The planet faces an unprecedented series of environmental crises including climate change and the collapse of bio-diversity, yet for our construction industry and particularly the carbon-emitting housing sector it’s ‘business as usual’. Ecomerchant asked Sandy Patience, architect and editor at GreenSpec for his take on the paradox.
People don't buy, and the Government doesn't legislate for, future-proofed homes: Why not?
Why are we set on building houses that will cost owners and the rest of us dearly in the future? What follows, explores the complex reasons that have resulted in a perfect storm and the failure of the Government to provide adequate legislation.
Why are housebuilders selling us a lie?
My current walk to school alongside the new 'St. Michael's Fold' housing development provides me with an example of just how far volume housebuilders have travelled towards sustainable construction. The news is that it's not very far.
Some 30 houses are under construction. Brick and block with minimum cavities; lofts are waiting for the contractor to unroll the insulation; dummy chimneys and PVC windows surrounded by gaps through which you could slice a ping-pong ball. Each house is fiercely independent of its neighbours even if they are only a metre away - detached properties, of course, fetch premium prices. It's hard to detect evidence that the developer, or buyers, or planners, realise that we have a climate crisis and that new homes will be quickly rendered unfit for purpose.
The maximum wall area, using conventional materials, provided by detached houses ensures that they will lose heat in winter and badly overheat in summer. Given too, the rock bottom prices in the PV market and cheap hot-water collectors, it's surprising that the developer has declined to offer his customers their benefit. The on-site sales centre confirms that the houses are 'fully compliant' with building regulations. "Our buyers don't ask for any more than that." says the sales assistant looking sheepish.
For this particular estate, it gets worse. Sitting next to drainage ditches that criss-cross the landscape, this is essentially marshland incapable of sustaining much more than frogs. The site is so low that it's hard to see its survival much beyond a couple of floods from the nearby river as water levels rise. It's enough for an insurance man to break into a sweat.
Why are so many environmentally ill-equipped properties sold even before they're built? As in so many similar developments, the clue is in the hoarding size graphics at the entrance. 'Welcome to St. Michael's Fold'. St Michael is a local saint. A fold is where sheep are kept. The image is bucolic. Desirable. In the show house, the sales assistant shows us the 'period' features we can expect with our homes. It's another slice of ubiquitous 'Ye Olde England' signified by stick-on half-timbering, hanging tiles and 'leaded' lights. These are the bastard grandchildren of the Arts and Crafts movement.
Everything about how this development appears is fake. Fake history. Fake houses. Also fake too are the developer's claims that they have built homes for the future. No one is born to like country cottages or loathe terrace houses. The homes sell like hotcakes.
Why do we buy into Ye Olde England myth?
In contrast to most of the Continent, there's an association between Anglo Saxons and the detached house. Go to any suburb in the English-speaking world, be it Vancouver, Boston, Melbourne or Birmingham and you'll find detached housing built as default. Debate still runs about the origin of this, formerly English, phenomena. It derives at least from both the classic 'Englishman's Home is his Castle' icon and the need for differential from collective housing. Above all, it is a status symbol. For most people, it is the single most crucial signifier. Irrespective of the cost, the size and fitness for the purpose of being a home - it is the sign of having 'made it'. The Range Rover, another status asset, should have enough room to park in front.
The flight from industry
The Industrial Revolution gave us Blake's 'Dark satanic mills' - islands set in seas of Victorian industrial housing. Housing in an environment that we would describe today as toxic: Child mortality hit new peaks in the nineteenth century and in 1860s Liverpool, life expectancy sank to 25 years. No wonder then that a newly wealthy middle class chose to evacuate the city in search of AE Houseman's 'blue remembered hills' and the 'land of lost content'. There they built what they dreamed they'd lost. The pastoral fantasy reached its peak in 'Garden Cities' such as Letchworth, Welwyn Garden City, Bournville and New Earswick.
For many, the collective memory of row upon row of straight Victorian 'two-up, two-down' terrace housing still haunts. Now relatively wealthy, we build the opposite. We cherish the cosy curves of the avenues (note: not 'streets'), closes, meadows, ways, rises and drives. The price we pay is a needlessly low-density sprawl of housing estates. From a conservation view it's a losing strategy - not only is it an inefficient use of land, but many of the houses will be ill-aligned to make the best use of the sun and provide protection from the elements.
Will the Building Regulations protect us?
Expecting Building Regulations to set the standard for tackling Climate change would be a category error - the Regulations are not designed for engineering environmental policy.
Part L owes its origins, not to an environmental crisis, but an economic one. It wasn't until the 1960s that the Building Regulations expanded from protecting life and limb from bad construction to protecting our wealth. The introduction of statutory U-values for building envelopes in 1965 was only a gesture towards minimising energy wastage.
