Tag Archives: sustainable building

  • 2019 'must have' retrofit materials

    In this article, we pick three standout retrofit products from 2019 and ask if their popularity could be linked to current and proposed regulations.
  • Are housebuilders selling us a lie?

    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.

    Building new houses is a business designed to maximise profits and deliver shareholder value; customers play their part buy buying into this model, often due to there being too few viable alternatives. So begins the downward pressure on quality, as Dame Judith Hackett observed in her review of the UK housing market we are in 'a race to the bottom'.

    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?

    A typical bucolic English scene from which many new developments draw inspiration for their names, e.g. 'Bluebell Wood' or 'Meadow View' marketing terms designed to sell the lifestyle they have paradoxically helped to obliterate.

    Status anxiety

    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.

    The 'Estate.'

    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.

    A modern estate development typical of many across the UK

    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.

    A developed parcel of land with high density detached housing, typical of many developer-led projects, focus for the provider is to maximise land use and profit.

    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.

    Now what?

    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.

    Inaction and prevarication over commitment to real change has brought public protest onto the streets as witnessed by the Extinction Rebellion protests.

     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.

    Editor's note: 

    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.

  • Sustainable, healthy building, are we getting it right?

    What is Sustainability?

    The most commonly accepted definition of ‘Sustainability’ was made in 1987 when referring to future world development: ‘Sustainable development is 'development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’. The concept of ‘Sustainability’ in practice is a broad church within which a number of social, economic and environmental issues are included.

    The building industry is usually responsible for around 10% of the UK economy and so represents a significant impact on areas of sustainability. The industry’s key zones of accountability are: Global warming gases from the energy it uses; The quantity of material resources it extracts from the earth; The environmental damage caused by material extraction, processing and construction; And the damage to health caused throughout the extraction, manufacture, use and final disposal of building materials.

    How does the building industry achieve higher levels of sustainability?

    The industry can be more sustainable by adopting better principles and practices in the way it designs and constructs buildings. The way we design and build using the principles of ‘Green Building ‘can make a significant contribution, not only to reducing our collective impact on the environment but also to our health and wellbeing in the places we work and the homes we live in.


    Like many other large industries, construction is very slow to change. Economically, the industry is notoriously volatile, so it’s no surprise that change is seldom welcome or implemented. Most change is legislation-led through the Building Regulations and industry-related initiatives such as BREEAM; but some change is thanks to individuals and companies taking responsibility for reducing their own environmental impacts.

    Sustainability, Quality and Self Build

    The core of the construction industry is the ‘volume’ house-building sector. So critical is the role of the dozen or so companies that make up this group, that their economic role in the GDP (Gross Domestic Product), is regularly cited in economic reporting as the ‘weather vane’ of all industry. Key to their success is their efficiency of production. They buy materials and erect and sell homes on an industrial basis that maximises profits. That they manage to do this, whilst actually selling arguably poorly performing, indifferently constructed houses with abysmal space standards, is thanks to a well-oiled marketing machine that consistently succeeds at selling a premium on image, location and affordability. Notably, when the national economic output is bleak, so is that of the builders, who stop building until recovery. This chronic ‘boom and bust’ approach to housing is one of the reasons that the UK fails to meet the need for more homes.

    In stark contrast to the anonymity and indifference of industry-produced housing, the self-build/custom build sector delivers for its members, well-built, well-performing, high quality and spacious homes. Increasingly their houses are made from materials and designs that put people, their health and their future at the centre of the process.

    There are between 10 - 20,000 self-builds in the UK every year. This is less than 10-15% of all the homes built annually but may constitute as much as one-third of new detached homes - this compares with 60% in Germany and 80% in Austria where self-build is the norm.

    Despite their number, self-builders have and continue to make significant contributions to advances in house design and technology. In particular, in recent years, they have been responsible for the dramatic uptake of ‘Green’ features such as renewable energy and low environmental impact building systems. Outside of the self-build market, these are features that take several years to filter through to commercial housing developments.

