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.