Come the 'Oil Crisis' of 1973; energy policy was revolutionised. Previously taken for granted, energy became a weapon in world politics. Dependence on oil turned into a liability - cutting off the flow could ruin a nation's economy. Nearly all Western governments introduced ranges of inhibitions on oil's use. The UK Government began requiring a U-value of 1.0 for external walls. Over subsequent years the U-value screw has tightened in line with oil and gas prices. Consequently, energy efficiency has significantly improved over the last 50 years, but it still falls far short of being a useful tool sufficient to realise any environmentally relevant standard.
Part L stands in an odd place. There's still the commercial imperative for fuel efficiency, but shouldn't it be the first legislative measure by which we prepare our building stock for global warming? If the industry was serious about climate change, wouldn't we have the appropriate regulation by now?
That, of course, would depend on Government policy.
The independent Committee on climate change (CCC) published the 'UK Housing: Fit for the Future?' in 2019. It condemns 'The way new homes are built (and that they) fall short of design standards. This is unacceptable.' The report calls for 'Immediate Government action … to ensure the new homes planned across the UK are fit for purpose, integrating the highest possible levels of emissions reduction' and that 'This will require an ambitious trajectory of standards, regulations and targets for new homes…'
So here's the problem: since concerns about global warming became public in the 1990s, fossil fuel-funded think tanks have framed it and other environmental issues as liberal and radical ideology designed to undermine capitalism. Pushing this agenda is a right-wing doctrine that claims that global warming is a hoax; that we shouldn't abandon coal, oil and gas.
The Conservative party already has form. The most crucial casualty of ideology was the plan to make new housing 'Zero Carbon' from 2016 onwards. Introduced by the Labour Government in 2007, it required new-build housing to be net-zero carbon through day-to-day running. Early in his premiership, Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron claimed that his was going to be the 'greenest Government ever'. It wasn't to be. That same Government, funded by the oil and gas sector, retreated from the 'Zero Carbon' commitment only months before it came into play. George Osbourne, the Chancellor, cited that constructing Zero Carbon Homes would be 'too expensive'. The Home Builders Federation added, helpfully, that '… new homes were already energy efficient under existing regulations'.
Of course, the 'extra expense' argument was nonsense. The building industry had a decade to bring construction up to scratch. Non-legislative standards such as the widely adopted Passivhaus showed that getting too demanding levels of energy efficiency added perhaps 1-2% to the cost price of a new home. Contemporary researchers at Cardiff University demonstrated that a zero-carbon house could even be built within the cost margins of social housing.
However, the door had been slammed shut. Other Conservatives expressed similar fears to the Chancellor:
'…we should not sacrifice Britain's economic recovery on the altar of climate change.' David Davis MP
'If you assume the worst then there is absolutely no point in spending any money trying to prevent inevitable climate change.' John Redwood MP
'People will die this winter because of the environmentalist obsession with the end of the world' Jacob Rees-Mogg MP
'…global leaders (are) driven by a primitive fear that the present ambient warm weather is somehow caused by humanity; and that fear – as far as I understand the science – is equally without foundation.' Boris Johnson MP
Beyond these shores are fellow travellers including one notorious conspiracy-monger who 'tweeted':
'The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing non-competitive.'
'This very expensive GLOBAL WARMING bullshit has got to stop.' President Donald Trump
Eccentric and irrational views are, of course, held by many people, but where climate change scepticism happens in Government, it becomes a weapon to thwart environmental protection.
Other measures withdrawn during this same period include 'The Code for Sustainable Homes; subsidies to onshore wind and solar energies; the 'Green Bank' as well as the 'Green Deal' designed to cut the energy loads in existing homes.
All across the board ministries rowed back on environmental initiatives - including the Department of the Environment which cut funding for climate change adaptation by 40%. Owen Patterson DEFRA's then-Secretary of State is a climate change denier.
With a policy environment this toxic, it is little wonder that any serious climate change legislation failed to appear.
After a brief hiatus, housebuilders could breathe again. It was business as usual.
Planning? What Planning?
The relationship between housebuilders and the Government is symbiotic. Both profit from their relationship with each other. A commitment to building homes has been the pledge of governments for over a century. Homeownership is a central plank in most election manifestos, and delivery of such is a key barometer of overall performance; Housebuilders, the other half of the association, have to do what they say on the tin. Their need to build houses correlates almost precisely with Government need to fulfil its promise to the nation. The whole is maintained through a balance applied through the Planning Acts. Local and central governments allow housing and the housebuilders build them. All is fine and dandy just so long as this judicious transaction continues.
Government isn't a commercial enterprise, and housebuilders are not elected institutions. Difficulties occur when the Planning balance is upset by one or other of the parties. It might be on the one hand the need for unusually large numbers (as now) of homes and on the other the Government's need to satisfy the voting public. They see poor quality housing appearing on their green belts and cherished orchards. Added to the mix is the climate crisis as well as other acute environmental issues needing of robust policy to tackle.