    There is many a volume house builder who looks upon his self-build cousin with envy. Shorn of the profit motive, but instead equipped with a will to build exactly for his/her needs, the self-builder is at liberty to choose the type of construction and the materials that the building is made from. In particular, the self-builder is uniquely enabled to choose freely from the wealth of materials now appearing on the market that are not only of very high quality but also representative of a quickly growing market in the UK for ‘sustainable’ and healthy ‘Green’ products.

    ‘Fabric first’

    As part of the UK government’s first initiative in 2006 to tackle climate change, it published a voluntary code requiring new homes to add renewable energy devices to the buildings. That it kicked off thousands of new businesses dealing in the installation of wind turbines, heat pumps and solar panels was probably no bad thing, but it was responsible for sending house builders off in the wrong direction.

    Critics soon pointed out that the adding of energy-generating technology was usually doing not much more than covering for the poorly performing buildings they were attached to. The analogy to the policy was that of a leaking bucket of water: to keep the bucket full, it was necessary to keep pouring water into it - rather than fix the leaks themselves.

    The code didn’t change and was eventually eclipsed and abandoned. Instead, building designers and developers worked towards design standards of their own adoption. The most well-known standard, imported from Germany, is the Passivhaus standard which ensures that the way a house is built will deliver a heating requirement of no more than 15 kWh/m2/yr. This very low figure is achieved by careful design and the building fabric alone. For many already built Passivhaus homes, their heating systems have become largely redundant.

    This emerging (in the UK) methodology of designing buildings to reduce their energy usage through building technology rather than adding renewable energy systems is known as ‘Fabric first’.

    Picture courtesy of Kithurst Builders Ltd. Passive standard family home in West Sussex built with natural materials. Roof sarking Steico Special Dry wood fibre insulation board.

    Characteristics of a ‘Fabric first’ approach is:

    • High performance and high quantities of insulation.
    • Maximum levels of air-tightness.
    • Use of heat given off by the occupants and their cooking and electronic devices to help the heat the spaces.
    • Optimisation of natural ventilation.
    • Optimisation of solar gain through appropriately located windows.
    • Sometimes using the thermal mass of the building to absorb excess heat.

    In addition to high degrees of energy efficiency, the ‘Fabric first’ method provides a comfortable environment that makes few demands of the building’s occupants. Where renewable technologies place the reliance on the occupier to operate the sometimes complicated controls, a well-built energy efficient building has already done all the work for them.

    What to look for when choosing ‘Green’ building materials

    ‘Green’ building materials are products that have a lesser environmental impact than other materials that might be used for the same ‘job’ in the building. Apart from environmental preferences, Green materials are also usually associated with high levels of performance and safe user-friendliness.

    Of course, not all the building materials we employ have significant damaging effects on the environment. Those that do vary from severe to mild and to sort one from the other it’s useful to consult the GreenSpec website which provides information about the environmental impacts of materials at www.greenspec.co.uk

    There are usually plenty of alternatives, but the golden rule is to ensure that the products eventually selected can do the job demanded of them in a way equal to or better than materials they’re replacing.

    It is notoriously difficult to clearly identify materials with a lesser overall environmental impact. Experts can take a lot of time in examining and assessing the potentially wide range of environmental properties contained within even a single building product.

    However, when specifying an appropriate product or material, these are some of the key low impact and beneficial aspects to look for:

    • Products that perform well and are easy to build with
    • Materials made from renewable crops such as timber, wool or hemp.
    • Products manufactured from abundant resources such as lime, clay or rock.
    • Products which minimise the use of fossil-fuel energy in the manufacturing process (embodied carbon).
    • Materials which, as a part of their function, improve a building’s energy efficiency.
    • Manufacturing processes that don’t pollute.
    • Materials that are safe to use and dispose of or recycle.
    • Products containing recycled materials.

