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What is the future for sustainable homes in the UK?

Posted by Sharon Russell-Verma on 11 August 2015 at 9:55 am

We repeatedly hear in the media that there is a housing shortage in the UK. With a growing population particularly in urban areas, we need to be smart about addressing this need. A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the recent scrapping of the zero carbon homes policy but there is another policy, the code for sustainable homes (CSH) that has also been scrapped. Like the zero carbon homes policy it was developed to help achieve more sustainable homes. So, where does that leave the ability to provide an adequate supply of sustainable homes for our needs today and our children’s needs in the future?

What makes a house a sustainable home?

Firstly, let’s be clear about what we mean by a sustainable home. The idea of sustainable development was coined back in 1987 and is defined as development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the needs of future generations. So a sustainable home should work within this definition and should: 

  • be designed to reduce environmental impact during and after construction 
  • use energy, water, land and other resources efficiently 
  • protect the occupant’s health and,
  • reduce pollution, waste and greenhouse gases. 

The code for sustainable homes 

In 2006 when the code for sustainable homes was launched the aim was to set standards to be used across the house building industry. The CSH had nine categories of sustainable design and construction, developed to reflect the requirements of sustainable homes and lifestyles:

  • Energy and CO2 emissions
  • Water 
  • Materials 
  • Surface Water Run-off 
  • Waste 
  • Pollution
  • Health and Wellbeing 
  • Management
  • Ecology

The categories above, together with a star rating system was used communicate the overall sustainability performance. Home designs could achieve level 1 to 6, with 6 being the highest level. To achieve a 6 the home needed to be zero carbon (i.e. zero net emissions of CO₂ from all energy use in the home). The code itself was voluntary and councils around the UK had the freedom to adopt their own sustainability levels for new residential development, with code level 3, 4, 5 or 6 as potential planning conditions. According to the government the code was scrapped in order to reduce the burden of regulations on house builders.  

Yet, the CSH had its benefits; as mentioned it gave local authorities the ability to demand homes of higher quality in their areas. Furthermore, the CSH led the way towards more sustainable housing construction; it stimulated a reduction in the price of residential micro-generation technologies such as solar PV. It also helped to develop and improve the skills and knowledge in the housing construction sector. In fact, many house builders have adopted some or all of the of sustainable design and construction categories that contribute to a home’s level of sustainability. Today, there are homes across the UK which are being built to the code 6 level. Let’s take a look at one example Bicester’s Eco-town project.

Case Study – Eco town, Bicester

The Eco-town near Bicester is built on a 51 acres site with 40% of the land in the development devoted to green space. This green area encourages the people living there to enjoy an outdoor lifestyle, to nurture a love of wildlife and increase biodiversity. The green area also provides safe playing areas area for children. There are local cycle routes and pedestrian routes to encourage people to have a healthier lifestyle. Community allotments allow space for residents to grow their own food and engage socially as well as providing a space for communal events. The Eco-town has charging points for electric vehicles and an electric car club. In addition there is a bus service within 400m of every home with live timetable updates in each house via computer screen (more on this later). The project has been designed to ensure that zero waste goes to landfill during its development to align with it sustainability targets.

The environmental technology within the houses are inspiring too, including rainwater harvesting, water recycling, solar PV panels and triple glazing. Each house also comes complete with a computer system that displays the energy usage of the house in real time as well as the local transport information. Other sustainable features included in the Eco-town project are meadow turf roofs to encourage biodiversity, an energy centre supplying combined heat and power to all homes, with any extra power exported to the national grid. All in all this is great example of a housing project that demonstrates the key principles of sustainability by incorporating the economic, the social and the environmental needs of the people that live there with as little impact on the environment as possible and maybe even enhancing it in some ways. 

What’s next for sustainable homes standards? 

So with no standards to adhere to, where does the housing industry go from here? Well, the good news is that some elements of the code (including energy requirements) will now be incorporated into the building regulations. They will be re-named “the new national technical standards” and set at a minimum equivalent of a CSH level 4. 

In the meantime BRE (Building Research Establishment) has said it will continue to certify schemes under the CSH. At the same time they are developing a new national home quality mark (HQM) which will be launched in October 2015. The quality mark is designed to give house buyers independent and clear information on a new homes quality. It should give house buyers clear indications of the expected costs to run the house, how the home will benefit their health and wellbeing, and the environmental footprint of living in the home. 

This is good start but it does not reflect the more stringent requirements of the old code. While the old code may have been harder to meet, many house builders were and are rising to the challenge. This in the long run will benefit them as companies, their customers and the environment. If sustainable homes are to improve above and beyond what they have already achieve it also up to us, the house buyer, to demand more, for today's generation and future generations.

Photo credit: Eco Bicester

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