Understandably, volume housebuilders resent change and 'unnecessary' legislation. Profit depends on construction efficiency and tight supply margins. Rather like other industrial products, houses are designed as commodities to be sold 'off the shelf'. Template-based rather than custom-built, each is designed to be easily constructed employing simple techniques and conventional materials. Imposed variations including changing legislation and Local Authority requirements invariably threaten the profit margins: new design templates are required, employees need training and the materials supply chain requires adjustment.
The climate crisis has been managed by successive governments according to respective views of the future and associated ideologies. The Labour governments of 1997 - 2010, responding to scientific advice, introduced the Climate Act in 2008. In 2006 they introduced the 'Code for Sustainable Homes' aka the 'Code' or 'CSH' and subsequently committed to the 'Zero Carbon Homes' initiative to be introduced through the Building Regulations in 2016.
The Code evolved from the excellent BRE-developed non-governmental Ecohomes standard. It was designed to encourage an ongoing improvement in performance across a range of environmental issues including energy, materials' impact, water efficiency, waste and pollution.
Use of the Code at Local Authority scale was wholly voluntary. It was implemented using Local Planning to impose aspects of the Code as planning conditions to achieve higher standards in new housing.
Regardless, in response to housebuilders' objections to 'obstructive' planning legislation and 'green taxation,' the Conservative Government progressively cut back Local Authority planning powers to control and direct new housing developments. Included as part of the 'bonfire of red tape' was the Code for Sustainable Homes, withdrawn in 2015.
Don't wait for Whitehall.
However, we try to ignore/deny/avoid it; the elephant in the room is that the climate emergency has been politicised. To an innocent bystander, denial of the threat of climate change is right up there with the 'Flat Earthers' - incomprehensible. However, spend a little time in research, and it's easy to find how the fossil fuel industry and the anti-science movement fund climate denial lobbyists in both the US and the UK. Vested interests on both sides of the Atlantic, bend the debate to a point where progressive policy initiatives are stultified. In the UK, the PM talks in public of combatting shrinking bio-diversity as well as reiterating his predecessors call for de-carbonisation by 2050. Actual action on the ground: policy, legislation, workgroups even, there is none. Government is far the more useful tool in the box when it comes to tackling climate change; It's particularly painful then, to become aware that the current Johnson administration is blunted by ideology and compromised by its sponsors.
Leopards and spots.
Most volume housebuilders have no moral aspirations, so put-away your expectations. They build for profit in the here and now - there is no money to be made from anticipating the future. The only way they change is through legislation or by market forces.
Collective nostalgia throttles design for sustainability.
Developers will continue to build miniature fantasy houses just so long as we buy them. We are complicit in a self-deluding circle of marketing and buying. If the housing sector was the car industry, the lines would still be turning out Morris 1000s and Austin Allegros. Frightened about an uncertain future we hide in nostalgia. Breaking free is difficult.
Generally, we find ourselves in strange times. We’re facing an existential threat more significant and more certain than anything humanity has faced before. In addition to climate change, we simultaneously confront reduced bio-diversity, diminishing resources and environmental pollution. It’s the perfect storm, and we’re still scrambling around to find some way of grappling with it. Ideologues disrupt science; The few technical developments making progress are piecemeal and uncoordinated; Our industries, including construction, are unprepared; Our political systems are ineffective vestiges from a time before environmental crises.
Never have we faced a crisis where lack of effective action by one generation can so completely screw-up the prospects of succeeding generations.
So, what to do?
It’s apposite that one way forward comes from the determination of one Swedish schoolgirl. Frustrated by the lack of political or popular will to confront the climate crisis, Greta Thunberg sat outside the Swedish parliament alongside a sign pronouncing that it was pointless for her to continue her education for a world that she wasn’t going to inherit.
Stripped of the institutions we usually look to for action and reassurance; responsibility falls upon the individual. We must organise ourselves. “Since our leaders are behaving like children, we will have to take the responsibility they should have taken long ago.” (Greta Thunberg addressing COP24, 2018)
We all have roles in the construction industry. Let’s carry out those roles as if our children’s futures depend on them.
About the author
Sandy Patience Dip Arch RIBA is an architect, journalist and speaker. He is the editor of GreenSpec at www.greenspec.co.uk - a site dedicated to delivering information about the design and building of Green Buildings and the Green Self Builder www.thegreenselfbuilder.co.uk a website specifically designed to educate and inform the self-build and custom-build market.
Disclaimer: The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Ecomerchant, its employee’s or associates. This material is subject to copyright. Reproduction of the material may be made only with the written permission of the author.