    The Healthy Home

    Whether it be sleeping, eating, relaxing or working, we spend most of our day inhabiting our homes.  Because of that time in a familiar space, we become adept at managing its environment. We are familiar with controlling lighting, heating and ventilation through simply throwing a switch or opening a window. Though the technologies have changed, the basic control actions are as they have been for generations.

    Though the basic provision of light and warmth is unchanged, the contents of the air we breathe has altered over the last 50 years. We could now be dealing with a raft of possible toxins that if not sufficiently designed and built to avoid, could lead to serious health issues. Perhaps not surprisingly, these changes have been brought about through the way we build and the materials we use.

    The principal drivers behind the need to improve the efficiency of our homes began with the oil crisis in the 1970s since when we have set out to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. In the last decade, climate change has been added to the agenda. The combination of the two has had an aggrandising effect on building regulations and the techniques we use to design and build.

    For our homes, the two main methods of addressing energy conservation are insulation and airtightness. We are used to using insulation in our walls and roofs, but now house builders have to learn the techniques of sealing openings in the building fabric to prevent warm air leaking out.

    The result of sealing buildings could be that for many of us opening a window or just relying on the leaky nature of our buildings might not be enough to deal with the smelly, oxygen-depleted or damp air caused by everyday living.

    Air contamination from materials we use in our homes is relatively new and owes its occurrence to the growth of synthetic materials. Ordinary products such as paints, floor finishes, timber-laminates, furniture, synthetic textiles, plastics and foams can emit a chemical cocktail including volatile organic compounds (VOC’s) like formaldehyde, xylene, isobutylaldehyde, and organochlorides, aldehydes and phenols. Emissions from materials are known as ‘off-gassing’ and can result in higher, more toxic concentrations without suitable ventilation.

    Sadly the most familiar aspect of an unhealthy building, damp caused by condensation, continues to blight modern housing.  Most buildings show the effects of condensation to some degree – from water appearing on the glass of cold windows through to damaging mould found on walls and ceilings.

    Asthma linked to inhabiting in these unhealthy conditions is on the increase, caused by damp and mould, house dust mites and chemicals in carpets and flooring materials.

    The direct solution to damp air is adequate ventilation, but there is also a technique of building that has gained traction in recent years. The ‘Breathing wall’ is one that uses ‘hydroscopic’ materials and membranes together to allow moisture to pass from the interior through the wall to the outside air.

    Summing-up, improving indoor air quality (IAQ) is achieved by:

    • Designing a ventilation strategy that can include simply opening windows through to providing mechanical ventilation. Above all, whatever strategy is chosen, it is vital that it is easy to understand and operate by the user.
    • Considering the use of ‘breathing walls’ that help migrate internal dampness through to the outside.
    • Avoiding materials that are suspected of off-gassing toxins.
    • Thinking holistically about combining techniques of reducing humidity and pollution and toxins - adding up to a whole that is more effective than the sum of its parts.
    • Using Green building materials from suppliers like Ecomerchant.

    … and not forgetting the potential of indoor plants to absorb toxins and carbon dioxide

    Top Tips For Going Green

    Whether planning to build new from scratch or refurbishing, this is the time to incorporate sustainability into your project through design and the careful choice of materials; Getting it right will insulate you against spiralling energy bills, provide a durable long lasting healthy home and leave a lighter footprint on the earth.

    The building industry generally acknowledges that self-builders build better quality buildings; In building their own homes, they are often keen to explore proven and beneficial systems that would not necessarily be part of a developer or volume house builder’s package.

    Picture courtesy of Baumit renders and plasters

    So what are the key aspects of building to green standards?

