When it comes to introducing low-carbon systems into houses, we have our work cut out to convince the owners that they’re not just guinea pigs for the next wave of technological misadventures, says Imtiaz Farookhi
Let’s get this straight – the primary purpose of homes is for people to live in. In addition, homeowners in the UK expect their main asset to gain in value, generate wealth and provide financial security.
Homes are a unique commodity, not just for individual families, but also for the country as a whole: consumer confidence, the key to a successful Western economy is, in the UK, largely about growth in house values.
And that is why it is important that NHBC has maintained its focus on consumer protection – improving standards in housebuilding and protecting families from financial loss.
Zero-carbon homes which, as a nation, we are committed to by 2016, need to be seen in this context. We are looking at all manner of new microgeneration and renewable technologies including wind, solar and biomass systems that are a complete departure from what we are used to. We need to make sure that all the issues around reliability, durability and standards are thoroughly understood, to ensure that consumers have confidence in these technologies, and are not used as guinea pigs for them to be tried out, tested and accredited.
Homeowners can and do suffer when new technologies are introduced en masse without sufficient foresight. Just looking at the examples of Canada, New Zealand and the United States in the nineties where catastrophic failures, costing billions, inflicted misery on tens of thousands of homeowners, should give us pause. And we must always keep in mind that the faster the change, the bigger the potential problems.
A lack of adequate information has left many homeowners virtually unable to use, maintain or replace the new technology
In the UK during the eighties and nineties, NHBC mounted a £1bn rescue programme in partnership with the government to repair precast reinforced concrete homes. Entire housing estates failed and thousands of people had to be moved out of their homes. I do not want to see these mistakes repeated.
But what else do we need to do? Clearly we need to set strategic targets, but we must also have a strategy to engage consumers – an area where we need to make up a lot of ground. That is why the NHBC Foundation, chaired by Nick Raynsford MP, is investing time and money on what will be an important research programme to gain a thorough understanding of consumer attitudes, expectations and concerns about zero carbon.
Focus groups with homeowners around the UK have already provided much food for thought. Particularly interesting feedback has come from a group of homeowners living on experimental energy-efficient developments built 15 to 20 years ago. The homeowners gave consistently positive reports on low fuel bills, but also reported problems across the board with the technology in their homes. A lack of adequate information has left many virtually unable to use, maintain or replace their equipment. This is why we need to make sure that these kinds of technologies, which are the same ones we are trying to use to meet zero-carbon and sustainability targets, deliver for homeowners.
I am encouraged by the enthusiasm of the industry, which has been set a very ambitious target. There’s a long way to go, and I don’t believe that the British public is either incapable or unwilling to embrace change. I actually think that people, given the chance, will readily take to innovations when they are properly introduced.
Clearly with climate change at the top of the agenda, the carbon footprint of a home is very important. However we must always remember that homes are not simply a means of delivering carbon savings: they are places where people invest in their future – both emotionally and financially.
Imtiaz Farookhi is chief executive of the NHBC