Green may have gone mainstream, but what are the best ways to achieve zero carbon emissions, asks Cole Thompson Anders partner Craig Anders

I spent two days at EcoBuild this year, partly because I was giving a talk and partly because I was keen to see the latest in green technology.

Craig Anders, partner, Cole Thompson Anders

Much of what I saw was very familiar as over the last 10 years our practice has been designing ‘green and intelligent’ housing schemes, incorporating much of the technology on display at Ecobuild.

10 years ago we were described as ‘messianic’ and accused by one major house-builder of being ‘dangerously innovative’ - a phrase surely only heard in the building industry!

However, the world has caught up; green has become mainstream, the government is pushing through tougher and tougher legislation and Ecobuild gets bigger every year.

The house building industry mostly continues to kick and scream, but many forward thinking clients realise times are changing and they have to change too – some even going beyond current minimum requirements by commissioning flagship exemplar schemes. We have been fortunate to work with many of these.

One of the major changes brought in by government has been the Code for Sustainable Homes.

Widely criticised by many as being impractical at the upper levels of code 5 or 6, it certainly has some significant issues and no doubt we will soon see the first batch of revisions.

Varying ideas and solutions have been put forward in the industry on the best way to really achieve very low or zero, carbon emissions, with some key players behind those ideas.

I believe these can be summarised as follows

Code for Sustainable Homes
Much debate on how to achieve the various levels and their cost implications and very few Code level 6 houses built. There is a general feeling that insisting on the on-site solution for renewables is totally impractical, particularly for small schemes. This is not how it’s done Scandinavia or Europe! We can expect revisions to the code, and clearer cost advice in future, but at present this is the route the house-building industry must follow.

Revised code targets
Some major players, including the Good Homes Alliance and Leeds Metropolitan University believe the Code (aside from difficulties in achieving the upper levels) misses key issues and are proposing a new system called Code 3++. This includes on-site monitoring for 2 years, on the basis that poor construction (be it masonry, timber frame or others) is responsible for much wastage with leaky non-airtight buildings and too much unintended thermal bridging. Hence a well constructed and detailed home at Code 3 (tested to ensure that actual performance really does match specified performance) would have a greater effect in reducing carbon emissions.

Existing housing stock
The other ‘plus’ in the proposed Code 3 ++ refers to upgrading existing buildings as these account for a high percentage of carbon emissions from the housing stock. Many have argued for a long time that, until we significantly upgrade our old housing stock, the amount of carbon reduction from new builds will remain insignificant.

Return to basics
The Prince’s Trust amongst others, promotes a return to basic crafts and natural materials to reduce the carbon footprint. Straw bale houses, with lime rendered walls, are one outcome of this ethos. Embodied energy of materials is not included in the Code for Sustainable Homes, and this has been a major criticism of it.

Buildings are not the problem
Another current strand of thought is that we should turn our attention to food miles and transport as these are the key carbon emitters. Anyone wishing to reduce their carbon footprint should seriously consider where their food comes from, start growing it themselves and buy local produce. They should ditch the car, and use public transport and bicycles - air travel is a non-starter. Of course, these relate only to the carbon aspects of sustainability and miss the bigger picture of living in a highly sustainable dwelling, such as comfort, health and wellbeing. Also comparing carbon emissions of train travel versus air travel doesn’t take account of railway infrastructure such as steel rails and concrete sleepers, which have huge amounts of embodied energy. So it is difficult to know what the facts and figures really mean.

With all these different strands of thought it is difficult to know whether we are in a state of healthy debate or total confusion!

Which strategy is really going to achieve best long term results? Can we rely on ‘expert’ or scientific reports with figures and graphs proving this and that (some already discredited) or on the government to get it right? (I think we know the answer to that one).

Do local authorities, with their varying degrees of ‘greenness’, know what’s best for their area?

Will developers ever do what other industries do and race to outdo each other in terms of sustainable performance?

I have a dream: I am designing and building a house for myself and my wife on a fantasy island. I am not subject to any rules, regulations or measurement. I will use basic common sense - the orientation and window sizes will allow for maximum winter solar gain with shading to avoid summer overheating. Rooms will have cross ventilation and double height spaces, not only for visual excitement but to act as passive stacks.

Materials will be as natural as possible; rain water will be captured and re-cycled. Electric fans and pumps will be minimal; the house will be so well insulated and carefully designed that practically no heating will be required.

These features will not only reduce my energy and water bills, reduce maintenance and repairs but more importantly will give excellent comfort throughout the year, and a superb quality of life.

I have no idea how it would score, as I will not be doing calculations, filling in endless forms or ticking boxes. I am just relying on common sense and what feels right.

Isn’t this how we built until the 20th century? If only we could still do that, if only the building industry could be relied upon to deliver such houses without being forced by regulations.

Till that day arrives, my dream remains just that, and the regulations, the check-lists, the confusion and the endless ongoing debates continue.