    1. Using enough insulation - most buildings are built with too little
      The more insulation you incorporate into the walls, roofs and floors of your home, the more heat it will retain. Insulation is probably the main element to get right at the start, so it’s important to ensure the appropriate materials are used in the right way and in sufficient quantity.
    2. Design-in airtightness and ventilation – ‘Build tight, ventilate right’
      Fewer gaps in your home’s structural envelope mean less heat lost. Good air tightness maximises the efficiency of the insulation and reduces fuel bills. With airtightness, ventilation is essential and needs careful design. Ventilation can be passive, mechanical or both.
    3. Use the buildings thermal mass to best effect
      The idea of thermal-mass is difficult to understand for most of us – so it’s wise to get advice before using it. Materials such as stone, brick, terracotta and concrete can provide 'thermal mass'. Used with care, it can help moderate the internal environment throughout the day by absorbing excess heat from the sun or other sources and then releasing the heat back into the interior during darkness.
    4. Design for overheating.
      Increasingly hot summers are a climate feature we all need to design for. Use wood fibre insulation, particularly in rooms in the roof, but also in walls to slow down heat transfer from the outside. Think about using shading for windows exposed to the sun in summer, but make sure they’re not shaded in winter.
    5. Make the best use of natural light
      Maximising the amount of natural light in your home reduces the need for artificial lighting. Windows are an essential element of the building's performance. Modern windows can be very efficient with whole window U values as low as 0.8W/m2K. 'Solar gain' can help heat the home.
    6. Choose Green materials
      Green materials have a range of features and benefits not usually present in synthetic materials; A majority are less polluting, safer and recyclable. Most too can significantly out-perform synthetic oil-based products in aspects that are becoming more important as the UK warms-up.
    7. Structural systems - choose your system early in the design process
      Most construction techniques can be adapted to meet high levels of energy efficiency, but some lend themselves more immediately to hitting the highest standards. This is where you will come across the expression ‘Fabric first ‘where the building contributes significantly to overall energy efficiency.

    Some of the most popular systems for self-builders are:

    • Timber frame with timber, brick or render cladding
    • Monolithic clay blocks and render
    • Brick and block cavity walling
    • Cross-laminated timber (CLT) and cladding
    1. Deploy renewable technologies only after your shell design is complete
      Self-builders have led the way in terms of adopting renewable technologies to best effect, the golden rule here is to design the building to do the work, then match your energy needs to that level.

    Thanks to our authors Sandy Patience & Will Kirkman: Sandy 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. Will is a co-owner of Ecomerchant (a sustainable builder’s merchant), writer and speaker and has been involved in promoting green construction for over 25 years.

  • The Sustainable Self-Built Home in the Age of Consumerism

    Are we really getting what we want from the housing market?
  • Healthy buildings or toxic buildings?

    The Healthy Home

    In our view, a healthy home is   ‘one that incorporates healthy design elements, non-toxic building materials, and proper construction techniques. It "breathes", emits no toxic gasses, and is resistant to mould and decay.

    Indoor air quality can be worse than outdoor air quality

    Here are our top tips when designing a healthy building.

    • Choose a simple build system
    • Use natural and non-toxic materials
    • Make the best use of natural light
    • Ensure adequate ventilation
    • Ensure that all building elements are compatible
    • Use a breathable vapour open system
    • Make the structure do the work
    • Take a whole-house approach to design
    • Include the end user in the design and build process


    The toxicity of construction materials in our homes is a serious issue homes do not have to contain potentially damaging materials.mitigating this should be considered right at the start at the design stage.

    Without a doubt, it is the control of moisture and the ventilation of the building that sits at the root cause of most building decay. We also have a huge issue with applying healthy principles to the biggest issue of all refurbishing existing buildings.  Often in these cases, the prophylactic principle should be applied, where some anticipation of problems such as damp penetration can be mitigated by choosing materials that can hold onto moisture and let it go later (drying out) or at least minimise or contain the problem. The issue with a more synthetic and hermetic approach is that such problems can often remain hidden deep within the building structure for a long time and on discovery lead to costly and extensive repairs.

    To apply healthy principles to any building project you first need to appreciate that the standards by which most UK construction is governed (and built to) do not account for the ‘health’ of a building in all but the most basic ways. So don’t expect a building that meets Building Regulations to be healthy.

    Damp problems are often first seen as a 'bloom' of household mould often triggered by warm wet air coming into contact with a cold surface, one that is poorly or insufficiently insulated.

