed and realism; realistic targets, based on politically acceptable self-build homes.

So just where exactly is this new building land coming from? Here they have dreamed up a ruse known as a Community Land Auction (CLA). Only a right-wing think tank could come up with anything so daft. Here’s Morton’s explanation:

The CLA process involves the council stating that they want land for a set level of homes to be put forward for development. Landowners can come forward offering their land at a specific price in a ‘sealed bid’ auction. No one would know what others were offering. The lowest priced land is granted permission, and then the next lowest priced land, and then the next lowest, and so on, until enough land is released for development to hit the target.

So where exactly would the cheapest land be located? You guessed it. In the worst location. Probably next to a motorway or under a flight path, probably three miles from the nearest shop where there are no roads, no infrastructure, no schools and nothing for company except the adjacent parcel of crap land where the second cheapest plot would be. This really is not much better than gulag development, out of sight and out of mind.

OK , you might argue that this is like a re-casting of the 30s plotlands developments where people from the big cities were offered small-holding-sized plots for next-to-nothing in the middle of nowhere, but the idea back then was that the pioneer plotlanders would be able to make a living from horticulture or market gardening on the land. I don’t think this is what the Policy Exchange is on about.

Then there’s the local bit which they hope will defuse the NIMBY factor, by taking the overt speculation out of the equation. Instead of having land divided up in private deals between councils, landowners and developers (what happens now), the Policy Exchange hopes that there will be a lengthy queue of prospective selfbuilders forming a waiting list for the newly released land, merrily waiving their rates bills to prove local residence qualifications and their chequebooks to pay the Community Infrastructure Levy.

This seems to be based on the compelling statistic that 400,000 people search Rightmove for building plots every month. Well, I’m one of them, but I don’t want to live on a squatter camp sandwiched between the M11 and the Stansted runway. And just how many of this 400,000 are in a position to raise finance and take on a major building project? I suspect very few.

Where it all gets extremely silly is in imagining that selfbuild is so popular that opposition from the community will just melt away:

On the national stage, this policy will help the push for more homes. Those opposing all development will be unable to hide behind nonsense about opposing greedy developers. Opposing these reforms would clearly mean denying an ordinary family the home they need. Supporting these reforms will show that politicians are in favour of ‘the little guy’ and squeezed ordinary working people trying to get on in life – exactly the group which all parties say that they are keen to support.

What do they smoke down at the Policy Exchange? With friends like this, the selfbuild movement better watch out because the goodwill that currently exists towards selfbuild will evaporate very quickly. We will be about as popular with the local Tories as the gypsies down at Dale Farm.

It gets worse. Morton supplies a helpful timeline on how this new policy might work:

Shortfall announced (Mid-July 2013)
Land Auctions (three months from August to November)
Planning permission granted on specific sites (November onward)
Plots allocated and can be traded (two weeks in November/December)
Neighbourhood plans for specific sites created and building starts (December 2013 onward)

Result? 100,000 new selfbuild homes ready for occupation sometime next year. I suspect Morton spent too many of his teenage years playing at being mayor of Sim City, because if he thinks that timeline is realistic, he cannot have first emerged from his bedroom more than three weeks ago.

Ok,I know that the Germans build this number of selfbuild homes every year, but they have been building up to this level for decades. They have an industry in place to service this amount of custom building. Plus they practice something very similar to compulsory land purchases, with the local councils deciding where these new homes should be located. Being a right-leaning think tank, the Policy Exchange can’t bring itself to mention a phrase like Compulsory Purchase (unless of course they are promoting high speed rail links, but that’s another story), so they come up with the ludicrous concept of the Community Land Auction instead.

If we want to copy the Continental housebuilding models (and I think we should), can we at least pay them the respect of understanding how they work, and not try to promote such hare-brained, ill-thought-out solutions. The future for selfbuild in the UK still looks rosy, but it's never going to be an overnight panacea for the unpopular housing market we have created and it's ludicrous and potentially damaging to pretend it could be.

26 Feb 2013

Is Ross Clark right?

The author and journalist Ross Clark has written a very interesting 15,000 word ebook, available on iTunes and Amazon, entitled A Broom Cupboard of One's Own. It's only £2.25. You can read it in 90 minutes, and it's a very easy read. Go buy.

Its subject is the UK housing market and its theme is that, having spent much of the 20th century becoming a nation of homeowners, the process is now unravelling and that, if we don't intervene, we will end up back in the state our Victorian forebears came from, whereby 20% of the population owned the housing stock and the other 80% rented it off them.

The first half of the ebook describes the problem. It starts in Mitcham, South London, in the 1930s and looks at what was on offer there from Wates. Namely new suburban homes for just £315, or eight shillings a week. By today's inflation adjusted standards, this would be the equivalent of £18,000. In fact, these Mitcham homes now sell for £300,000.

Clark traces the factors behind the huge increase in prices and discusses the two main culprits, namely our restrictive planning system and our lax mortgage market. His analysis is bang up to date and includes the views of the current planning minister Nick Boles who sits firmly in the Bash-a-NIMBY camp, espousing a ripping up of planning boundaries and a free-for-all buildathon. The spectre of what happened in Ireland and Spain is brought to bear and the Bolesian solution is summarily dispatached. In its place, Ross Clark suggests that we bring back compulsory purchase, thus removing the speculative profit element from our housing scene. "Paradoxically, using powers of compulsory purchase would result in a much freer housing market. House building would be democratised." I'm all for this: it is essentially the way the German housebuilding system works (see previous blog).

Clark then goes on to look at the mortgage market and shows how it evolved over the years to give ever bigger loans to an ever wider circle of people. He's particularly interesting on the evolution of the buy-to-let mortgage which didn't even exist until 1996 but now accounts for 1.4million loans, all based on using rental income to cover the mortgage payments. If you want to look for reasons for unaffordable housing, here is a prime suspect.

Clark concludes with six proposals to improve the state of the housing market. They are probably far too interventionist for Nick Boles to ever contemplate, but to my mind they are all reasonable. The only one I would quibble with is his call for building regulations to be watered down in order to keep a lid on costs. Whilst I am no fan of enforced onsite micro generation, I don't think that the building standards we have at the moment are so high that we should be abandoning them. Just as with the Community Infrastructure Levy (which is briefly touched on but whose abolition doesn't form part of his proposals), the extra cost of building is reflected in lower prices paid for development land: building to higher standards may cost more, but it shouldn't therefore contribute to higher house prices.

If there is an underlying theme here, it's that the housing market is not really a free market in the sense that free marketeers (OK, Nick Boles again) like to think it should be, and that pretending it is foolish and destructive. To operate well and to satisfy the people who aspire to live in it (and own it), there has to be a great deal of intervention. And that the less dogma comes into play, the better. On this, Ross Clark is spot on.