Preston (and other) failed retrofits on Radio 4

The story of the failed retrofits in Preston, along with similar issues faced in Blackpool and – this time, with cavity insulation – in Leeds, were covered in an item by Zoe Conway on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme. I helped Zoe with some background, but she did a lot of work visiting the sites and interviewing occupants, and I think this was a pretty fair account.

The report can be heard here, until the beginning of December: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m0001282 -starts at approx 1hr 33m.

The Radio 4 item was also picked up by Mail Online later that day.

You can read my original post, which includes a link to my article in Passive House Plus,  here

 

 

Cold is not the whole story – what the health services need to know about housing

An AECB consultation response

This document was written in response to a NICE (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) 2014 consultation on producing guidelines for health authorities on tackling excess winter deaths and illnesses. It was written (mainly) by me, on behalf of the AECB, teaming up with Severn Wye Energy Agency and the STBA (Sustainable Traditional Buildings Alliance) – who also contributed information.

While at the time of this consultation the deleterious impact of cold living conditions on health were well known – prompting the consultation – poor indoor air quality was less discussed.

Yet of course, air quality can be very poor in cold homes: people will block out any draughts they can – including the intended fresh air supply from a ventilation fan or vent – especially if they are in fuel poverty. This only increases the risk of condensation and mould – already high in a dwelling with cold, uninsulated surfaces. And more and more evidence is piling up of just how bad mould in particular is for people’s health and wellbeing. Continue reading

A look at the evidence on mechanical ventilation

Natural ventilation often fails – but what is the evidence that mechanical ventilation succeeds? – Investigation for Passive House Plus

There have been a number of studies showing that natural ventilation, dependent as it is on random gaps in the building fabric and the vagaries of wind and weather, is not a reliable source of fresh indoor air. (see here for my article on this)

In theory, mechanical ventilation is under more control, and should work more reliably. But does the evidence bear this out? Does mechanical ventilation deliver good air quality in practice?

I looked into the research to find out whether MVHR, in particular, lived up to the ideal. Continue reading

Electric Heating – time to come in from the cold?

While there are well-established technologies to produce electricity without fossil fuels, decarbonisation of heat is struggling to get under way. Recommended strategies include expansion of low carbon networked heat and possibly the decarbonisation of gas – though these are still only happening at a scale (and with dubious carbon credentials, see PH+ Iss 15 – district heating). However, the commonest proposed means for decarbonising heat is via electrification.

Electrification of heat raises a number of questions about the ability of our power systems to produce enough low carbon electricity and their capacity to transmit it.  But it also represents something of a u-turn in building services design. Continue reading

District Heating – does it work with Passivhaus?

Cost effective district heating schemes need a nice dense energy demand. They also involve a lot of circulating hot water, which with the best will in the world, is going to involve continuous heat loss. Highly-insulated low energy buildings need very little heat – and in the summer, heat gains can be a positive menace.

So can the two work together? I explored the question a bit in this article for Passive House Plus – downloadable here as a pdf.

District Heating – does it work in Passivhaus?

Deep retrofit – the big prize?

Simple home energy efficiency improvements (such as new boilers, cavity wall insulation etc) can bring valuable comfort and health benefits to the occupants of inefficient homes – especially those in fuel poverty – as the last article revealed (see here). However, energy, carbon and bill savings tend to be modest, rarely topping 15% or 20% – and sometimes energy use actually increases!

If housing is to contribute its share of the 80% cuts in carbon emissions this country is committed to, in order to play is part in tackling climate change, retrofits will need to go deeper – a lot deeper. But will occupants benefit from the extra work? And is it affordable?

In the first part of this article we looked at the damage fuel poverty and cold homes do to occupants’ health, and found good evidence that when these twin evils were tackled, occupants could enjoy measurable improvements in their health. Encouragingly, some local health bodies are recognising this and investing in home retrofit to help improve people’s health.

Continue reading

Fixing fuel poverty – is there a healthier way?

Fuel poverty causes misery and ill-health – and alleviating fuel poverty by retrofitting homes could potentially offer valuable savings to the health services. However, different approaches to retrofit are likely to have different impacts on health.

The first in this two-part series, published in Green Building in December 2014, looks at how cold, damp homes can harm people’s heath, and at the evidence to date that retrofit can improve matters.  It also explores some pioneering efforts by concerned health organisations to tackle the ill health of their vulnerable patients where it starts – by fixing their cold homes.

The second part, due to be published in Spring 2015, will look a little more closely at different retrofit strategies, and the risks and benefits to occupants – and to the buildings themselves.

PDF download: Fuel poverty and health – Part 1

Continue reading

Overheating – how can we avoid it? – article from Green Building

This article originally appeared in Green Building, Spring 2014

“Everybody loves the summer time”, as Carole King once sang: everybody that is, except those who are separated from their sweethearts – and those sweltering in stifling buildings that they just can’t get cool.

At its worst, overheating can be a serious – even fatal – health issue, with the very elderly, and babies and small children most vulnerable, and heart attack, stroke, and sudden infant death all possible consequences. But much more commonly it is a discomfort issue, which can affect the usability of buildings, and/or drive people to deploy energy-consuming measures such as artificial cooling.