    To describe an unhealthy home can be more effective at persuading us to adopt healthy principles. We will all recognise the description of an unhealthy building as one that fails to control the internal environment leading to partial, then increasing, early decay of the building fabric in turn leading to mould growth, rot and a failure of the element(s) to physically perform, the description would further include the use of toxic chemicals in materials and the resulting expulsion into the air of these toxins over time, and it would include the use of materials that contain allergens.

    Now most of us will recognise (and probably have experienced) the symptoms of poor building health but it is surprising how many of the houses built today have this very low on the agenda of considerations. The consequences of damp and unhealthy buildings can mean the aggravation of conditions like asthma, in the UK this is a real problem where 1 in 6 people have asthma a massive increase since the stable base in the 1970s with almost 2000 deaths per annum and 75,000 hospital admissions the cost to the state runs into £billions; most of this is directly linked to dust mite faeces which in turn is directly linked to relative humidity in houses, (as you find in an unhealthy house) other moulds, bacteria and diseases present in the same conditions are also linked to asthma.

    The main contributors to poor building health are the following

    • Water ingress
    • Condensation
    • Failure to control internal moisture
    • Poor build quality
    • The use of toxic materials
    • Poor ventilation
    • Material degradation over time leading to performance failure (e.g. air leaks)
    • Poor design
    A combined use of roof lights to flood a room with daylight and allow natural ventilation

    You can see that it is not only the absence of harmful environmental characteristics but also the presence of beneficial ones that define a healthy building. Designers should begin by avoiding harmful elements and attempt to incorporate supportive beneficial ones. This is why the inclusion of items such as natural light, ventilation and acoustic insulation is as important as layout and functionality in the whole house approach.

    Real progress is only made when the builder and future occupants work closely with the building’s designer to ensure that all these issues are addressed within the context of how the building is intended to be used.

    Thankfully a lot of the approach to building healthy homes is common sense and can be summarised in a few simple principles

    • Choose simpler building systems they are more failsafe
    • Manage moisture by creating a breathable shell to provide a means for managing and buffering variations in moisture
    • Include natural materials in many applications these will outperform synthetic ones.
    • Be involved at every stage

    As highlighted by recent events the toxicity inherent in our building materials can be a lethal problem especially in the case of fire, one of the most important materials used in the construction of a building is insulation, but can your choice of insulation really affect your health?

    A well-insulated house or office will protect your health, comfort and lifestyle but how many of us know and understand how to achieve this?

    Ecomerchant and Steico UK have joined forces to launch a protection campaign. It aims to champion the benefits of using natural insulation products, see www.ecomerchant.co.uk/protexion  where you will find the wheel (illustrated below) which has dynamic segments (links) e.g. health, fire and acoustic which click through to more information on each subject, you can also download wood fibre insulation certifications and find toxicology reports and environmental product declarations, this is the type of clear unambiguous information that allows us to make informed and better design choices.

    The Protexion wheel, each segment links to the relevant role with supporting information, the wheel also links to accreditations, EPD's and toxicology reports. Click the image above to link to the Protexion site.

    How we select insulation needs to be about having a real choice and for specifiers to be equipped with the right knowledge to compare materials on a like-for-like basis.

    To design a well-insulated building, you need to make informed decisions throughout all phases of a construction project to ensure your building performs as you envisage as mentioned above.

    However, selecting the right insulation is about more than just reaching building regulation compliance or ‘keeping in the heat’. It’s about ensuring a building protects its occupants’ entire well-being and comfort in the following ways.

    How well does insulation keep the heat out?

    In the UK, thermal insulation to protect from the cold is essential, particularly given ever-increasing energy costs. However, as demand for usable square footage of buildings increases, basement and loft conversions are the routes many now take. However, these parts of a home or office, are the spaces most prone to extremes in temperature. They, therefore, need more thought – i.e. how do you keep a space warm in winter but, for a loft, how to keep it cool come summer.

