With the need to be green creeping closer to home as new paper straws start to crop up in fast food restaurants, electric car charging points become more abundant, and your reusable shopping tote gets filled with plastic packaging alternatives, it is quickly becoming an unavoidable truth that our homes will be one of the next industries to turn green. Regardless of how many plastic straws, bags, and bottles you refuse, with UK homes consuming a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions each year and almost 85% of houses rated with an Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) rating of C or less in 2018, the attempt to lower your carbon footprint through little habit changes often goes straight out the single glazed window.
Though it may seem like a distant memory given the record heat of these summer months, of all the energy spent heating our homes in cooler months at least a quarter of the heat will escape from windows, walls, and roofs. The inefficiency of our homes to maintain temperatures means that the vast majority of fossil fuel burning that provides the UK with over 50% of its energy, goes to waste. Far from just an environmental problem, the cost of homes that are not energy efficient creates fuel poverty, where energy bills that cost over £1000 are forcing people to choose between putting the heating on and buying food. In 2015, an estimated 2.55 million households in the UK were affected by fuel poverty, as a result of insufficient support for investment in energy efficient solutions.
The UK has a weak portfolio of economically and ecologically benevolent housing. With a population that shies from the idea of apartment blocks, that are considered conventional across almost any other developed nation and are incredibly energy efficient, we instead opt for townhouses, preferably semi-detached, that exude heat from every available surface. Cripplingly slow on the uptake of sustainable building innovations like grey water storage and ground source heating, the UK seems to have selective hearing when it comes to the cheap and renewable resources that are ubiquitous across the developed and developing world. Generations of below-par housing standards that saw any construction as good construction have resulted in a deficient housing record with the some of the highest energy bills due to some of the lowest insulation standards in the Western world. Due to these lax standards that have perpetuated as a hangover from the building boom of the 90s, even homes today are fabricated with minimal insulation, leaving the financial and environmental burden to the homeowner.
With the looming necessity to curtail our emissions as soon as possible, the spaces we live in are in drastic need of less energy demanding adaptations. With over 80% of houses that will be lived in by 2050 already built, retrofitting homes with energy saving and cleanly producing technologies will be a crucial part of our sustainable future. In the recent past, the UK government have tried to use eco-retrofits to help them meet their Clean Growth Plan to limit annual emissions to almost a third of 1990 levels by 2030. This includes the offer of free home insulation, which has since been curtailed by strict assessment criteria; clean energy paybacks from renewable energy generators, which has been steadily drained from big cash payouts to little more than sofa change; and the decade-long planning to make all new homes energy efficient by 2016 that was unceremoniously axed with a year to go. This year the Energy Company Obligation, with the pithy abbreviation of ECO, that is designed to deploy energy efficiency measures, had its funding cut by 40%, significantly reducing the UK’s means to securing a sustainable housing future. According to the progressive think tank IPPC, the governments steady back-track on these once pioneering schemes means the UK is likely to dramatically miss its target of ensuring all homes are upgraded to an EPC of at least C by 2030, which will more realistically be met by 2090.
Despite a questionable track record, the governments dogged determination to implement, but perhaps not maintain, environmental schemes, they’ve recently rolled out another sustainable housing programme to the market. The Green Deal, a now privatised reincarnation of the same 2012 project they killed off three years ago, offers subsidy-style loans to homeowners to make their houses more environmentally efficient. With a choice of 45 options, ranging from solar panels to a new boiler to draught excluders, a company will install energy saving products into your home which will be paid for by the savings made from your energy bills, with interest. The scheme is simple and will aid the government with their aim to make UK homes more efficient, which is on the minds of many homeowners today. A poll conducted by WWF in 2017 of the UK public found that up to three-quarters of homeowners would make an eco-retrofit if there were a subsidy available. Why then, did just 15,000 people take up the original Green Deal when it was around from 2012 to 2015?
While an excellent scheme for getting energy savers into homes to help the government meet their reaching targets, the Green Deal old and new is compounded with a host of problems criticised by economists and environmentalists alike. Should the household have a relatively low energy consumption, the savings made are often not equivalent to the cost of the installed product, yet you are locked into a contract for the length of its life-span. The scheme is also legally unusual with a loan specific to the house, not the person who took it out – which actually makes Green Deal improvements deterrents to prospective buyers of the property who aren’t keen to enter into an unusual housing contract. Most notably, these loans are often subject to interest rates of up to 9%, significantly more than the average APR of remortgaging your home and using the money to update it yourself.