A building that cannot be cooled down to a comfortable temperature whatever you do is obviously overheating. One that cannot be cooled in a secure and comfortable way (eg, can only be cooled via opening window onto a busy road, or by leaving patio doors open at night), overheats so far as the occupants are concerned. Both are a failure on the part of the design and construction team.

How hot is too hot? The occupant has the last word on this, but designers do need guidance on what ‘most occupants’ can cope with:

As the National Housebuilding Council reports, work by CIBSE and Arup suggests that most people begin to feel ‘warm’ at 25ºC and ‘hot’ at 28ºC. At 35ºC “there is a significant danger of heat stress.” Heat at night bad enough to interfere with sleep seems to compound the danger to health.

In practice, comfort also depends quite a lot on humidity (which determines how readily people can keep themselves cool via sweating) and air movement (ditto) .

In general, it ought to be possible to avoid overheating without sacrificing winter time comfort and energy efficiency. Despite a warming climate we’re still going to want houses (in the UK) warmer inside than out, most of the year. Continue reading

Natural ventilation – does it work?

While mechanical ventilation is sometimes perceived as problematic, expensive and possibly even energy-guzzling, natural ventilation often seems to be seen as – well – “natural” – a safe, old-fashioned,  reliable default solution. In this article for Passive House Plus I had a look at this assumption.

Theoretical modelling suggests that natural ventilation is likely to be rather unreliable, with the same building at risk of both under- and over-ventilation under different weather conditions. But what happens in practice?

The first problem I had was finding some data: there is very little of it.

In the studies I was able to find, it turned out that indoor air quality in naturally ventilated homes (including levels of relative humidity, oxides of nitrogen, and volatile organic compounds, for example) is not what it should be. (I also found some studies from schools raising similar concerns, but there wasn’t room to write about these as well).

For example, a study of 22 homes built to the 2006 Part F regulations for ventilation found that about half of them failed to achieve their recommended background ventilation rate even with all vents open/fans running as intended; pollutants exceeded the guideline levels in a number of them.

But what was really worrying was that when the researchers first arrived, they found that many of the vents were closed, and many of the extract fans (both in bathrooms and kitchens) had been disabled at the isolator. Similar findings appeared in all of the studies I was able to track down.

Unfortunately we do not seem to be very sensitive to the high relative humidity and other pollutants than are, nonetheless, dangerous to our health – but we are sensitive to draughts, and noise. This means that vents get closed and fans shut off, and our living conditions are unhealthier than they should be as a consequence.

What was interesting was to find that poor indoor air quality is not a new problem; studies dating back to long before airtightness was much of an issue, showed similarly poor indoor air quality and low ventilation rates. So the comfortable belief that natural ventilation is somehow “tried and tested” probably needs revisiting.

We seem to be facing a ventilation performance gap as worrying as the energy performance gap. As with energy performance, designers seem to have checked compliance with the Part F recommendations, looked at the results from their modelling exercises, and assumed this means a building is going to be properly ventilated in practice. As with energy performance, monitoring data shows this just isn’t the case.

At least the energy performance gap is now on the agenda – and we are even getting some practical solutions discussed. But despite the huge costs to the nation of respiratory diseases like asthma, and numerous other ailments worsened by poor air quality, ventilation is too often taken for granted. It’s probably time this changed.

 Read the article in pdf here Natural ventilation – does it work?

My thanks to Passive House Plus for the use of this document.

I have now added a post containing links to a number of the references used in this article, here.

 

Why I think retrofit needs to move off energy bills and on to general taxation

Like many others, I am horrified that the government has scaled back aspects of the Energy Company Obligation mid-programme. You can read about some of the immediate, alarming consequences of this in a report from Inside Housing here.

However, as I’ve said before, it seems to me that long-term  it makes little sense to restrict the national retrofit programme to what can be funded via a charge on energy bills. In summary, this is why:

  • Retrofit is about more than energy bills, it’s about health, education, social welfare and common decency. And about energy security and cutting emissions.
  • Because of the state of our housing and therefore, the scale of the need, a high spend is required.
  • Because of the scale and the range of the benefits, a major retrofit programme would bring tangible revenue savings to a range of bodies such as those tasked with improving economic, health, social welfare and educational outcomes, and delivering on our carbon targets.
  • Paying for retrofit through energy bills is regressive, hitting the poorest proportionally hardest, even at current spending levels.
  • The scale of the spending needs to expand many-fold. This would ramp up the regressiveness. In effect, every household, including the poorest,  would be paying a substantial chunk of the costs for NHS, social welfare etc via their energy bills. This is not only likely to be politically untenable, it also undermines the accepted approach to progressive taxation in this country.
  • The creation of a third party obligation, ‘leaving it to the market’ to decide what to deliver on the basis of a very simplified understanding of costs and benefits, cuts informed stakeholders out of the equation. It excludes them from them any meaningful say over priorities, responsiveness to changing needs, and quality of interventions.
  • It also ignores the ‘beneficiary pays’ principle: health, education and welfare budgets would all benefit considerably, on the back of bill payers.

*The ECO recognises only two parameters of benefit, presumed carbon savings (calculated via RdSAP), and “affordability” again, calculated via RdSAP.