Thursday, 24 December 2009

Homes for the future from the past

Internationally, there is still a considerable short-fall in the take-up of energy saving measures in the home and the main reason is that energy is comparatively cheap. Replacing existing windows with double glazing has been popular, more for cosmetic than environmental reasons. So, why bother? Here are some of the reasons.

(1) At the time of writing oil prices are rising due to uncertainties about security of supplies from the Middle East, particularly centring on Iraq, which has the second largest reserves of oil in the region. At the same time, we are being continually reminded that reserves of oil and gas are finite. According to some analysts, the year 2003 will be the time when demand for oil outstrips supply, irrespective of a possible Middle East conflict. The more optimistic oil experts put the date at around 2005–7. For the UK the situation is exacerbated by the decline in North Sea oil production and the fact that gas reserves in this area will be exhausted by about 2016.
Add to this the fact that most nuclear generators will have been decommissioned by roughly the same time and the problems are particularly acute. Price rises would therefore seem to be inevitable. If there is a widespread conflagration in the Middle East the price rise could be astronomic, triggering a world recession led by the USA. This is one very good reason why nations and individuals should minimize their reliance on fossil-based energy.

(2) As if this were not enough, global warming resulting mainly from the burning of fossil fuels is building up momentum. Almost each day there is evidence of climate changes and the situation is effectively irreversible. Even if human-induced emissions of greenhouse gases are levelled off immediately, the momentum in the system would continue to inflict climate damage for decades, even centuries to come. However, if things go on as they are, there is no immediate prospect of stabilizing those gases. The Johannesburg Summit of 2002 deliberately ignored the climate change issue, focusing on sustainable development. From the point of view of most governments and multinational corporations it is ‘business as usual’ which, according to the UN scientists is the worst case scenario (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 2002). Without going into detail, the main driver of climate change is the concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere. This acts like a blanket, reflecting heat from the sun back to Earth which acts as a heat accumulator. Before the Industrial Revolution the CO2 concentration was around 270 parts per million by volume (ppmv). Today it is approximately 380 ppmv (Washington Worldwatch Institute, 2003).
The UN CO2 abatement programme has an upper limit of 500 ppmv by 2050. It recognizes that at this level there will be considerable climate damage by flood, storm, ecological and social disruption.
However, this target assumes that the world should have already adopted significant carbon reduction policies. There is still no sign that this will happen; the present shape of business globalization seems to guarantee that business as usual will prevail for the foreseeable future. If the big players prefer to ignore their responsibilities for the future welfare of the planet it is up to individuals to take up the challenge.
The effect of this could be dramatic. In the UK nearly 30 per cent of all CO2 emissions are down to housing. This could quite reasonably be cut by half using the technology. New homes are subject to reasonably stringent energy
efficiency standards; it is the existing stock of homes which present the challenge, in particular those of private home owners and landlords.

(3) The pressure to upgrade our houses will soon come from the authorities. By 2005–6 regulations will come into force in the UK designed to speed up the home-buying process. A vendor will be required to provide a ‘home condition report’ based on a professional survey which will include an energy efficiency assessment (EEA) of the property. As energy prices rise, the EEA will increasingly become a deciding factor in a decision to purchase. At the same time
a European Union directive ‘Energy in Buildings’ is likely to be incorporated into UK law by 2006. This states that houses over 10 years old must have a valid energy certificate at the time of sale.

(4) The upgrading of a property should immediately represent added capital value. At the same time, energy bills could be reduced by as much as 50 per cent per year. As prices rise this represents a valuable revenue gain. According to the government English House Condition Survey, over 85 per cent of pre-1965 housing has no wall insulation. It is no surprise then that up to 60 per cent of energy used in the home is expended on heating.

(5) What tends to be overlooked is the health impact of poorly insulated homes. Many householders endure inadequate room temperatures sometimes as low as 14°C which, for the elderly and infirm, is a major hazard. Of the 55 000 extra winter deaths which occurred in the UK in 1999–2000, up to half may be attributed to inadequate warmth. In addition, that winter there was a sharp rise in respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses.
The official standard for warmth in a living room is 21°C and in other rooms 18°C. About 25 per cent of homes in the UK achieve these levels. The minimum temperatures from the point of view of health are 18°C for living rooms and 16°C for other rooms. A government house condition survey for England found that, when the outside temperature fell to 4°C:

50 per cent of owner occupied homes
62 per cent of council homes
95 per cent of private rented apartments
all failed to reach the minimum standard.

Poorly insulated homes are not only cold, they are invariably damp. When warm air comes into contact with cold external walls it condenses into moisture. This, in turn, encourages mould growth which poses a serious health risk. This is a particular problem for the fuel poor. This is recognized by government: ‘The principal effects of fuel poverty are health related, with children, the old, the sick and the disabled most at risk. Cold homes are thought to exacerbate existing illnesses such as asthma and reduce resistance to infections (Fuel Poverty; The New HEES, DETR 1999).

(6) What should also be factored in is the rise in comfort which can be experienced from investing in an insulation and draughtproofing strategy. Cold, uninsulated walls and single-glazed windows cause sharp thermal gradients which are often experienced as cold draughts. Condensation adds to this problem. This is particularly the case with uninsulated floors leading to the warm head–cold feet condition that is especially uncomfortable for people with poor circulation.

(7) Finally there is the matter of social responsibility. As mentioned above, it is becoming more evident that the welfare of the planet will increasingly depend on the actions of individuals and local communities. Upgrading one’s home is not only a personal act of social responsibility, it may also stimulate the ‘keeping up with the Jones’ phenomenon. In addition there is the point that if a number of householders decide to upgrade simultaneously they may reap the financial benefits of bulk purchase through a large contract.

Eco-Refurbishment: Peter F. Smith

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