    Compared with synthetic insulation materials, wood fibre insulation has a much higher density. This higher density means that natural insulation makes for a better heat buffer as the high midday temperature will only reach the internal side and be lost at night when the temperature is already cooler outside.

    How a building’s breathability is hurting our health

    A breathable structure is one that allows the passage of moisture.

    With 90 percent of all building construction problems associated with water in some way, breathability is essential in measuring a building’s performance and preventing the accumulation of harmful water within the building’s fabric.  These are fundamental in reducing health risks from mould, mites that those suffering from respiratory illnesses such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) are particularly susceptible to.

    For effective breathability, there are four essential components that need to be considered:

    • a moisture pathway
    • a driving force
    • a sorptive fabric
    • vapour control.

    Natural fibre insulation is most effective as it suppresses potentially harmful water by binding and releasing moisture which helps regulate humidity levels as the moisture moves.

    Easy-to-fit insulation

    A well-designed building takes into consideration how a material performs throughout the building’s entire life cycle. This includes ease of installation. Steico’s wood fibre insulation is simple and easy to fit (either packed or friction-fitted), eliminating installer error, keeping construction programmes, tight and costs, low.

    How sustainability will save you time and money

    While all insulation is helping the environment by limiting energy being burnt for heat, natural fibre insulation materials are comparatively more robust. This means that when it comes to disposal, they can be composted – i.e. no specialist waste facilities or landfill. Throughout their lifecycle, they will additionally have a much lower, and often, negative carbon footprint.

    More than just protecting your home from fire

    All insulations will meet fire safety standards, but this is a minimum rating. The key differentiator between natural and synthetic is that natural insulations will prevent the spread of fire and if burnt, will not give off toxic fumes such as cyanide as polyisocyanurates (PIR) might. See article link below to Alliance for Sustainable Building Products (ASBP) Healthy Buildings or Toxic Buildings?

    Will the house be standing in 100 years?

    Condensation is one of the costliest risks to buildings causing huge maintenance repairs and structural damage. Natural materials are better able to absorb and release water whilst remaining dry meaning it is better able to protect from and buffer moisture thereby becoming a key part of healthy living.

    Comfort for occupants

    When selecting insulation for a building, there are implications for the health of the occupants, the structure of the building, its impact on the environment, its acoustic properties, durability and carbon footprint.

    Cancelling out the noise for a peaceful night’s sleep

    The higher density of natural insulations - such as wood fibre - makes them better at reducing noise. Sounds external to the building, such as traffic or music, as well as those from within the building, through walls and ceilings are attenuated better by wood fibre than synthetic equivalents. In providing better protection from acoustic pollutants, occupants often report a building as being more restful and relaxing thereby encouraging better mental health.

    When a building is well-designed and well-built, occupants should be at their peak comfort. With the average person spending approximately 80% of their lives in enclosed rooms, an occupant’s well-being is imperative. Therefore, the products used to achieve this should cover all the issues affecting a building’s construction, its impact on both its occupants and nature.

    Further reading

    ASBP Healthy Buildings Conference summary of key points, https://asbp.org.uk/asbp-news/healthy-buildings-or-toxic-buildings

    Read the expert’s view on healthy buildings including Professor Stephen Holgate CBE, Clinical Professor of Immunopharmacology at the University of Southampton and co-author of The Royal College of Physicians ‘Every breath we take‘ report, who explains why poor quality air is a lethal problem that affects us all, Consultant, Clinical Psychologist at UCL, Dr Sarah Mackenzie Ross who looks at the rapid rise in new chemical entities in our day-to-day environments and the consequences on our health, CIBSE’s Head of Sustainability Development Julie Godefroy  who questions the role of Building Regulations in delivering healthy buildings and Professor Anna Stec, fire toxicity expert from University of Central Lancashire who looks at the potential fatal effects when plastics in the home burn.


    www.asbp.org.uk for more on sustainable building products

    www.ecomerchant.co.uk/protexion to see how insulation can provide so much more than keeping the heat in

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