This article first appeared at Environment Journal.
Buildings account for 36% of global energy use – both through construction and the use of energy inside homes, offices and factories. In the UK, upgrades to social housing can play a big part in our efforts to reach net-zero carbon emissions (and so avert climate catastrophe).
Retrofitting the UK’s homes and domestic energy systems is an enormous, but overlooked challenge. There are 3.9 million social homes in the UK, often clustered in blocks that can be upgraded or renovated relatively quickly and cheaply, so the potential for radical impact is huge.
But progress in this area does not only address the climate crisis – it also tackles issues such as fuel poverty and the health inequalities caused by draughty, run-down buildings. With the coronavirus pandemic isolating many people in their homes, it is more important than ever that we deliver decent housing for all.
Solving climate and social problems at once is an effective use of public resources, at a time when budgets are extremely stretched. And it allows local and national politicians pursuing a ‘green recovery’ to also support a fair transition to zero-carbon – a world where the worst off do not lose out.
There’s no shortage of bright ideas to back – such as pioneering software from London-based Guru Systems.
The company’s products closely monitor the performance of district heating networks, commonly used in social housing blocks. This data helps tenants take control of their energy use, but also reveals network problems that would be missed by physical maintenance checks.
In a large housing block, just a few open valves can cause the whole heat network’s performance to worsen dramatically.
So spotting and fixing these problems creates big carbon and cost savings. Tenants have seen their heating bills drop by up to 50%. The collected data also helps developers choose correctly-sized boilers and pumps when building future properties.
Robin Feeley, Director of L&Q Energy, explains: ‘Guru Systems’ technology has transformed the way we deliver and monitor the heat we supply to our tenants.’
Another solution, this time upgrading poorly insulated and draughty homes, is the Energiesprong system – imported from the Netherlands, but now spreading across the UK.
Off-site manufacturing allows whole-house retrofits to be done quickly and with minimum disruption to tenants. Steps include the construction of complete walls and roofs (including windows and doors) which are then fixed in place over the existing structure.
Work comes with a 30-year energy performance guarantee, and the results are impressive. One Energiesprong project in Nottingham reduced CO2 emissions by 86%. The approach is most effective when applied to lots of homes with a similar design, making it a perfect fit for social housing. Embodied CO2 emissions are ‘paid back’ by carbon savings in five years – well within the ten-year timeframe for action that scientists have agreed is crucial to tackling the climate crisis.
While retrofit solutions are vital, so are bold new approaches to low-carbon housebuilding. Here again, social housing can lead the way. South Yorkshire Housing Association has adopted the Wikihouse system, developed by Open Systems Lab, to build two pilot homes – exploring the possibilities for ‘localised’ house construction.
WikiHouse enables the digital design of buildings, with an open-source approach that encourages people to collaborate and innovate.
Building components are made from plywood in workshops close to the final construction site, then assembled like a 3-D jigsaw. This approach creates local jobs and skills, allowing small businesses to join an industry dominated by big companies.
The Wikihouse system offers low embodied carbon and low carbon-in-use. Its open-source nature fosters innovation, and it is particularly useful for building on small sites where it would be difficult to use regular construction methods. The flexibility of the system could also help local people get more involved in designing their neighbourhoods.
Now is the moment to get behind climate action and lay the foundations for our low-carbon future. Scaling up these housing solutions will demonstrate the power of climate action to deliver better lives today, and so win public support for further change in the years ahead. Millions will benefit, now and in the future.
Ashden support innovative solutions to climate change in the UK and globally, including running a global annual awards scheme.