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Government scraps zero carbon homes - what does it mean for UK housing?

Posted by Sharon Russell-Verma on 28 July 2015 at 11:50 am

The chancellor George Osborne has announced plans to scrap the zero carbon building policy; the government says the decision will ensure that planning decisions can be made more quickly.

However, industry leaders including house planners, builders and environmental groups have condemned the move stating that it unnecessary, short-sighted and damaging to the house building industry that has been working hard, and investing in delivering carbon neutral homes.

The zero carbon homes concept

In 2006 the chancellor Gordon Brown introduced the zero carbon homes policy, stating that the UK was one of the first countries to make a commitment to low carbon energy efficient homes. The policy was designed to reduce C02 emissions from housing which makes up nearly a third of the UK's greenhouse gas emissions. It would do this by ensuring that from 2016 all new houses would be ‘zero carbon’.  

What is a zero carbon home?

A zero carbon home is one that would be as energy efficient as possible and would generate its own energy on site from renewables for heating, hot water, lighting and appliances, without adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.  There was even a little ‘opt out’ for those homes which couldn’t generate enough of their own energy to be truly zero carbon. This opt out was called allowable solutions and it enabled housebuilders to install renewable energy technologies somewhere else. Effectively the policy would mean that all new homes built after 2016 would not be adding to the CO2 emissions of the UK.

What is the future for zero carbon homes now?

So where does this leave us now? Under the climate change act we have to achieve an 80% reduction in carbon emissions from our homes by 2050. Although we must concentrate much of our effort on our inefficient existing housing stock it does seem a bit mad to be building new homes which are emitting more carbon than necessary, especially when the technology exists to make them zero carbon. 

Housebuilders across the country have been gearing up for the past ten years, getting ready for 2016. Some have even been jumping the gun and showing how zero carbon is already possible. Last month Virido, a new partnership between Cambridge City Council and housebuilder Hill, began work on 208 zero carbon homes. The homes are designed and built to ensure that the balance between sustainability, functionality, comfort and affordability is achieved. A range of up to date technologies has been used including solar shading, high-performance glass and interstitial blinds. Furthermore, all of the construction materials have been sustainably sourced and chosen to ensure that the houses remain energy-efficient for the long term. 

Designers at Cardiff University have also been busy demonstrating that zero carbon homes are achievable. They have recently built a house that exports more power to the grid than it uses. And what’s more the house took only 16 weeks to build and the cost fell within the normal budget (£800- £1000 per sq m) for social housing, proving that the build costs for zero carbon homes are not too expensive as has recently been claimed. These cutting-edge zero carbon homes will be much cheaper to run (and some may even make money from exporting excess energy) than those of other developers and won’t be contributing unnecessarily to our carbon emissions. 

What does the housing industry do now?

It’s a well known fact that the UK needs more houses to meet the growing population’s needs, but should the price we pay be higher carbon emissions? Not according to consumers who are pushing for high quality sustainable homes like the one that Virido are supplying, which are not only carbon neutral but provide cost benefits too. At the same time the building industry needs clarity and consistency too so that they can plan and invest for a sustainable future. 

Scrapping zero carbon homes seems like a backwards step, especially when British industry is ready to deliver energy efficient measures and renewable technologies, housebuilders are ready to achieve the targets and some developers are already ahead of the game. 

Photo credit: e-architect

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1 comments - read them below or add one

Ian Smith

Ian SmithComment left on: 31 July 2015 at 12:43 pm

I don't believe that the zero carbon homes standard ever fully took account of the embodied emissions in the construction materials so the representation that these new homes would not have added to CO2 emissions is incorrect.

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