Along with the strange implementation conditions, the low-uptake was probably most significantly down to the fact that no one knew it existed. Days before its inception in 2012, a poll by the Guardian revealed that just 1 in 5 people knew about it, and with information on the 2018 scheme few and far between, lurching between inauthentic news pedlars to the footnotes of the governments website, the Green Deal 2.0 is set to repeat the same faults as its predecessor. Undoubtedly reticent to hand out cash as a reward for greening your home, the government are apparently more interested in having the ability to list this as one of their initiatives, rather than effectively implementing it and providing it to the public. With no buses patrolling the UK plastered with statistics of how much energy our homes waste every day, this incredibly environmentally positive and newsworthy information is at the risk of being found years later in the archives of Martin Lewis’s advice.
The new Green Scheme is destined to the same apathetic list of uninspired and decidedly un-eco initiatives and cuts by the UK government. From curtailing solar incentives, the unabashed continuation of the fracking crusade, the rejection of the Swansea Tidal Power Lagoon, and permitting Heathrow’s expansion, the UK’s inconsistent stance on environmental policies places us far down the list of nations that are using sustainable initiatives to drive economic development.
Vast eco-housing initiatives around the world are showing no signs of being slashed, and low-energy abodes and household efficiency products are steadily increasing in popularity. Across Scandinavia, district heating provides energy through a centralised heating system to vast networks of houses across Through a mixture of fossil fuels, biomass, nuclear, geothermal and solar heat, homes across large areas are effectively heated by a centralised boiler managed by the government and private energy companies. Using a main source to heat and cool houses means that the central plant can be quickly updated to use cleaner forms of fuel as they become available to the market. This allows for large-scale updates to how energy is provided, removing the condition where many boilers in the UK are out of date and inefficient at producing heat, along with a dwindling number of oil-heated homes. Through district heating, many homes are even heated by recycled heat from industries that would otherwise go to waste. This centralised heating system produces over 80% of the heat and hot water provided to Sweden’s apartment blocks. Gothenburg’s 1,200 kilometres long energy network provides heat to 90 per cent of the city’s flats, along with 12,000 detached homes.
Germany, often cited for their dedication to sustainable initiatives has many low-emission communities, including Freiburg im Breisgau, an eco-city. As early as 1995, the green government announced it would only permit construction of low-energy buildings on municipal land, and all new buildings must comply with low energy specifications. The roofs along the city are adorned with swathes of solar panels and water collectors that provides electricity and hot water, and inside the homes extensively utilise energy from the sun to regulate room temperature.
Other sustainable living environments include apartment blocks, villages, towns and entire cities that are specifically designed to be significantly less energy demanding than standard homes, including vast apartment blocks in Tokyo, towns across Australia and New Zealand, and even villages in the poorest districts of South America. Sustainable housing not just improves the impact of human living on the environment, but makes that living less draining on household income by reducing running costs.
Environmental innovations can bring solutions for not just climate change but also other social challenges. In the UK, with a record rate of a quarter of people aged 20-34 living with their parents, the government have been lambasted for the lack of affordable housing in the country. With this plaguing the nation and childhood homes, the new wave of prefabricated eco homes that average at 10% of the cost of a traditional home with a fraction if not the non-existence of running costs, have the opportunity to offer an environmental and social solution. In Wales this year, Western Solar built the UK’s first solar village, and its success had lead to the planning of two more villages in the area. What looks like designer timber-clad luxury homes for the rich, these villages are actually new social housing communities.
Beyond government induced policies, private companies like Western Solar, Passivhaus, Wikihouse and grassroots community builds of earth ships made from post-consumer materials, are primed to make way for upstarting businesses that transform the drab view of faux-variety housing estates into an eclectic mix of low-energy, low-cost living arrangements. Traditional developers who have held brownfield land to ransom with massive cash injections and rooms that meet the acceptable cubic-metre room size to the millimetre could fall to the plucky ideals of independent sustainable housing organisations.
But with the UK government beholden to their promise of up to 300’000 new homes every year that are accessible to the many, we’re in jeopardy of conducting cheap business as usual that is putting homes on the market that are not fit for a sustainable future. In the UK at least 95% of houses built are the traditional, draught-ridden abodes that we’ve grown accustomed to. But with living standards dropping due to stagnant wages and the rising price of living, autonomous homes that run with little additional payment will enable the government to meet both of its social and environmental responsibilities.
With far-reaching opportunities that will benefit communities, the environment and the nation, the UK must enthusiastically seize the opportunity to innovate and build homes that will improve living standards and the local environment. Houses that autonomously run themselves so that income can be spent living rather than surviving. With financial support for the sustainable development of the UK being handed off to private companies, perhaps new, innovating businesses can step in to provide alternative options.