Friday, 1 July 2011

Help Me Change My Views On The Environment

When you think of the creativity and innovation that exists within architecture and building generally, it’s somewhat stunning how housing associations, and most volume housebuilders too for that matter, seem to make their buildings so conventional. For housing associations at least, with the pressure to cut costs to make the new affordable homes regime live up to its name, it is unavoidable to look to function before form. Equally, tenants or home owners (apart from the pioneering few) are unlikely to flock to a new development because of its cutting-edge design, if, as it invariably does, it costs more than a comparable property.

I'm constantly surprised that the overwhelming majority of house construction is done in the way that a 19th centuary labourer would recognise. Homes are inherently conservative. But if there is one area of buildings that bucks that historic constancy and is coming on in innovative leaps and bounds its the environmental aspects of properties. Regardless of who you back in The Spectator vs Monbiot climate change debate, it’s clear to see that there is an immediate reason why green issues are rising up the agendas of Housing Associations - money.
A thing of beauty?

With the recent devastating floods hitting Britain there has been a 22% increase in housing providers who are beginning to assess their own properties for how prepared they are against climate change. Equally, the potential savings (and earnings) that can be generated by taking account of environmental innovations like wind generation, the use of photovoltaic technology and insulation – mean that looking towards the innovations in this field can make properties more affordable for tenants and potentially also increase the landlord's profitability.

Many housing associations have enthusiastically taken up the baton of the green challenge. There are excellent schemes throughout the country, from large scale projects which have managed to build environmental concerns into the heart of what they do such Graylingwell Park; through to smaller projects such as Caldmore Housing Association’s scheme to incorporate renewable technology (in this case photovoltaic cells) to their properties. The added bonus being that with the new green energy tariffs the housing association can sell the excess power back to them. Other housing providers and building companies are investing heavily and snapping up manufacturers of PV cells and generally falling over themselves to reach size zero carbon.

THT certainly does its bit on environmental issues and last year our first green house in Sale was awash with the gadgetry and technological developments which should become the standard as the years go by. Solar panels, ecogen boilers, low energy lighting systems, sun pipes to redirect natural light, wormeries and water butts. But despite the technology being there, if customers don't want it, where's the pressure to use it? And that’s potentially the issue at the moment with environmental concerns – there doesn’t seem to be a deadline pressing enough to make us look beyond the more immediate and pressing concerns that are facing us. As austerity makes all housing associations assess everything with a microscopic financial concern, the need to help meet the UK’s commitment to reduce carbon emissions by 34 per cent by 2020 seems a lifetime away

I will hold my hands up and accept that this isn’t a particularly global perspective, so what can I do to change my outlook? What should I be factoring into my thinking when it comes to the environment that would help me see it as the priority I know it should be? And in an only-slightly-related way, how can I ever learn to love the one hundred or so wind turbines I can see from my house?

1 comment:

  1. You pick up on a good issue with the users not wanting to use all the "green gadgets" added to their homes! As architects ( we also believe that the approach of designing to current standards and then adding "green features" has a few fundamental flaws.
    1. Why generate energy when the building is still leaking/wasting energy in the first place. This is like over eating and gaining weight and then needing to exercise more than usual to lose the extra weight! Buildings should be built to conserve the maximum amount of energy first, before considering any on site generation.
    2. Energy generation is most efficient & effective at a suitable scale - which is community scale or larger where the correct orientation, positioning and system design can be implemented. Building scale is not effective or efficient!
    3. No one knows the lifespan of all the "green features" - a well built house should last 100s of years but PV panels might last 10 years, 15years ...? They also need regular maintenance to be kept clean and in good working order.

    This is why we advocate developing buildings to the Passivhaus standard. Contrary to popular belief this need not cost much more, or in some cases any more, than otherwise budgeted for. Getting the building fabric & ventilation right means other more costly "green features" aren't required and construction can be simplified. The other aspect of Passivhaus that is crucial is that it is internal comfort driven - temperature, ventilation, air-quality etc are all key drivers in Passivhaus and so the results are very pleasant and healthy internal environments. The occupier almost need not know about the environmental / energy saving aspects (good if they do and are educated about the issues of course).

    Other things to consider -
    - As energy becomes more expensive buildings that have low primary energy requirements are most robust & resilient. Buildings that are poor performers but generate some energy on site are not.
    - Generating energy on site gives people a false sense of security so they think they don't need to make any effort to conserve energy or reduce usage.

    Best wishes, Elrond