Amelia's Magazine | Sustainable Housing: how can we save 80 per cent of our energy use in existing homes?

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Sustainable Housing: how can we save 80 per cent of our energy use in existing homes?

The answer does not lie in building flashy new eco-developments...

Written by Alan Gillingwater

housesIllustrations by Diana Boyle, visit this site Rooftop Illustrations

Over the last few months, generic the LSE has been putting on a series of events on sustainability and practice; offering not just a space for the discussion of ideas but how to translate those ideas into practical intent. Last week I went to a lecture by Anne Power, information pills a lecturer in housing and social exclusion at the LSE, as well as a one time member of the governments’ urban taskforce. Anne Power used her expertise to answer the question: ‘how can we save 80 per cent of our energy use in existing homes’? This is the governments’ target for energy use reduction in our buildings by 2020. Her approach was straight to the point, and why not? She felt she had the experience and knowledge to simply answer the question, so that’s what she did. I enjoyed this refreshingly bold approach where it soon became apparent that, with a little will power and government support, many of the solutions were, in fact, absolutely within reach.

house5Anne began with a very simple but pertinent point made disarmingly clear with a few facts. In any given year, existing homes, as opposed to new builds, will account for over 99% of all homes. New builds will always only ever be a small percentage of the total housing stock. It is estimated that even by 2020 over 85% of the housing will be the same as that currently existing. These facts alone speak a simple truth that in order to substantially reduce the total energy use of our homes, by far the most crucial task is to refurbish the homes we have already rather than building new ones, even if they are ‘greener’. I was very happy to see Anne take this simple point as the starting point for her talk as I heard this same bit of common sense being expressed by a member of the audience at a previous talk on creating carbon zero housing and it struck me as being so obviously vital. Interestingly, as an expert on housing issues, Anne backed up her argument for focusing on refurbishment rather than new builds by talking about the material waste and social disruption of the demolition of housing estates, which are almost always unpopular amongst local residents.

So if refurbishment is the answer, how can we do it? This question is both practical and political. Practically, Anne demonstrated the ease of dramatically reducing the energy use of existing homes with a little investment. There are 20 million drafty doors and windows in the UK. Double glazing, curtains, and even simply using a layer of cling film over a window can all help keep the heat we use in. We know this, we can fix it and it doesn’t cost much. Heating could be turned down in our homes to the temperature we seemed to be happy with a few decades ago. If we turned our thermostats down from 20C to 17C we would use a remarkable third less in energy. Walls, lofts and basements can be insulated with cheap materials, dramatically reducing the heat that escapes from our homes.

house3

Of course, although comparably inexpensive compared to building new homes, this does all cost money. Who will pay? Why would they pay? Where are the incentives? This is where the question is political and where easy solutions are perhaps a little harder to come by. However, in terms of incentives for homeowners there is an encouraging economic logic. Over a few years, the upfront costs of insulating your house will be paid back in terms of reduced energy bills. What is needed is for this information about the advantages of refurbishment to reach home owners. The only problem here however is that the initial upfront costs may prove to be simply too much for some people or enough of an immediate disincentive to make it easy for people to leave carrying out the work for ‘another day’. So how can the long term incentives of refurbishment be harnessed? How can the upfront costs be financed? Surely here is a role for government loans – an ‘energy grant’ or even subsidy for lower income households. However there are also property owners that may be less easily persuaded. What is the incentive for the over 2 million private landlords to refurbish their properties? They tend not to pay the energy bills. They do not live in the often old and drafty buildings they rent out. Where the incentives do not exist, surely they need to be created by subsidy or controlled by regulation.

However we are reminded that there are many energy saving measures that can be achieved without the kind of upfront costs that many find difficult to afford. A drafty window doesn’t necessarily need expensive insulation work or replacement with double glazing. Anne explains how just adding a pair of old curtains or covering a window pane with cling film can also make a massive difference. These are hardly expensive measures. I for one am going to stop writing now, and go and ask my grandma about those spare curtains she has, for my own drafty Victorian flat…

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