Open mike — Yes, moving to zero-carbon homes is going to be strange at first, but then again we’re living through strange days, says Matt Bell. Pretty soon it will all seem perfectly normal …
Why is there so much carping about level six of the Code for Sustainable Homes? I’ll tell you what I think. When you hear a developer complaining about new regulations, it’s a sure sign it has made minimal investment in R&D in the past 10 years. While the good times roll, you churn out a standard product from the nineties, but when the market tightens and policy bites, those chickens come home to roost.
You don’t have to run ZEDfactory to back the case for moving to level six (that is, zero carbon) by 2016. It’s a piece of conviction politics that recognises the dangerous reality of climate change. True, the policy is unencumbered by evidence or experience and true, it would be easier and cheaper to call a halt at level four, but sadly even this will not be enough to prevent greenhouse gases in the air from rising past 430 parts per million, somewhat to the detriment of our biosphere.
What science makes clear is that code level six is required alongside all the other mitigation strategies. It’s not a choice. We need to address both new build and the refurbishment of existing stock. Both/and. Not a little bit of each. It’s also clear that sustainable places matter as much as sustainable products. Eco-towns, sustainable cities or eco-regions: these are about appreciation of strategic urban design as well as sustainable construction, and call for an understanding of how to address climate change at different spatial scales.
You may have seen that Barratt unveiled its Green House prototype last week. This was the first level-six house to be built by a major homebuilder, and was nicely designed by Gaunt Francis Architects. The home, which meets the criteria for zero stamp duty, will emit no net carbon over the course of a year. Its walls are wrapped in 180mm of insulation, its windows are triple glazed, and it has a rainwater collection and re-use system. We are coming to see a lot of these “innovations” as normal requirements of a new-build home.
What struck me as I wandered around was how orthodox the layout appeared. Clearly you don’t have to reinvent the market to produce a level-six house. It was all entirely recognisable and reassuring for the punters. It was also hugely over-specified. Gadgets hung from every surface, as if the very idea of reducing energy consumption was anathema. As with so much today, it’s a cautious approach, and follows the
oh-so-depressing NHBC Foundation report that declared homeowners were unready for zero-carbon homes.
Seventy per cent of consumers agree that the government has a mandate to lead on this issue, even if it means using the law to change people’s behaviour
But is it true that nobody wants to tackle climate change just yet? Last year’s report from Ipsos MORI, entitled Tipping Point or Turning Point, revealed that an ever growing number of consumers in this country are using their purchasing choices to reflect their concerns and beliefs. Also, consumers are looking to businesses to take action on climate change and 70% agree the government has a mandate to lead on this issue, even if it means using the law to change people’s behaviour. Most people recognise the need for “choice editing”: that is, reducing consumer choice by refusing to offer unsustainable options. The problem is that few people in leadership positions seem to believe they have this mandate from consumers. It’s as if they can’t acknowledge the permission being given them by the market.
Later this week, Birmingham council and Cabe will launch the world’s first climate change festival. We want to bring alive the proposition that low-carbon living in a sustainable city is not an end to all the things you enjoy. It’s actually about a smarter, more efficient lifestyle in a place that’s healthier, fairer and more prosperous. There’ll be street theatre, technical debates, city walks and private views. Birmingham will launch the targets for its first ever Climate Change Strategy and Cabe will unveil the first thing it has ever built. In this city, you’ll see signals from the demand side that sustainability is now a permanent requirement.
Traditionally, there has been a received wisdom in the world of construction that you should ignore early mover advantage and let some other fool take the risk. What this mindset fails to recognise is that the balance of risk and reward is now changing. Shell, for example, is investing heavily in persuading customers to use less of its product, as it believes that if it does not, the market will chose other brands with different reputations and offers. Crazy times.
Climate change has created new imperatives. The industry and government need to recognise they have a mandate for carbon reduction, and accept the invitation to lead.
Matt Bell is director of campaigns at Cabe